The Lehmans founded the great international investment banking firm of Lehman Brothers and among many other philanthropic endeavors endowed the Lehman Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Family members - many without the surname "Lehman" - have for 150 years played major roles in America's business, cultural and political life.
It is just one month to the day since my mother, Frances "Peter" Lehman Loeb died, and I find myself participating in a most singular event. I am in the small village of Rimpar, Germany, from which her ancestors came, participating in a ceremony honoring the Lehman family.
I am sitting in one of the impressive chambers of the Town Hall of Rimpar, once a castle of the great prince- bishops of nearby Wurzburg. Surrounding me are citizens of Rimpar, officials from Wurzburg, representatives of the Federal Government in Bonn, The Bavarian State Government in Munich; Duke Max of Bavaria, a direct descendant of the Kings of Bavaria; schoolchildren from Wurzburg High School, sister school to the Edith Altschul Lehman High School in Dimona, Israel; and 14 of my relatives, all descendants of Abraham Lehman who lived in this picturesque Bavarian town two centuries ago.
We are there in June, 1996, at the invitation of the Rimpar Town Council and its mayor, Anton Kutt, who inspired by a proposal from a young Catholic journalist, Dr. Roland Flade, were paying tribute to the family that Abraham Lehman had fathered.
The mayor of Rimpar was reading a letter from Helmut Kohl, chancellor of the German Republic, extolling the Lehman family and commending the Rimpar Municipal Council for keeping up "the memory of Jewish life in Rimpar and the victims of the Holocaust." This was an act the chancellor said, that was "setting an example that will be recognized far beyond their village."
As the ceremonies proceeded, I felt a flood of emotions, I thought of my mother, how proud she had been of her family and their record of accomplishments to which she had added a most notable page. I remembered my grandfather, Arthur, the senior partner of Lehman Brothers. I remembered his brothers, my great uncles, Herbert and Irving Lehman, the former a Governor and Senator of New York; the latter, the Chief Justice of the State's highest court.
Echoes came back to me of the stories I had head as a child of how my great grandfather, Mayer Lehman and his two brothers, faced with a law that allowed only one member of each Jewish family to marry and to work, had been forced to leave their home in Rimpar early in the 19th century to seek their fortune in the new world, originally as peddlers.
There are no Jews in Rimpar today.
Earlier in the day, a plaque had been unveiled at my great great grandfather's house which still stands in what is today the main street of Rimpar. Today it is a pharmacy.
Christian Will, a former member of the Bavarian Parliament, had the idea for the plaque. As an 11-year-old, she witnessed Kristallnacht. "We are the last generation that actually witnessed Kristallnacht and the expulsion of the Jews...The synagogue was plundered. They had thrown everything all over the street."
Following the unveiling of the plaque, we walked to the Town Hall built on a gentle slope about 100 yards from the Lehman House. In a small, stone room, the mayor dedicated the permanent exhibition about the history of the Jews of Rimpar. It features Government Herbert H. Lehman and the Lehman family. The display of photos and text paid tribute to the nine Jewish residents of Rimpar who died in Nazi concentration camps. Members of the Lehman family also died during the Holocaust, although none was then living in Rimpar.
Of the nine children of Abraham Lehman, only the three younger brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, came to the United States before 1850. Their eldest brother, Seligman, received the one license to work and marry for each Jewish family in Rimpar. Six sisters moved to other villages where Jewish quotas allowed them to settle and marry.
During the 1930's, with the rise of Hitler, their descendants heard they had a cousin in America, Governor Lehman, and they appealed to him for help. A family charitable fund, run by Dorothy Bernhard, my mother's sister, was organized. Under Dorothy's aegis, over 100 affidavits were issued. In the 1930's, if you had an affidavit, you could enter the United States. However, only 65 members of the Lehman family emigrated. It is unclear what happened to the other family members but we have to assume that they all perished in the Holocaust.
We also know about a first cousin of Governor Lehman: Eva Lehman. At the time that the Lehman family records were unearthed by Dr. Flade, he also discovered one of the largest files of Gestapo records existing in Germany. The originals had been destroyed but he found microfilms in the Bavarian State Archives in Wurzburg and matched them up with Lehman descendants.
In those files he found that Mrs. Thalheimer had been murdered at Treblinka. She had been able to get one of her children and grandchildren to America, but we had not been able to trace them. Through a series of amazing coincidences, her granddaughter, Ruth Nelkin of Great Neck, Long Island, New York, read about the event and contacted me. She had left Wurzburg when she was two- years-old. With her daughter, Amy, she arrived in Rimpar at the last minute.
How moving, how ironic, how strange this whole occasion.
The citizens of Rimpar were honoring a Jewish family that was unknown to them until today. Members of the Rimpar Municipal Council had voted unanimously to fund this project. The Chancellor of Germany was writing us; our relatives buried in the lovely Jewish cemetery of Heidingsfeld, now part of Wurzburg, rest in immaculately tended grounds.
As I listen to the words of praise, of regret, of warning, I thought how much fate and circumstances played in our lives and how lucky I was that my great grandfather had the good sense and the ambition to emigrate to the United States.