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In search for the Lost Grave

Natan P.F. (Marcus) Kellermann

 

There is a time in a person’s life when one needs to stop and re-examine where one is going.  For me, this time coincided with becoming 50 in August of 2003 and a year or so before this.

 

My life had passed through rather clear-cut periods of development, through childhood, youth, young adulthood and middle age. Each period represented some passage and some achievement, often symbolized with an addition or a change of name. Thus, I had been  “Peter” when growing up in Sweden, had taken the name “Felix” in psychodrama, and had become “Natan” when moving to Israel. All these were now well-integrated parts of my personality. But there was still another name that I had been given as a child but that I had not yet used – the name of my great grandfather ‘Marcus.’

 

‘Might this be the name to symbolize the final part of my life, in old age?’ I asked myself. I was curious in finding out what new challenges might lie ahead of me now. In this search for some future direction, I thought that it might help to revisit the past and reconnect with the ‘old’ Marcus, which could possibly be done by visiting his grave. I had hoped to get answers to questions like, “What is life after 50 all about?” “Where do I come from and where do I go from here?”

 

There was only one problem; I didn’t know very much about this ancient Marcus Kellermann and I had no clue about where he was buried. This was how my quest for the lost grave of Marcus started.

 

Where would I start? Both my father and grandparents are long dead. But since they had been living in Austria before escaping to Sweden in 1938, my search had to start in Vienna.

 

I grew up with a deep affection for everything Viennese, mixed with stories about how they were driven out by the Nazis. The Viennese Gemuetlichkeit still reverberated in my blood and phrases like ‘Guten Morgen, Guten Abend, Auf Wiedersehen, Gruss Gott’ and ‘Servus’, made me immediately feel at home. In retrospect, my grandparents had remained so very Austrian also during their life in Sweden after the war.

 

My journey started in Vienna’s 2nd district; in the old house on Czerninggassse 23. I entered the house, went up the stairs and looked at the apartment No. 14 where the Kellermann family had lived during the time of Kaiser Franz Josef and later. My father and his two brothers had been born there. The few rooms next to the entrance that has served him as a tailor studio were visible from the street. I could imagine the young ‘Herrenschneider’ Kurt Kellermann moving around measuring shoulders and legs and cutting expensive fabrics in order to produce the perfect suit according to the latest European fashion. “The clothes makes the man,” he used to say proudly. In a similar fashion, my grandfather ‘Sigmund’ liked to be seen standing erect and showing off in his army uniform, which indicated that he had served the Habsburg Monarchy during 1895-1898. Afterwards, he had worked in a variety of professions, such as a shoe merchant and a clerk among others. But since the financial situation of the family was precarious, the tailor studio of the eldest son surely helped to provide for the family.

 

At the rise of Nazism in Europe, but before the Anschluss in 1938, the brothers escaped to Sweden. Ernst had learned the universal Esperanto language and was helped by his Esperanto friends to get an entrance visa to Sweden. The elderly parents followed at the very last moment, leaving Vienna for freedom in Stockholm around May 15, 1941.

 

Standing outside their apartment on Czerninggassse, I thought about how my grandparents had lived in Vienna from March 1938, when Austria was absorbed into the Reich, until their departure for Sweden. They must have witnessed much of the brutality against the Jews of the city; how communal institutions were closed, and how homes were raided. It must have been very painful for them to see how their friends and colleges were driven out of their professions; how businesses, houses and belongings were confiscated and how Austrian Jews were forced to publicly degrade themselves. Finally, this systematic persecution forced them to emigrate from the country that they had felt such a belonging to. While my grandparents never mentioned any of this to us kids, it became apparent to me here in Vienna that they must have lived under terrible and very dangerous circumstances during these last years in Vienna and that they in fact had been Holocaust survivors like so many others. 

 

But I should not complain. In contrast to most other children of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Sweden in the 1950s, I at least had grandparents. We even lived in the same house for the first seven years of my life, so I knew my grandparents very well. They were ‘Oma’ and ‘Opa’ for me. Being elderly immigrants who were unable to learn the Swedish language, they spoke German with a distinct Austrian-Viennese accent.

 

Around the age of 90, ‘Opa’ was still a tall man. At least from the point of view of a child, he looked large and he was almost bald, having lost the fine mustache that he had had as a young man. I remember him sitting next to the window with his pipe in his mouth. He was sitting on a wooden rocking chair that had its rocking legs cut of – a chair that they had been able to bring with them from Austria and that I have kept in my belonging. When walking, and he continued to walk for long distances until a very old age, he insisted on keeping his back straight and to walk upright like a soldier. “Keep your back straight,” he used to keep reminding us. “Be proud of being a Kellermann!” Clearly, it meant a lot for him to have grandchildren. His gentle smile when watching us kids play is still vivid in my mind. In 1972, he died in Sweden at the age of 98.

 

My ‘Oma’ was a strong willed person who would not give in for anything or anybody. She was rather heavy and did not move much. Her food was strictly Viennese and kosher. She was able to dictate poems from Schiller by heart almost until hear death with great enthusiasm. Though suffering severe ailments during old age and having to go through complicated surgery in her 80s, she recuperated against all odds and survived until only a few days before the age of 100, outliving her eldest son Kurt.

 

These were the paternal grandparents – My Oma and Opa - that I had known as a young boy. But this was a long time ago and they had been gone for many years. Now, 50 years later, with an intense urge to reconnect with them and beyond them, I realized that I knew nothing about their parents. Who were they? Where had they come from? Who was this Marcus that I had received my name from?

 

To find some answers to these questions, or some clues of where to look further, I decided to visit the old Jewish cemetery in Vienna.

Upon my arrival, I found a huge burial ground, indicating the enormous size of the Jewish community in Vienna before the 2nd World War. Both the new and the old cemeteries were time warn and deteriorated and it would have been impossible to find anything at all where it not for a man who had recently made a computerized register of most graves and who helped me localize the graves of my family. However, except for the graves of the parents of my grandmother, we found no Kellermann ancestors buried here. I was surprised and perplexed since I had expected to find at least someone in this cemetery.

 

Obviously, my Kellermann family had not come from Vienna, as I had earlier thought, but from somewhere else. But from where?

 

Then I remembered that a distant relative who I had met many years earlier once had scribbled the name “Skalka next to Trencin” on a small paper napkin while sitting at a coffee table somewhere. She had drawn a simple map of the river ‘Vah’ on the paper with two dots for the town of Trencin on one side and the village of Skalka on the other. She said: “The family came from there.” But neither my father, nor my grandfather had ever told me anything about this place, and I had no idea of where it was. But it was at least a trace. I had my little treasure map to follow.

 

I searched in maps and easily found the town of Trencin in Slovakia but had difficulties to be sure about the location of “Skalka” which was differently written as Skala, Szkala, Skalska Nova Ves and Skalka Nad Vahom. In addition, there were other towns with almost identical names all over Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, which were confusing and did not make my search easier.

 

Apparently, I would have to travel to the area in order to see for myself. I had learned from the Internet that there where a few Jewish cemeteries in both towns and these might possibly contain the graves of my family, and, if I was lucky, I might even find the grave of Marcus in one of them. Thus, in the fall of 2003, I traveled to Slovakia together with my youngest son.

 

We rented a car in Vienna, passed the boarder to Slovakia, and drove up to the town of Trencin, which is located at the foot of the Strazovske vrchy hills in the valley of the Váh River. I had read that the Romans had founded the town at the beginning of the second millennium. An amazing fortified castle overlooks the city and its tower is one of the symbols of the city. A Church of the Virgin Mary is built on the way to the castle, above the old town and in its Peace Square there is a monument of the plague epidemics from 1713, as well as a museum, a Church and a monastery.

 

We parked the car and strolled around the old part of the town. Not far from the central square we found a large, round and very beautiful 19th century synagogue. But as we entered, we were surprised to find that it was entirely empty, except for some carpets. It was now used as a ‘modern’ Buddhist temple, open for all! Instead of Jewish prayer books, Torah Scrolls, and the sounds of Hebrew ‘Chazanut’, there was Krishna posters, Bhagavad Gita-books, the smell of incense and the sounds of chanting sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Gewalt! No overt Jewish signs remained, except a small sign at the outer wall in Slovak that this had once been a Jewish place of worship. I felt that it screamed out loneliness, neglect and desertion: ‘Why did you leave me here all alone with these Gentiles to do with me what they want?’ But there was nobody there to listen. The golden era of the Jewish community of Trencin had long passed.

 

Apparently, the first Jews had come to Trencin already in the Middle Ages, playing an important role in commerce. But after the battle of Mohacs (1526), Jews were prohibited from settling in the town and were moving to neighboring villages. In 1760, an organized Jewish community was established and, according to the tax roster of 1787, there were 82 heads of families in the city of Trencin and 660 more in the county. The large beautiful synagogue was built in the middle of the old town of Trencin in 1913 and replaced the first synagogue built there. A German-language Jewish School had been founded much earlier, in 1857. The Jewish community of Trencin grew rapidly and after WW-I it continued to gain importance in Czechoslovakia.

 

But that was then.

 

Now, there are almost no Jews left in Trencin, except for a handful of men who sometimes gather for prayer in a small adjacent hall to the old synagogue. One of these Jews is Mr. Peter Heber who takes care of the cemetery and who compiled an incomplete register of the people buried there. He opened the gate for us to the large, fenced cemetery in which hundreds of graves are still standing in their original locations. Here, we found the grave of Adolf, the older brother of Sigmund. He had been the only brother who had stayed with the parents in Skalka and in Trencin and he apparently took over the family estate with agricultural lands in the area when everybody else left. He married Berta Kellermann from Skalska Nova Ves and they gave birth to two sons, but one died at an early age. After Adolf’s death in 1936, his wife and son were deported to the concentration camp in 1944. 

 

The deportation of Jews from Slovakia began in the spring of 1942. With the direct responsibility of Slovak political leaders and supported by traditional anti-Jewish prejudices among the Slovak people, the Jews were assembled at special gathering points and put in barracks unfit for human inhabitation, given numbers, forced to sign gift certificates transferring their property to the government, and were then put on tightly sealed freight cars and turned over to the German Sicherheitspolizei at the Polish border.  Over 90,000 Slovak Jews were thus deported to Auschwitz or to working camps, or fled to neighboring countries. After these deportations, there was a slowdown in the deportations for a year or more, until the occupation of Hungary by German forces and the Slovak uprising in the summer of 1944. But in September 1944, the deportations began again, erasing the last traces of Jewish life in this country.

 

In 1940, there were about 2,500 Jews still living in Trencin. Most of them were deported in 1942 and 1944. Only 300 - 400 survivors survived the camps or of came back from forests where they had been in hiding during the war. However, many of these Jews did not stay in Trencin, but subsequently emigrated to Israel or other countries or moved to larger cities. After the Soviet invasion in 1968, the few who had remained left for the West and, in 1971 there were only a few Jewish families left in Trencin.

 

Except for the graves of Adolf and Nandor in the cemetery and the names of Berta and Oldrich on a memorial sign of Jewish Holocaust victims in the small praying hall in Trencin, there are no other traces of this Kellermann family in Trencin. But we had come to search for the grave of Marcus, and I was eager to travel to the village of Skalka to continue my search. Having found it on a local map, we drove up there late on a Sunday morning.

 

The village of Skalka is located only a few kilometers north of Trencin on the west bank of the Váh river and almost directly under the new highway. On the way are the ruins of a Benedictine monastery, which dates back to the 13th century. Among its premises is a small church, designed as three-story building, which sits in a hollow of the rock massif.

 

Our car passed the old monastery and drove slowly on a narrow road through a dense forest and a cluster of farm plots.. Further down, we could see the large Vah river far away, twisting through the farmland. Suddenly, the road took a turn to the left and on the far side of the road I stared at the little village of Skalka with a sense of astonishment. I was here. I felt light-headed, almost giddy with excitement as I took in the details. The village of Skalka was not more than a few small old houses built on one or both sides of the narrow road and fields stretching away in all directions. Beyond the fields, one could see the low mountains of Tatra and in the distance on a hill; a small white church with stonewalls that dominated the center of town. Neglected old and new houses had plumes of gray smoke rising from their thatched roofs and on the side of the road, there were barns of various sizes.

 

Arriving in the small agricultural village, I stopped at a bus stop, stepped out of the car and looked around. I had no idea were to start searching. The place was almost deserted. Behind me, a young woman also had parked to let an elderly woman get out. They were dressed up and had apparently come from the Church mass. I approached them and asked in German: “Do you know if there was any family with the name of Kellermann who used to live here?” The young woman turned to the old woman and exchanged a few words in Slovakian, and then responded in her broken German: “Yes, of course! The Kellermann family used to live over there, in that house, and they had lands over there, and also there…” And she went on listening to the old woman and translating to me that the Kellermann family had owned properties in Skalka and that they had been a well-known family a long time ago. The old woman, who was her mother, was one of the eldest people in town and she remembered them well.

 

I was amazed and could not believe my good fortune. Could it be real? How can the first person I ask on the street know so much about the Kellermann family? And later, she was also very helpful in showing us the two ancient and small Jewish burial grounds in Skalka. The first was located next to a narrow side road within a fenced private garden. Among the few 19th century flat shaped tombstones, most had fallen down and were no longer in their original locations. Their Hebrew text was illegible. The second (“new”) cemetery was a little larger, located on the main public road between a newly built villa and a catholic graveyard. It had a simple fence and a little burial house but was completely overgrown and neglected. From the road, one could see only two small, damaged and moss-grown tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions still standing. Upon closer inspection, both sandstones were totally illegible.

 

I was disappointed. The grave of Marcus could not be found in any of these two cemeteries. Possibly, he was not even buried here. We had to leave empty handed. But I felt that at least I had found the village and seen the house in which they had probably lived. At this stage, my quest had turned into a dead lock and I did not know were to continue. Unwilling to give up, I decided to search the burial records to possibly find any information that would help me pursue my quest.

 

Back home, I wrote to the state archive in Bratislava and also engaged a professional genealogist to search in various Slovakian Jewish records. From this research, and after having put the various pieces of information together, we were able to build the following pedigree of the Kellermann ancestors.

 

The original Kellermann family apparently lived in Skalka during the entire period of the Austria-Hungary monarchy between 1868-1914 and long before. The earliest record found of the Kellermann family dates from 1872. It is the death record of Abraham Kellermann from March 4, 1872, in Szkala. The record states his age at death as 80, which means that he was born about 1792. The place of burial was Sk.Neudorf, which probably is one of the small cemeteries in the town of Szkala that I had visited. We also found the record of death of the wife of Abraham: Betty Kellermann. According to this record, she was born in Ksinna (about 1796) and died in Szkala on April 12, 1870, at the age of 74, two years before Abraham. We do not know, for sure, how many children Abraham and Betty had and their names. However, we believe that one of their sons was Marcus Kellermann, because in Marcus’ marriage record from July 13, 1865, his father is written as Abraham and his mother as Bella/Betty. Marcus was then 28 years old, which means that he was born about 1836-1837, probably in Szkala. His wife was Amalia Herzog, the daughter of Jacob Herzog and Fanni Lowenbein of Vrbove. They were married in Trencin.

 

Marcus and Amalia Kellermann had 9 children (6 daughters and 3 sons) who were all born in Skalka.

The six daughters apparently married and left for other towns in the country. My grandfather Sigmund moved to Vienna and the youngest son left for the US, leaving the oldest son Adolf as the caretaker of the family properties. We do not know for sure what the family did for a living, but they owned agricultural land and probably lived from that. However, we may assume that, like many other Jews in Europe during this time, they were also merchants and salespeople. From neighbors in Skalka, I heard that they produced liqueur and brandy, but have not had this confirmed. However, this is very probable, since the name ‘Kellermann,’ which literally means “cellar man” in German, could have been an occupational name, assumed by an innkeeper or wine merchant.

 

From municipal records, it was confirmed beyond doubt that the old large house that I had seen in Skalka had indeed belonged to the Kellermann family. After the war and during the communist regime, it was confiscated by the municipality and used as a cultural center.

 

But though I had found his parents death records and put a lot of the various pieces of the family tree together, I had not found the death records or any traces of the grave of Marcus, the original reason for my search. I did not know what to do next. There were no relatives alive to ask and I felt that I had followed every possible trace that I had. My grandfather Sigmund had left Skalka around the turn of the century, which is now about 100 years ago and I wonder if he knew where his father was buried.

 

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘you win some and you loose some.’ It was apparently impossible to find this grave and I decided to give up my quest. Instead, I thought, it would be nice to put a little memorial stone in the large Jewish cemetery in Skalka, thus commemorating the over hundred years long existence of the Kellermann family in this village. In addition, I felt the urge to organize for someone to clean up this burial ground since it was fully overgrown and in a terrible state of neglect.

 

Thus, in the summer of 2004, I found myself on the road again, traveling from Israel with my family to the town of my ancestors for my second visit.

 

Upon my arrival, I returned in the late afternoon to show my family the little village, the house and the Jewish cemetery that I had found during my earlier trip. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was just setting. Entering the fence from behind, I saw that only half of the cemetery was cleaned up while the upper half was still completely overgrown. It was like a dense forest, full of weeds, small trees and bushes and it was almost impossible to get through. In order to see how large the fenced area was, I pushed through the thick ground cover and forced myself in between the lower branches. While trying to avoid the tangle of weeds and thorns, I slipped and scratched myself badly on one leg.

By now, I had reached an open area in the foliage and a narrow path opened through the trees. I was afraid that the unusually precipitous terrain would prevent me from searching through the entire area. Yet I was anxious to reach to upper border before darkness.

 

Then I saw that there were some additional tombstones behind the bushes, which were impossible to see from below. This gave me new inspiration to go deeper into the dense vegetation. Without caring much about the blood that was now dripping from my leg, I tried to read one tombstone after another. However, since the sand stones were so old and after having been long covered with moss, most of the Hebrew letters had disappeared, and I was unable to read any of the text. There was only a Hebrew word here and there but nothing that could be identified with the names of my family. What did I expect from gravestones that were at least 100 years old? I continued up the hill, inspecting one stone after another, but could not read anything. Then, I saw at the top of the slope on the right hand corner of the fenced in garden, two large granite stones that had fallen to the ground, with the text faced down. Only their bases were both standing and I could clearly read in German: “Rest in peace” on both. They were too large and heavy for me to move and I did not think much more of it, because it had now become dark and we had to leave.

 

The next morning I came to talk to talk to the people who were supposed to do the cleaning up of the cemetery. Several young men were removing the high grass and the old trees and clearing the lower part of the garden. In addition, there was an old man sitting inside the small burial house adjacent to the cemetery, which had now been opened. He told us that he (and his father) had been taking care of the cemetery for many years, but that he was now too old to continue. I asked him through an interpreter with trepidation if he knew of any Kellermann buried here. To my surprise, he immediately confirmed this. “Yes,” he said while pointing up the slope, “there on the top they are buried”. I could still not believe it. It's an old man's words. But we immediately went up the hill again, through the dense forest to the granite stones, which I had found the day before. Now we had to turn the heavy granite stones over, to read what was written on them. The young men brought a few long branches, to use as levers to turn one of the stones. They worked hard for a long time, and then, suddenly the large stone turned over.

 

I held my breath as they cleaned the letters on the stone from the earth. The text slowly appeared in Yiddish with Hebrew letters: Kellermann ÷ňěěňřîŕď  - Natan ben Avraham – Natan the son of Avraham. This was really Marcus’ lost grave!

 

I was overjoyed! Finally, I had found the grave! Against all odds, my efforts had proven worthwhile.

Epilogue

 

The tombstones are now fully restored and standing erect and proud in the cold Slovakian forest, as if they were fulfilling the ideal of my Opa to stand straight and be proud of themselves. He would surely have been very pleased with the outcome of this mission, knowing that his parents now had received the honor that they deserved and descendants from now and the future would be able to acknowledge their distant roots here in Skalka, near Trencin in the present Slovakia, which recently became a new member of the European Union.   

 

During this entire journey, I often asked myself why the search of this grave was so important for me. I have come to understand that, except for the above psychological reasons of becoming 50, I also felt a sense of universal injustice. The Kellermann families lived in Skalka for over hundred years; they married, gave birth to many children, worked the lands, built houses, died and were buried here. And then gradually or suddenly, they ceased to exist in this location. The Holocaust destroyed the last signs of Jews in this area of the world. Now exactly 60 years after 1944, there is not a trace of them ever having lived in Skalka anymore. The Kellermann family might have founded the original agricultural settlement here and probably constituted the majority of this small town for a very long time. But today, the new citizens know nothing about them. This is of course a repeating theme in many Jewish congregations within Central Europe and nothing special for the Kellermann family or for Skalka. However, this is part of my own personal history and it is painful for me to see.

 

In addition to the above, by finding the lost grave of Marcus, I had hoped to reconnect a generational chain that had been inadvertently broken. One generation means a single stage in family descent with an average period of about 30 years in which children grow up, marry and have children of their own. In most families, personal knowledge is passed on only within three generations that include children, parents and grandparents and these generations can be either connected or unconnected to one another. In our case, by finding and reconnecting the broken link between my grandfather and his father, I hoped to bring some continuity to the more than 100 descendants of the Kellermann family who are dispersed around the world not knowing anything about their origin.

 

Finally, since I believe that we carry traces of our history within us, it seems important to know as much as we can about where we come from in order to know who we are and where we want to go from here.

 

However, at the time of turning the tombstone over to see what was written on “the other side,” I had another thought that suggests a more profound explanation to the intensity of my search. Perhaps I was simply curious about understanding more about “the other side?” That side of eternity where the dead “rest in peace.” Becoming 50 and looking at myself in the mirror made me realize that life is not infinite and that the end is certainly approaching. My search was thus a search into the unknown, the unfathomable and the elusive that awaits us “on the other side.”  I was searching for the lost grave to get a glimpse, as it were, of what lies ahead in the after-life were Marcus and his ancestors’ still rule the world. Looking back, I realize that I have actually revisited some of the grounds of these ancestors and thus been in contact with them, at least on an imaginary level.