1930s Fulda and gifted tablecloth

In November 2018, Ethan Bensinger visited Fulda to participate in its Kristallnacht commemoration. Prior to the commemoration, descendants of Fulda families gathered to rededicate a small prayer room at the cemetery. It was there that a newspaper reporter asked Ethan about his connection to Fulda. Ethan spoke of his roots that extended to the 16th century, the earliest days of Fulda’s Jewish community. He spoke of his mother Rachel, an ardent Zionist, who left Fulda for Palestine in 1935 and his grandparents who escaped Fulda just days before Kristallnacht. He also spoke of his last family member to remain in Fulda, his great-uncle Hugo Sichel, who was deported in 1941 and subsequently murdered.

A few days later, an 82-year-old resident of Fulda, Hedi Römhild Schuhej, read the article about the rededication of the prayer room and the interview with Ethan. She immediately recognized the name Hugo Sichel and knew that she had two tablecloths that Hugo had gifted to her father Paul. In honor of his friendship with Hugo, Paul had never used the tablecloths and asked his daughter Hedi to never do so as well. She honored her father’s wishes and Hugo’s memory for the next sixty years.

Hedi Schuhej decided to return the tablecloths to the Bensinger family and made contact with Ethan in Chicago. During the course of a telephone conversation with Mrs. Schuhej, Ethan learned the story of the tablecloths as well as a more important saga. When few rations were available to the Jews of Fulda, Paul Römhild asked his good friend Hugo to come to his home during the day so that he could provide food. And, when neighbors threatened to call the police because a Jew was seen at the Römhild home, Paul asked Hugo to come to his home surreptitiously at night. Paul’s courageous actions no doubt placed him and his young family in danger as Nazi regulations prohibited non-Jews from fraternizing or providing aid and comfort to Jews.

Ethan believed that a word of thanks over the telephone, or a written note, would be an insufficient expression of gratitude to Mrs. Schuhej. The decision was quickly reached that Ethan, his daughters Karen and Jennifer, together with his wife Elizabeth, would travel to Fulda to accept the tablecloths and personally convey their deepest appreciation. The Bensinger family arrived in Fulda in February 2019.

A conversation with Ethan Bensinger:

Why did you make this film?

In my last film Refuge I focused on Jewish victims, specifically the experiences of six survivors, before, during and after the Holocaust. With my new film we are widening the lens by using a small town, not unlike most other German towns and villages, to examine how “the common man” reacted within the framework of the Nazi regime. And, what we learned was that not everyone was a Jew-hater. Fulda had its share of perpetrators and bystanders, but most importantly at least one upstander. This is an especially important message to our audience; people were bad, many were indifferent and yet some were compassionate and did the right thing. We chose to explore the theme of “goodness” in the film.

During our family’s visit, we learned that during the 1930s and 40s, Fulda’s political establishment was pro-Nazi and that some actively participated in the burning of the synagogue on Kristallnacht. For purposes of accountability, we made a point of specifically identifying some of these officials in the film. And two Jewish eyewitnesses, Martin Löwenberg and Arno Goldschmidt, vividly describe the mistreatment of Jews on that fateful night. Their testimony serves as an important counterpoint to Mrs. Schuhej’s description of her father putting himself and his young family at risk by providing Hugo with food as the situation for Jews in Fulda became dire. Paul Römhild was a resister; he stood up to the Nazi regime; he did the right thing. But we also wanted to convey that many citizens of Fulda merely stood by as they witnessed Jews being mistreated and later as they were herded to the train station. Though the photo we used was from another small town, we felt that the role of the bystander is best expressed by the powerful image of neighbors peering out their windows while Nazi officers escort Jewish residents from their homes.

Historians have said that the relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Germany before the Second World War was “proper” and sometimes friendly, but typically only so on a commercial basis. We believe that it is important to share with our audience that the relationship between Hugo and Paul was much more personal and deeper than that. Mrs. Schuhej makes clear that her father instilled in her his sense of compassion and respect for memory. Paul Römhild shared with his children the story of his friendship with Hugo, his selfless care for his friend’s wellbeing and fruitless efforts in searching for Hugo after the war. The children learned from their father that it is important to continue to honor Hugo’s memory by ensuring that the tablecloths that they received as a gift would never be soiled or damaged by use. German families did not often speak of the past, but Paul Römhild made a point of sharing with his family his love for his Jewish friend.

What messages do you have for the audience?   

With the above framework in mind, we want to convey that as an upstander, Paul Römhild serves as a role model. By understanding his motivations, young people should also do the right thing when they see wrong. Importantly, that means not being a bystander in everyday situations. Don’t look away, do like Paul Römhild and stand up for what is right.

From an educational perspective, we want young people in Fulda to learn what happened in their hometown. So often these facts have been buried or at best overlooked. And, people in other parts of Germany can take these same lessons of Kristallnacht and the deportations and apply them to their local situations. It’s important to remember that during Kristallnacht more than 267 synagogues were burned, over 7500 business were vandalized and 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. By watching this film, we hope that young people are inspired to ask questions of their family members or research records and newspapers in their local archives to more fully understand what happened to the vibrant Jewish community that existed in their town before the war.

Though the film should of course serve as a learning opportunity for adults as well, there is another specific message that we would like to convey. The film speaks of the auction of personal belongings of the Jews after their deportation. Perhaps a family member purchased an item at an auction or as with the Romhilds, perhaps there was a gift from a Jewish friend. Look around your home; has anyone ever told a story about a particular item that may be symbolic of Judaism or had once been associated with a Jewish family? It may be that your town has a museum to which it could be donated, even anonymously.

By returning an item found in your home or gifting it to a museum, you act in the selfless spirit of Hedi Schuhej. Her gifting of the tablecloths back to the Bensinger family was the epitome of an act of reparation-Wiedergutmachung– performed without hesitancy or question. Hedi Schuhej followed an example of compassion set by her father; she opened her heart. And, from that we can all learn.