HEBREW VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE SEEף
AVRAHAM VON MANSTEIN
In the new Jewish cemetery in the German city of Wirtsburgh there is a headstone with the following inscription:
Buried here is Count Avraham Ben Avraham von Manstein, a true-convert of blessed memory, converted as an adult, a righteous man, a generous man, born 18-5-1869, died as a Jew on 17-1-1944 and transferred to a Jewish grave with much honor on 5-7-1970
I was told about the headstone by my friend Dr. Rami Reiner of the University of Beer Sheva.
Who was Avraham Ben Avraham von Manstein?
What brought him to convert to Judaism?
How did he survive in Nazi Germany almost to the end of the war?
What is his connection to the Nazi General Erich von Manstein?
There are answers to these questions. They are connected to Wirtsburg’s old Jewish cemetery, where Jews were buried since the beginning of Wirtsburg’s Jewish community early in the 12th century. To the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichi this old cemetery was the inspiration for a cycle of poems in his book, “Open, Close, Open”. In the opening poem Amichi writes:
On my table a stone shard inscribed AMEN,
A gravestone fragment, remains of a Jewish cemetery
Destroyed a millennium ago in the city of my birth.
The gravestone of the true-convert von Manstein, the uncle of the Nazi General and the memorial to the old Jewish cemetery in Amichi’s poem unite to tell the story of the Jewish destiny, “the Jewish time bomb” in Amichi’s words.
THE HOUSE BUILT OF GRAVESTONES
My friend, Dr. Rami Reiner, told me the story of the two cemeteries. He learned about them by accident. The story begins in 1987 in the city of Wirtsburgh. This is a very old city which had many Jewish communities thrive and then slaughtered there throughout its history. In 1987 they started to demolish a structure in the center of the town and a passer by noticed Hebrew inscriptions on the building’s stones. The discovery was related to theology professor Karl-Heinz Muller who made arrangements for the gravestones’ preservation. The building was dismantled carefully and its historical significance became clear. 1474 gravestones and gravestone fragments were recovered from the site with a total weight of more than seventy tons. These stones were transferred the local university warehouse for processing, cleaning, repair and systematic documentation. Yehuda Amichi writes:
N0w a good man, a benefactor, collects the shards.
A sad man, a loving man
He cleans them spotlessly
Photographs them individually than
Arranges them on the floor…
shard to broken shard
Like the resurrection of the dead,
A mosaic like toy statue.
ONE OF THE GRAVESTONES
The benefactor in the poem is Karl-Heinz Muller, the good man who saved this treasure from destruction.
Dr. Reiner describes Muller as a “totally righteous man, more Jewish than Christian”. Muller himself says he is a “Judeo-Christian”. He attends church on Sundays and prays in a synagogue on Saturdays. He reads (but does not speak) Hebrew, and “his own library looks like the bookcase of the head of a Talmudic College (Yeshiva).” In his home he has a statue of Jesus with a pair of phylacteries (tefilin) adorn his head. He translated to German Yehuda Amichi’s poems.
After two or three years of preliminary work Muller sought experts to help him with the gravestones research. With the help of Professor Brauer, who teaches Orthodox history in Bar Ilan University of Tel Aviv, he got in touch with Professor Simon Schwartzfuchs, an expert on French Jewry. Professor Schwarzfuchs agreed to participate and recruited Rami Reiner as an Assistant.
At the time Reiner was a B.A. student in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University (Hebrew literature and Talmud) while serving as a Rabbi/teacher (R”M) in Rabbi Riskin’s Yeshiva Neve Shmuel in Efrat, Judea. (“A very “open” Yeshiva. We used to take our students to the theater. All R”M’s like myself served in the military and they even allowed me to study in the University.”)
Dr. Rami Reiner
Reiner was asked to join the research team as an assistant and research partner thanks to his command of the German language and his background in Talmud and Jewish Laws. (He studied six years in the Kol Torah Yeshiva for youngsters headed by his father.)
NO GRAVES FOR THE SLAUGHTERED
The old Jewish cemetery of Wirtsburg, says Dr. Reiner, was first established by Bishop Siegfried following the Second Crusade Pogrom of February 1147. In that pogrom twenty or so Jews were killed.
One hundred years later, in August 1298, nine hundred of Wirtsburg Jewish community were killed as result of a blood libel (holy bread riots). Fifty years later another disaster came to the Jewish community. The Black Plague hit the city; the Jews were blamed and a lot more Jews perished when mobs torched their homes.
Expressions of the great disasters found their way into the gravestones inscriptions. Sentences like “The sons of Esau rose and killed them”, “Rabbi Moshe the murdered”, “In life and death avenge their vengeance”.
In spite of the harassment and killing there were gentiles who joined the Jewish people. We learn from gravestone inscriptions informing us about a woman, “..who left her father…” and lived with our Father Avraham. Six hundred and fifty years after that woman convert, the Baron Ernest von Manstein came into Our Father Avraham’s covenant.
THE BARON WHO CONVERTED TO JUDAISM
I got in touch with about a dozen German archives in search of information about the true-convert and obtained the following profile. The Baron was born in 1869 to one of the best known family in the Prussian nobility. At the age of 21 he came to Wirtsburg to join the military. As a talented musician he served in a military band. At that time he got in touch with the Jewish community and developed close relationship with Torah and Talmudic scholars. He studied Torah in the Talmudic College (yeshiva), and expressed desire to convert to Judaism. His requests were repeatedly denied, but he persisted and eventually his sincerity won. He was sent to Amsterdam, where he was purified in a Mikva (ritual bath), circumcised and properly converted by a Jewish Halachic Court (Beit Din).
Upon returning to Wirtsburg he became inseparable from the Jewish community. Few years later he met Francisca Bezold, a woman nineteen years his senior and a true-convert. They were married and established a Jewish home known for excellence in charity and graceful deeds.
Not enough information was obtained from the German archives to form a comprehensive and correct view of the true-convert Baron and the Nazi General von Manstein, nor was I able to obtain accurate accounts of his life’s circumstances, his conversion and his death.
Following the publication of my first article about the conversion of Baron von Manstein I received many messages from people in Israel who knew the Baron well and they helped me to learn more about his life and death.
THE GENERAL WAS AN ADOPTED SON
The reader Shlomo Mark from Jerusalem wrote:
“I am familiar with the story since a friend of my father studied music with the true-convert Manstein. The General Field marshal Erich von Manstein was the adopted son of the von Manstein family. His biological father was the infantry General Eduard von Lewinski. He is named after a village in Pomerania (today Poland), pronounced “Lowinsko” in Polish and “Lewinski” in German.”
AS A MUSICIAN
“Originally a Roman practice, it was customary in European Aristocratic that families blessed with many children would give a family without children one child for adoption. The adoptive family would raise the boy as their own son and heir. Artillery General von Manstein, von Lewinski’s good friend, adopted the boy as his own son. After the biological father passed away the field Marshal called himself Erich von Lewinski and von Manstein. His original name cast suspicion of him being of Jewish origin but as far as I know his biological father was not a Jew. The true-convert Avraham Ben Avraham von Manstein was, therefore, the brother of the adoptive father of General Erich von Manstein.”
THE GENERAL ORGANIZED THE FUNERAL
The reader Shlomo Mark adds, ” My father’s friend, who studied music with the true-convert Avraham Ben Avraham von Manstein, knew that General von Manstein himself arranged a military funeral for his uncle.”
“At that time the General had been relieved from all his military duties by Hitler. This gave him the time to organize a funeral for his uncle during one of World War II most difficult periods. The funeral was held with full military ceremony, the coffin was draped with Nazi swastika flag and the military escort detachment was made of uniformed SS soldiers.”
“I WAS THE TRUE-CONVERT MANSTEIN’S STUDENT”
The reader Rachel Ben Gedalia, from Rishon Letsion told me this story:
“My father, Yehuda Friedman, was a disciple of the Count (The Baron von Manstein was known among the Jews as the Count.) and a frequent guest in his house, He studied with the Count in the Seminary for Talmudic Teachers and Cantors in Wirtsburg between the years of 1931 and 1935. The Count also taught painting and was at the time a famous painter.”
“I have two signed original paintings of his hanging in my house. One from 1907 and the other, a view of the river, with the city of Wirtsburg in the background. The picture, dated 31-8-20, has the Hebrew date of 17 Elul inscribed too.”
Rachel Pree-Chen of Jerusalem relates: “My late husband was the Count’s student in the Wirtsburg Seminary in the years 1935-37. He knew the count well and was a guest in his house. They played together in a musical trio. The Count sent my late husband a postcard on the 10th of May, 1937. His delicate and courteous , yet friendly, approach to his students was obvious from the postcard. He was a great man. His road to become one of us and live a full Jewish life with his wife was a long one.”
Rabbi Zako Grunwald told me his parents had a very friendly relationship with the Count-convert, who gave them as wedding present one of his paintings, with the date of their wedding, 29-4-24 and in Hebrew 24 Nissan TARPAH, inscribed.
ONE OF HIS PAINTINGS
And to make the picture even clearer, the community Rabbi of Wirtsburg, Rabbi Yaakov Avrat sent me a picture of the musical quartet which von Manstein headed.
DIED IN THE NAME OF GOD’S SANCTITY
The riddle of the life and death of the true-convert Avraham Ben Avraham von Manstein was solved by Simon Greenbaum, 84, of Jerusalem. These are his words:
“I visited my mother’s grave in Wirtsburg in 1953. There I met with David Rosenbaum, the head of the Jewish community of Wirtsburg and the administrator of the Jewish senior citizens there. Rosenberg took me to the cemetery and the first grave we visited was the Baron von Manstein’s grave in the first raw. Rosenbaum was responsible for transferring this true-convert from the Christian cemetery to the Jewish cemetery. He mentioned von Manstein’s family strong resistance to the move and it took a court’s decision to gain the permission for the transfer.”
“In 1942 the Nazis ordered all the Jews of the Wirtsburg area to go to the city’s main square and from there marched them to the railroad station. Baron von Manstein came to the square covered with his prayer shawl (talit) and wearing phylacteries (tefilin) on his forehead and arm. The Nazis tried to turn him back saying, you are not a Jew, repeatedly, but he adamantly said, where the Jews go, I go too.”
“He was transferred with the rest of the Jews to the Terezinstadt concentration camp and died there two years later. Members of my family have said that most victims died in Terezinstadt from starvation. On his nephew, the General’s initiative his body was transferred to Wirtsburg and was buried in Christian cemetery with full Nazi honors.”
“David Rosenbaum himself was also sent to Terezinstadt concentration camp with rest of the Jewish community but managed to survive. He was close to the Baron and stayed with him in the camp.”
“Simon Greenbaum added that years before his conversion Baron von Manstein studied Torah with Ansbacher, a Torah scholar. Ansbacher ran a shoemaker supply store. The whole day he sat in his store and studied Torah, and when a customer walked in he would ask him to wait until he finished with the problem at hand.
After his conversion Baron von Manstein worshipped daily at a small synagogue known as the “Matsah house”. In the past the structure has served the community as a matsah bakery. He also taught Torah lessons regularly at the synagogue.
THE BARON AS A SCRIBE OF HOLY BOOKS
The true convert Avraham Ben Avraham von Manstein was also a scribe of holy books. Among many he hand-scribed the Scroll of Ester which he gave as a present to the Gutman family. I was told of this by one the descendents of the Gutman family, Itzhak Gutman of Alon Shvut in Judea. He said “My grandfather, Eliezer Dov Gutman, was a teacher of sacred subjects. He died in Europe before the Holocaust. He had three sons, Itzhak, Shimon and Yaakov. The three brothers did go through the seven hells of the Holocaust. The oldest, Itzhak, was murdered in Auschwitz. My father Yaakov and his brother Shimon came to Israel after Holocaust. All three brothers received from the Baron von Manstein gifts of sacred books dedicated by hand in Hebrew calligraphy.
In one of the dedications the baron wrote, “In living memory of the Bar Mitzvah celebration of the youngster Itzhak… son of Rabbi Eliezer, Ben Rabbi Itzhak, my teacher and friend, may his light shine… honored by Avraham Ben Avraham, known as Ernest von Manstein and his wife.” The books dedication was dated 1926.
My Grandfather, Rabbi Eliezer Gutman, received the Scroll of Ester hand written by the Baron himself. My grandfather was an amateur scribe of sacred book himself. Baron von Manstein studied Torah with my grandfather and my great-grandfather. The Scroll of Ester is now with my cousin Ahron Gutman from Kiryat Ata (near Haifa).
TRIED TO EMIGRATE TO ISRAEL
After his conversion the Baron continued with musical career, mainly teaching music both at the Seminary and privately. He tried few times to immigrate to Israel without success. When the Nazis came to power they did not treat him as a Jew since, according to their racial theories, he was still an Aryan. It is also possible that he was spared harsh treatment due to his family’s prominence. Nevertheless, his personal fortunes were tied to the destiny of the Jewish people and he never requested special privileges.
YEHUDA AMICHI ON THE TRUE-CONVERT
The reader Maor Bar directed my attention Amichi’s poem about the true-convert.
To the True-Convert
By Yehuda Amichi
Ben Avraham learns to become a Jew.
Quick, he wants to be.
Do you know what you are doing?
Why the haste? A fig tree
A person is not: all so soon,
Leaves and unripe fruit at once.
(And the fig tree is a Jewish tree)
Are you not afraid of the pain of circumcision
Cutting, cutting non-stop
Until nothing of you is left
Except the sweet pain of the Jews?
I know, you want back a baby to be
Carried on decorated pillow and passed
From woman to woman and mothers
With breasts and uterus. You want smell
Of Perfume in your nostrils
And wine to the lip-smacking mouth.
GENERAL ERICH VON MANSTEIN
The British Historian Anthony Beaver writes in his book about the Battle of Stalingrad that General Erich von Manstein is considered the most brilliant strategist of World War II. He led the Panzer Corps when they overrun Russia in June 1941. In five days he covered half the distance to Leningrad. His wife was a committed Nazi sympathizer, but von Manstein himself despised the Nazi leadership, especially Himmler and Goering. He did not shy from making fun of Hitler and trained his dog to raise his front leg in a Nazi salute every time he heard a “Hail Hitler”.
Privately he used to tell his close friends about the Jewish blood flowing in his system, but this did not stop him from issuing a command to his troops saying, “It is necessary to root out the Jewish-Bolshevik system once and for all.” And added, “It is a necessity to use extremely harsh measures against Judaism”.
When the German Sixth Army got trapped in Stalingrad Hitler sent von Manstein to the front hoping he will turn the dire situation around. General von Manstein understood immediately there is no chance to rescue the besieged German force without a retreat from Stalingrad. This did not happen since Hitler ordered “no retreat” and “fight to last bullet”.
The General did prepare his rescue plan in case Hitler would change his mind but did not have the fortitude required to present it when it became clear Hitler insists on his “No surrender, no retreat” policy. Manstein stayed out of the besieged zone and could not provide much help from outside. In 1950 he was sentenced to 18 years in jail for war crimes but was released after serving only three years for “medical reasons”, but, nevertheless, he lived for 20 more years afterwards. His memoir, “Lost Victories” was published in 1953.
TRANSLATED BY ASHER TORREN