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Mr. Bastl,
I am a reporter for the American newspaper, The Baltimore Sun. I have
spent time with Marianne Sekulow talking about the upcoming Weil family
reunion, and I have also seen the video that you put together for the
event. I would very much like to interview you before Friday about why this
event has caught your attention and your efforts in Steinsfort. Might there
be a chance that I could either phone you or ask you a few questions by way
of E-Mail? In particular, I wanted to ask you about what Mrs. Sekulow told
me, that you feel it is important to understand the Jewish culture that
existed in that area before the war.
Thank you so much.
Mike Ollove


From: Mike Ollove

As promised, here's the story. Thank you so much for your help. I very much enjoyed speaking with you, and I hope you had a good time in Fort Lauderdale.

Time to remember

A family shattered by the Holocaust holds its first reunion this weekend in Florida, thanks largely to the efforts of a Pikesville woman.

By Michael Ollove
Sun Staff

June 22, 2002

Kristallnacht came a bit late to Marianne Sekulow's German hometown.

While the state-ordered rampage against the Jews commenced elsewhere in the country late on Nov. 9, 1938, the night passed as quietly as all previous ones in the remote farming village of Steinsfurt.

By the next morning, though, Hitler's emissaries - both the SS and gangs of teen-age sadists - seemed intent on making up for their tardiness. The Night of Broken Glass was not destined to end with daybreak.

The Brown Shirts marauded through the narrow streets of tiny Steinsfurt that morning, crashing into Jewish homes to smash furniture and housewares and inflict the occasional beating. In Marianne's home, one of the soldiers improvised an inspired coup de grace - he urinated on the broken pottery he had just smashed on the living room floor.

Outside, hundreds upon hundreds of feathers floated gently in the air, ripped free from the mattresses destroyed in Marianne's house.

Somehow, the community's tiny synagogue survived that day. Apparently, the Nazis gave some thought to burning it down until realizing that (a) its ownership had recently passed into the hands of a bona fide Aryan, and (b) its central location all but guaranteed that much of the town would end up incinerated with it. Prudently, the thugs contented themselves by shattering the synagogue's windows, although one enterprising sort also drilled a huge hole into one of the cornerstones under the mistaken belief that the Jewish community had secreted all its wealth there.

The worst was yet to come that day: the arrests of most of the Jewish men in the village. "They rounded them up," Marianne recalled, "abusing them if they didn't do exactly what they said, and marched them away."

Among the men sent to Dachau that day was Karl Weil, the father of 5-year-old Marianne. So, too, were four other Weil men, Joseph, Max, Siegfried and Leopold. (The SS corralled the latter two, who had escaped into the countryside, by threatening to hang their elderly father alongside the slabs of meat in the window of his butcher shop.)

At the time of Hitler's ascension to power in 1933, 33 Jews lived in Steinsfurt, all of them related to the Weils, whose roots in the town dated to the 18th century. The Weils virtually were the Jews of Steinsfurt.

After the war, the only Weils left in the Steinsfurt area were in the old Jewish cemetery outside town.

Many left before 1938, and for the remainder, Kristallnacht was the final prod necessary. After Karl Weil's yearlong imprisonment at Dachau, Marianne's family fled Germany and eventually settled in Dubuque, Iowa. Other Weils also emigrated, dispersing and prospering around the globe, in Palestine and Great Britain, in Central and South America, and in the United States.

All but 13 got away safely. Those 13 perished in the approaching Holocaust.

Nearly 70 now, elegant and warm, Marianne thinks of the Weil family experience in the past 75 years as essentially a microcosm of Jewish history in the 20th century, complete with genocide and modern diaspora.

This weekend, the Weils are adding an important postscript. Largely through Marianne's efforts, the Weils are reuniting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in what is most certainly the largest family gathering ever held outside their ancestral home in Steinsfurt.

It is time for such a gathering, Marianne said last week in her Pikesville home as she prepared to leave for Florida. As her generation ages and dies, she says, it's important to finally comprehend what happened to the Weils. "Before, it was about survival; we couldn't afford to look back, only forward. But now, it's time to look at the past, to understand our history and pass it on to our descendants so they will not forget the past."

The past was something that Marianne's father was resolute about not discussing. Both Marianne and her older sister, Ruth Winick, say Karl Weil emerged from Dachau a changed man, fearful, haunted, broken. Never again did he go to sleep without opening a window, no matter how cold it was outside. "He always had to have a way out," Ruth says.

Karl Weil spoke about Dachau only once or twice that his daughters remember, although for several years he hung onto his striped prison uniform with the yellow star. Marianne only learned the brutal details of camp life when she happened upon a book written by a man who had been a prisoner in Dachau at the same time as her father.

At the time, there seemed little reason to rehash old events. After moving to Dubuque, Karl was busy enough trying to make a living as a cattle dealer - his old occupation - and earning enough to buy a home. The family kept in touch with some of the other scattered Weils, particularly those in the Midwest, but for the most part, the rest seemed lost to them for the ages.

Silence about the Nazi nightmare was common in the homes of other Jewish survivors, including many of the Weils. "In my house growing up as a little boy in Chicago, German was spoken all the time," says Robert Balkin, a university administrator in Mexico City whose mother is Marianne's cousin. "But Germany, I never heard a word about it."

Marianne had plenty to occupy her without delving into the past - college, a career in nursing, marrying, raising three children, widowhood at a young age, and then a second marriage and grandchildren. But after she and her husband, Erv Sekulow, a longtime administrator at the Johns Hopkins University, retired, she decided to write her memoirs. It was then that she realized there was much in her own personal story she did not know.

So she began contacting the relatives she did know, and those inquiries led to relatives she didn't. Soon she had assembled a lengthy list of Weils, including a distant cousin in Mexico improbably named Chico Weil (possibly making him the only Jew other than a Marx brother named Chico). After discovering that they both had grown daughters living in the Houston area, they arranged a meeting in 2000. That's when they hatched the idea for this weekend's reunion.

For the event, Marianne put together a family tree containing more than 800 names and dating to the family patriarch, Loew Feis-Weil, a horse-dealer, and his two brothers, Moses and Isaac, who appear to have settled in Steinsfurt in the mid-18th century.

Marianne's research led in other unexpected directions, none more so than one ending in the personage of Siegfried Bastl, a 54-year-old mathematics and geography teacher who lives in Baden, the same region of Germany as Steinsfurt. Bastl long believed that Germans today find it too easy to forget the darkest aspects of their history, particularly because there is no one around to remind them of it.

"Really, people in general have no thoughts about this story because there are no Jewish people living here anymore," he said this week by phone from Germany.

So Bastl took it upon himself to remind Germans, or at least his students. He conducts workshops, arranges speakers and organizes events designed to teach about the Jewish life that once existed in the Baden area. Two years ago, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, he held the first of what he hopes will become an annual memorial service at the mausoleum of Herman Weil, a wealthy grain merchant, one-time adviser to Kaiser Wilhelm II and philanthropist who died in 1927. (With part of the family fortune, Herman's son Felix founded the influential, leftist school for philosophical thought, the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt.)

Bastl's research on Steinsfurt's Jewish past and Marianne's on her family's history brought the two together by way of the Internet. Learning of the coming reunion, Bastl offered to prepare a videotape that shows the Steinsfurt homes where Weils had lived as well as shots of the Jewish cemetery and the synagogue, which is now a warehouse strewn with debris. He has also included footage of last year's memorial service at the Weil mausoleum in which German students sang a hymn in Hebrew and lighted candles.

Bastl has possibly been the most heartening discovery for Marianne. She had twice visited Steinsfurt, in 1956 and 2000, each time going only with reluctance. "I had very hostile feelings about Germany. It was not a place I wanted to spend my money."

While she was received warmly by those who remembered her family, she felt the townspeople were happy to bury the ugliness of the past. She visited her girlhood house, which the neighbors had taken over after the Weils vacated. That family still lives there, and while greeting Marianne enthusiastically, she was struck by all that was not said. Also by what she saw on the wall: a photograph of three grinning young men, including a now deceased member of this family. The men were dressed in Nazi uniforms.

Both trips upset Marianne. "Going back, it was almost as though nothing had happened between 1933 and 1945. It was all empty, emotionless."

That is why she is so looking forward to meeting Bastl, who is attending the reunion to present the videotape. "To me, he is the light at the end of the tunnel, a Germany that confronts its past."

About 75 family members are expected to attend the reunion, including those coming from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Britain and Israel as well as all parts of the United States.

It will be like many family reunions. Many will meet for the first time. They will reminisce about those they know in common or those they have only heard about. They will summarize their lives and show pictures of children and grandchildren.

But, there will be an unusual overlay at this reunion, a shared knowledge not only of what was lost but of what was averted. This is, after all, a family reunion that Adolf Hitler did all he could to prevent.

As Michael Schaffer, one of Marianne's children, wrote in an e-mail, "The very existence of our family, and our ability to get it back together, are incontrovertible evidence that the Third Reich failed."

Seen that way, the gathering of the Weils of Steinsfurt this weekend in Fort Lauderdale is as much triumph as reunion.

Copyright (c) 2002, The Baltimore Sun

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