Serendipity – What does it mean?

serendipity: noun: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: a fortunate stroke of serendipity 

Older couple dressed up seated in their yard, with an adult man and a young boy and young girl standing behind.

Albert Rehfisch and family, Wittstock, 1918

The Internet is a strange animal. Like I’ve often said, “It’s like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. Then sitting back and waiting for a reply to wash back up on the shore” . . . no matter how long it takes.

For me it’s happened quite often, ever since I began researching my family’s history. But it’s never taken quite as long as my most recent encounter. Nor have any of my research questions generated the number of returns as this recent one – because it took twelve years. And the replies are still coming in. It’s as if by sending my one bottle out to sea more than a decade ago, I’ve been put me on some kind of cosmic subscription plan. And for this one, more bottles just keep washing up on the shores of my Internet browser. So far with no end in sight.

But here’s the story:

One day, a few months ago, when I opened my email, I found a message from a woman who wanted to know if had written a search notice back in 2006, when I was trying to get information about my maternal grandfather’s brothers.

I wanted to find out about Louis Rehfisch, my mother’s father, who was born in Germany, in the small town of Kyritz, in January 1870. But I was particularly interested in the number of brothers he had. At that time I only knew the names of three of them: Berthold, and Sally (Saloman), both also born in Kyritz. Plus brother, Albert, who was probably born in Kyritz as well.

But what had confused me back then was finding another Rehfisch; Gerhard, who’d been born in nearby Wittstock in 1901. Since I didn’t know how many brothers there were, I didn’t know how Gerhard fit into the family – if at all. So, I put up my questions on the Jewish Genealogical Society’s website – where I’ve had most of my success.

That was on May 31, 2006. The answers I got back almost immediately. That also helped identify the family in this photo – a picture I found in one of my mother’s family photo albums after she passed away.

“But what, pray tell, does that have to do with the reply you got almost twelve years later”, you ask?

I’ll get to that in a moment. But first I want to clear up the identity of the people pictured in the family photo. I already knew that the two children in back on the left are my uncle Paul, and my mother, Lily. But the answers I got back from JewishGen in 2006 were new information and helped me figure out that this was the home of brother Albert, who lived in the nearby town of Wittstock. Albert is sitting next to his wife, Hedwig. And behind her, the tall kid, with the ears, is their son, Gerhard, who finally fit in the family tree.

But now, twelve years later, the town of Wittstock has taken on new importance because of that very tardy reply. The author, a woman named Amelie, who lives in Berlin, had just visited the town days earlier, and found our family name, “Rehfisch”. She had witnessed an event where specially made stepping stones, or “stolpersteine” – literally “stumbling stones” or “cobble stones” – are placed in the ground in memory of the victims of “Nazi persecution or extermination”, who lived or worked near the site.

The stone is actually a concrete cube with a brass plate inscribed with the victim’s’ name, plus his or her dates of the birth and death, and often where they perished.

Apparently seeing the Rehfisch name on the stones prompted Amelie to do a Google search, which brought up my web site, as well as a link to JewishGen.

But not knowing to whom she was writing, she began her first email with a simple hello, I saw ‘stumbling stones’ in Wittstock yesterday. The stones are laid for the Rehfisch family, and I’m pretty sure Sally Rehfisch is related to Albert Rehfisch in Wittstock. Kyritz is only some kilometers distant from Wittstock: I also saw the picture of the Rehfisch family from Wittstock, that I assume was established by you? And who wrote this search notice?”

” . . . Who wrote this search notice?” That was me and refers to my original email that I put up on JewishGen back in 2006!

Now mind you, I had already received the answers a long time ago, but it’s what followed that blew me away!

When I first replied to her and told her who I am, she immediately sent pictures of the town of Wittstock, along with photos of the Rehfisch Stolpersteine, and a birth notice of a Rehfisch baby from a local newspaper.

The Rehfisch Stolpersteine

That bit of email correspondence seems to have prompted what has turned into a virtual floodgate of information about my family. And it hasn’t stopped yet.

For whatever reason, unbidden, but much appreciated, Amelie seems to have taken on the task of becoming my personal genealogical researcher.

A day or two later she switched to my uncle Paul, sending me a list of all the poor soles who are buried with him in a mass grave in the German village of Trobitz. That’s where he died after being transported from Bergen-Belsen,  (see my story of “The Lost Transport”)

Then she sent more archival lists of other Rehfisch in such quantity that it would take me weeks – if not longer – just to enter them into my family tree program.

While this all began in October, 2017, after the first of the year, 2018, she switched her research to the paternal side of my family and stared sending me lists of Weinlaubs along with more birth and death announcements from various newspapers. 

It’s reached a point where I’m almost fearing any more documentation, only to end up in my files waiting to be dealt with sometime in the distant future.

But then, switching back to my Rehfisch family, first she sent important new family genealogy information, with pictures. It was information that she had recently uncovered at the Jewish museum in Berlin.

And this was VERY important information for me, because it connected Mom’s cousin, Margot Rehfisch, with her sister, Erna. And that connected Erna Rehfisch with the Nachmann family and the Davids.

But it was Margot that I was most interested in, and here was a golden opportunity. I already knew a fair amount about her, and turned into two stories in my blog3.. But until then all I knew only pertained to her later life. And that was only after I found a newspaper clipping about Margot and her life partner, Fiep Westendorp, the iconic Dutch artist and illustrator of children’s books. They had given an expensive painting of theirs to the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. But I’m certain the newspapers only picked up on the story because it was about Fiep. There was precious little about Margot

Up to that point Margot Rehfisch was just another entry for me that would fill in the blank spaces on my grand uncle, Solly’s page, in my family tree.

Then a couple of years later, I learned quite a bit more. She had actually been a practicing physician at a Jewish hospital in Berlin. But fled from Germany like so many others, after Kristallnacht in 1938.

Already having relatives there, she chose the apparent “safety” of Amsterdam.

Then, during the following months, before the Nazis invaded Holland, she had made the acquaintance of a surgeon by the name of Dr. Hefting. Aware that she was a Jew, and fearing for her safety, Hefting hired her as the family’s housemaid, where she remained, hidden in full sight, throughout the war.

Then after the war she remained in the Netherlands and became a psychiatrist; one of her patients being Fiep Westendorp.

Learning all these new facts about Margot, I was hooked, and wanted to learn more about her earlier life. But then I ran into a brick wall and remained there until Amelie came along.

But the pictures she sent me from the Berlin museum which included Erna Nachmann ne Rehfisch and her husband, Martin, did not include any pictures of Margot. The only images of her could only be seen on film!!!

How frustrating. But undaunted I went to the internet and to the museum’s web site to find out how I could see the film, hopefully online.

But when I found the catalog page, I learned that the film could only be viewed within the museum, and not online. And it could not be loaned out!!!

What a disappointment!

But by chance, Amelie had a friend in the Museum who volunteered to have the footage copied to a thumb drive and mailed to me.

My new German benefactress came through again.

Fully expecting to see a home movie similar in quality to the 16m films my parents shot, when the thumb drive arrived a few weeks later, I couldn’t believe what I saw on the screen.

The footage was FANTASTIC, and definitely not your average home movie.

Even though it was listed in the David Collection as “amateur film”, it is definitely not. It appears to have been professionally done. The quality is phenomenal, and obviously shot with expensive motion picture equipment on what appears to be 35m film, with the kind of coverage and editing that only a person with professional experience would even consider.

In other words, it looks like the worlds most expensive home movie.

After that, I went back online and into the Museum’s collection to find a description of who the other people are, and their connection. Again I was surprised because I found a two page document that went into extreme detail explaining, with a brief synopsis, for each person, the connection between the David’s, the Nachmann’s and the Rehfisch’s.

However, since there is so much information there, I’ll hold it for my next blog.

But I’ll describe the first minute of the film1

At the fade in we see an older Elise David, and a taller and younger Margot Rehfisch walking out of a building together in midtown Berlin. Margot has her French bulldog2. with her.

Then both of them get into a chauffeured phaeton. As the car drives through the Berlin streets, we get some views of the city. Then they arrive at their destination, apparently an apartment building. When they get out, they’re greeted by Dr. Karl David, Elise’s husband. That’s followed by a reverse angle, of Margot’s sister, Erna and her husband, Martin Nachmann, who then get into the same chauffeured phaeton that Elise and Margot just left.

There’s much more, but the coverage of Margot Rehfisch is wonderful and FAR more than I ever expected. Thank you, Amelie and your friend at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. This has truly been a study in Serendipity, for me.

________________________________________________________

1.You can see the first two minutes of film on You Tube: 

https://bit.ly/2HTOyVt

2.Both the French bulldog and its weird organic collar must have been the fashion back then, because two other identical French Bulldogs appear with the same style collar in family photos with two other relatives of mine.

3. Margot Rehfisch & "Fiep" the Kiddie Book Artist 
   Margot Rehfisch Redux

2 thoughts on “Serendipity – What does it mean?”

  1. Hi Pete,

    I’ve been following your blogs for a couple of year and always find them both entertaining and interesting – you have a way with words that I wish I had!

    Just want to make a comment about the Stolperstein for Hedwig Rehfisch featured in your article. On my visits to Germany and on the internet I’ve noticed more and more stones being laid for Jews who survived the Holocaust. I’d question this – whether it’s OK to consider them Holocaust victims – strictly speaking they were victims but survived and should they be remembered with a stone. I think by this they are diminishing the price paid by those who were murdered. If this continues, Germany will be overrun with Stolpersteine – most having lost their impact.

    My parents fled Germany in 1938 (my mother wasn’t Jewish), and I would never allow a Stein to be laid in for my father.

    Your thoughts?
    Helen Hill

    • Hi Helen,

      First thanks for your very kind words and for being a loyal reader for as long as you have. Regarding a Stolperstein for Hedwig Rehfisch, I was surprised to see that as well, and am inclined to agree with you. There are many more victims of the Holocaust in my immediate family, who truly deserve Stolpersteine. But I have no idea whether or not any of them ever received one.

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