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German whose grandfather bought Jew’s shop in 1938 calls descendant to apologize

Benjamin Heidelberger was forced to sell to Wilhelm Edelmann due to Nuremberg laws; Edelmann’s grandson found Heidelberger’s 83-year-old Israeli granddaughter to make amends

Benjamin Heidelberger's store in Bad Mergentheim, southern Germany, in an undated photo (Courtesy)
Benjamin Heidelberger's store in Bad Mergentheim, southern Germany, in an undated photo (Courtesy)

A German man who discovered that his grandfather’s store was bought from a Jewish man who was forced by Nazi laws to sell it, recently made contact with the Israeli granddaughter of the original owner to apologize and hear the family’s story.

Thomas Edelmann told CNN he discovered years ago that his family’s business was acquired under questionable circumstances, but never knew the fate of the original owners.

However, a chance conversation about the matter with a representative for MyHeritage led the genealogy company to track down the original owner’s relatives, and even to send Edelmann a photo of his gravesite in northern Israel.

The original owner of the hardware store in Bad Mergentheim, southern Germany, was Benjamin Heidelberger. But Heidelberger was forced to sell the store to Wilhelm Edelmann upon the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws, which largely blocked Jews from the German economy.

Under Edelmann that store over the years became a successful chain of hardware stores that exists to this day.

Heidelberger fled to Mandatory Palestine shortly thereafter, where he raised a family. MyHeritage put Thomas Edelmann in contact with Heidelberger’s granddaughter, 83-year-old Hanna Ehrenreich.

The two exchanged letters and then spoke on the phone.

“I believe that if my family supported the injustice your grandparents experienced, it is our duty to take this into account and take over responsibility at least in getting in touch with you to listen and learn,” Edelmann wrote Ehrenreich. “As I am part of the Edelmann family I want to take the first step and listen to you.”

The town of Bad Mergentheim, today (YouTube screenshot)

Ehrenreich told CNN that on the phone, “Thomas wanted to hear how we had been. I said we were happy, and we have had a good life.”

Ehrenreich still had a photo of the old family shop hung up at her home.

She told him that contrary to his fears, his grandfather had actually been decent to hers, paying him rent on time every month before the sale was made.

In his diary, Heidelberger wrote: “One day, Edelmann came to me and said I should leave Germany as quickly as possible. There were plans in place to act against Jews and he felt obliged to warn me, his good acquaintance.”

Heidelberger sold Edelmann his store and fled weeks before Kristallnacht, the November 1938 pogroms in Germany and Austria that killed dozens and wounded thousands following the assassination of a German diplomat by a Jewish gunman.

Ehrenreich told CNN: “I understood that [Edelmann] was a good man, although he was a member of the Nazi party.”

Edelmann currently has no ties to the family chain. He still feels uneasy about his grandfather, who bought the store from Heidelberger for less than its market price.

The aftermath of the ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom in Germany, November 1938 (public domain)

“I know my grandfather was a very good businessman,” he said. “When he was a student during the 1920s he was already a member of the Nazi party, which was before Hitler came to power. So I don’t believe he was such a good man, I’m not 100% convinced. I doubt he didn’t take advantage of the situation.”

But he said he was very happy to have been given the opportunity to contact Ehrenreich.

“It was such an emotional moment when I heard Hanna on the phone and when she told me about her grandfather,” he said. “Although her family was treated so badly she was very friendly and didn’t hold me responsible for anything.”

He said it was important to him to teach the history to his 15-year-old son.

“I want him to understand what history is, and what history means. Although he doesn’t have anything to do with this story, it’s our ancestor who has impacted the lives of a whole family who had a life in this country,” he said. “I want him to learn and understand that whatever decisions he makes has an impact on someone else’s life.”

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