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Rite of Return

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The Jewish Week 26 February 2003
Martha Mendelsohn

Clasping her precious cargo, the bat mitzvah girl paraded the Torah back to the ark. A silver and gilt breastplate festooned the scroll’s dark blue mantle. Congregants thronged the aisles to catch a glimpse of the ornament’s dazzling details — eagles, unicorns, brightly colored stones — as they extended their prayerbooks for the traditional touch and kiss, and congratulated the 13-year-old honoree.

Before the Torah service, Rolando Matalon, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, told a story. Almost a century ago, a Jew in a small town in Germany acquired a strikingly beautiful Torah ornament, a breastplate. He loaned it to the synagogue, but took it home when Nazi terror mounted in the 1930s. On Kristallnacht, the breastplate was stolen by a storm trooper.

All but one member of the man’s family perished in the Holocaust. A half-century later, the breastplate turned up in the collection of a new Jewish museum in Bavaria. Determining that the object had been private property, the museum’s curator set out to find the owner’s heirs.

“That breastplate is being used today for the first time in decades for the bat mitzvah of that man’s great-granddaughter, Kara Brooks,” Rabbi Matalon announced, as a gasp rose from the congregation.

Kara’s grandfather, Fred Dottheim, son of Siegmund Dottenheimer, a wealthy wine merchant in Bavaria, left the breastplate in Gunzenhausen, his hometown, when he immigrated to St. Louis in 1937.

Bernhard Purin, director of The Jewish Museum of Franconia in Furth, a town in Bavaria, delivered the breastplate last week to Fred’s daughter, Faye Dottheim-Brooks, and her family on the Upper West Side.

“It’s the first major restitution of a valuable piece of privately owned Judaica,” said Lucille Roussin, director of the Holocaust Restitutions Clinic at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School, who represented the Dottheim family in negotiations to recover the breastplate. One of nine such ornaments crafted by a Nuremberg silversmith, it has been appraised at $150,000.

Purin, the mayor of Gunzenhausen, the town’s archivist and others were at B’nai Jeshurun on Saturday to witness the breastplate’s reunion with the Torah.

“This invitation is a wonderful gesture of pardon and reconciliation for the citizens of our town and our country, where the Dottheim family’s forebears suffered great injustice,” said Mayor Gerhard Trautner, speaking in German.

Ingeborg Herrmann, Gunzenhausen’s adult education director, translated. Both were attending a synagogue service for the first time.

“It was surreal,” said Dottheim-Brooks in her West 72nd Street apartment, recalling the day in August 2001 when she opened a copy of Purin’s letter informing her brother Steven of the breastplate’s existence.

Experimenting with variations of the name Dottenheimer, Purin had found Steven Dottheim, Dottheim-Brooks’ brother, on the Web site of the Missouri Public Service Commission, where he is a lawyer.

When Purin became director of a new Jewish museum in Furth in the mid-1990s — the museum was one of many being established by gentile curators in towns all over Germany — he found the breastplate in his collection. Purin tries to track down the owners of each new acquisition, but he had not enjoyed any success.

Purin’s research also led him to Jerusalem, to the Central Archives of the Jewish People at Hebrew University, where he came across a 1952 letter from Fred Dottheim inquiring about the whereabouts of the breastplate and a photograph of the object taken by an eminent Jewish art historian. The breastplate in the picture matched the one in the Furth museum’s collection. A label identified it as private rather than communal property. (In those days, ritual objects were lent, rather than donated, to synagogues.)

Neither Dottheim-Brooks nor her brother had heard of the breastplate. Fred Dottheim, who died in 1986, rarely discussed his experiences in Nazi Germany. He had hoped to bring the rest of his family to the United States. Instead, Siegmund and his wife, Frieda, were murdered at Auschwitz. Dottheim’s sister and two brothers also perished in death camps. Dottheim had managed to build a new life: marriage to an American woman (now deceased), a clothing business in St. Louis, two children.

For Dottheim-Brooks and her husband, David Brooks, both lawyers, amazement promptly yielded to practicality. “I knew enough to know I needed a lawyer,” Dottheim-Brooks said.

The municipality of Furth opposed the breastplate’s return. Dottheim’s descendants, they argued, had no claim after so many years. The son-in-law of the Nazi officer who had helped himself to the ornament had given it to the town as a gift.

Roussin countered with a provision of military government law that declared illegal all “forced transfers” of property which took place after the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws until the end of the war. The storm trooper had the obligation to report the breastplate to U.S. military authorities — he didn’t.

Meanwhile, Purin was struggling with “mixed feelings” about returning the breastplate, he admitted before the bat mitzvah. “A museum curator’s reputation rests on his collection,” he said.

Still, Purin never doubted the necessity of his mission. “It was clear that this was what I had to do.”

After its return, Dottheim-Brooks and her brother would be free to dispose of the breastplate as they chose. They were not about to hang it on the living room wall. Nor did they want to sell it at auction. They thought it should be exhibited in a public forum, but they were not prepared to part with it permanently by donating it or selling it to a museum.

Roussin, who has a Ph.D. in art history and archaeology, hoped to arrange for a temporary loan to a Jewish institution in New York, but no museum accepted the offer, possibly because the presence of a ceremonial object whose owners had been found might open their own collections to scrutiny. (The Jewish Museum already owns a breastplate just like this one.)

After a year of negotiations, a settlement agreement and release were signed.

In appreciation of Purin’s role, the Dottheim family agreed to lend the breastplate to the Furth museum, which agreed to return it in 2003 for the bat mitzvah.

A new loan agreement has just been signed. The breastplate will return to Germany, to be exhibited at the Gunzenhausen city museum, before taking up temporary residence in Munich for the opening of a new Jewish museum that Purin will head.

It was Joanna Brooks, Kara’s sister, now 16, who came up with the idea for last Saturday’s use.

“Why don’t we bring it back for Kara’s bat mitzvah?” she had suggested during the first of her family’s two visits to Gunzenhausen.

Joanna spent last summer attending school in Gunzenhausen. The principal has been helping the students develop a Web site about its former Jewish families, which features photos of the Dottenheimers, of the Gothic-lettered wine label of Siegmund Dottenheimer’s firm, and of the toppling of the synagogue’s towers on Kristallnacht.

“We’re sorry for what our grandparents did,” Joanna’s German peers told her, “but we’re not like our grandparents.”

Before the war, in a total population of 5,000, Gunzenhausen had 184 Jews. Now there are none.

Joanna, who is studying German in 10th grade at the Fieldston School, hopes to return this summer to volunteer in the Furth museum or to help restore Gunzenhausen’s ravaged Jewish cemetery.

Was the weight of tradition more burden than blessing for her sister Kara, a Fieldston seventh-grader who plays lacrosse and, no longer in pink dress and pink-bordered tallit at a Saturday-night gathering at her home, was now giggling with her friends?

Kara was happy to share the breastplate. Her co-celebrant, bar mitzvah boy Nathan Karnovsky, carried the Torah down the aisle, too.

Before the ceremony Kara had predicted, “The adults will focus on the breastplate, and my friends will focus on me.”

While her German visitors and other guests focused on the breastplate (temporarily hanging from a hook on the wall), exclaiming over its every detail, Faye Dottheim-Brooks marveled, too. She had touched the breastplate for the first time when Purin brought it over before the bat mitzvah. The relic had put her in touch with her family’s past.

“It gave me an appreciation for what my father left behind,” she said. “Somehow it makes up a little bit for what he went through.”

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