Jerry knew that his father Richard Springer inherited his shoe shop from his own father, Nathan Springer, who had founded the shoe shop in Landsberg and died in 1930. Nathan Springer was born in a town called Neustettin, so Jerry wanted to travel there to find out more about his grandfather's life and any potential Springer family roots there.
As we were to find during Jerry's investigation into Nathan‘s background in Neustettin, the best place to start tracing German ancestors is by searching in the locality of a relative's birth, death or marriage.
'Vital records' is a general term for birth, death and marriage registration documents. As they include information such as names, ages, marital status, places of birth or residence, causes of death, parents' names and occupations, they are crucial in genealogical research. In many European countries, such documents are held in local archives, churches or registry offices in the place where the events occurred. But many vital records from countries throughout the world have been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and are available in Family History Libraries worldwide. Resources for genealogical searches abroad can also be found on their website, FamilySearch (see Related Links).
In Neustettin (now Szczecinek in Poland) Jerry met historian Professor Christard Hoffman, who had been searching for any trace of Jerry's grandparents in the local archives.
Christard had found a marriage record for Jerry's grandparents, Nathan and Selma Springer, who married there in 1896. From this record Jerry learned for the first time the name of his great-grandfather: Abraham Springer.
We were beginning to find a generational chain of Springers in Germany, but Jerry wanted to know more about Abraham. Was he established in Neustettin, and was he able to live a peaceful life as a German Jew in the 1800s?
To check whether a Jewish ancestor was established in a community in 19th century Germany or Eastern Europe, it can be helpful to look at synagogue registers and other local records that may have noted names and details for taxation or conscription purposes.
In Abraham's case, we were able to find such Jewish community records for the German city of Neustettin (before it became Szczecinek in 1945) at the Szczecinek State Archives (see Related Links).
Christard Hoffmann showed Jerry records created by the board for the Jewish community of Neustettin. This was a council of elders made up of 12 well-respected local people who led the Jewish community of Neustettin. Jerry discovered that Abraham was in fact one of these elders, and a member of the board in 1880.
We learned that as one of the leaders of a Jewish community of 455 Jews in the town of 8,000 people, Abraham would have been quite a prominent public figure. Christard told us that until 1881, Abraham and the Jews of Neustettin were well-integrated and active within the town's guilds and social clubs.
But all this was about to change as a result an upsurge of antisemitism in the town.
From various historical sources, Christard told Jerry that in February 1881 Neustettin's synagogue had burned down.
This happened to occur just five days after a radical antisemitic agitator, Ernst Henrici, had visited the town to make provocative speeches against the Jews. We learned that when he heard of the synagogue fire, Henrici convinced the Neustettin population that Jewish people themselves had started the fire. He told the locals that the council of the Jewish community, including Abraham, had wanted to make an insurance claim in order to build a new, bigger synagogue.
Several weeks later, Christard told us that Henrici spoke again. He argued for the deportation of all Jews from Germany, and his inflammatory rhetoric provoked riots and attacks on Jewish homes and businesses in Neustettin.
The impact of these documented events was made personal when Christard showed Jerry a moving letter that the elders of the Neustettin Jewish community, including Abraham, had written to people all over Germany after the fire. The letter lamented the loss of the synagogue, called for help in rebuilding it and urged people to stand up against the violent antisemitism that Henrici's speeches were stirring up in the area.
We discovered from Christard that the letter was successful in gaining support from across the country. Abraham Springer and the board rebuilt the synagogue and sued Henrici for defamation of religion. Christard said that this triumph in Neustettin was a remarkable, unique national case.
Jerry realised that Abraham had played a significant part in fighting back against racial hatred and subduing it in Neustettin, at least for a time.
We had found one member of the Springer family who had been able to stand up to the anti-Semitism whose development was to wreak havoc amongst later generations. Jerry now wanted to find out what had happened to those relatives he suspected had been caught up in the horror that was to follow.
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