Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Voice from the Past

For what it is worth, my middle name is Morris and my Hebrew name is Moshe. I share this because the other day I began to think again about my namesake, grandfather Moritz Spangenthal. A picture of him sits in a cheap frame on a shelf above my computer desk. It shows a mustached, modest-looking man standing officiously together with a flight crew in front of a German biplane sometime between 1914 and 1918. In September 1918, just before the Armistice, he and his comrades were shot down over France and perished. My father gave copies of this treasured remembrance to other family members and me to memorialize the man he hardly knew. The plane had crashed when my father was only seven. He never spoke of growing up fatherless, nor did I have the maturity at the time to ask him his perspective on the matter. Therefore, I learned nothing from him of my grandfather's personality, his skills, or attributes. Other than this military photo, the only other document of significance about his life that exists is a copy of a war letter, written to his wife, my grandmother Frieda. It was published in 1935 in a compilation of letters penned by fallen German-Jewish WWI soldiers. I reread it recently. It expresses quietly and tenderly my grandfather's familial love and his dedication to key principles of Judaism. It has a philosophical tone which may likely be a result of stress and depression from combat, understandable in such the dark times. Then again, it may represent a certain didactic style he chose to use. It is also likely that the contents of soldiers' mail were reviewed by censors and therefore language and ideas might have been carefully chosen for security purposes. It is strangely brief, unsigned, and spartan in affectionate words to his wife. This may suggest the possibility that the letter may have been edited. I will never know the truth since the original has disappeared, like so much, into the still-lingering smoke of the Holocaust. Seventeen days after its writing, Moritz was buried in a cemetery in Le Cateau, France, among the rows of crosses commemorating thousands of the fallen. Shortly after Moritz' demise, Frieda was presented a medal by the German government honoring posthumously her husband's bravery. This symbol was also to serve as a token of gratitude for the family's sacrifice to the Fatherland. Some years later, as the story goes, after the Nazis came to power, officials visited Frieda and demanded the medal be returned. She was informed that it was now government policy based on historical fact that the Jews had betrayed the German people, and were to be blamed for the loss of the war. They were now to be considered vermin in the pure German society, and Jews such as he did not deserve any honor. Almost fifty years later, after WWII and the defeat of Hitler, Moritz' sons, the eldest, Max; my father, Fred; and especially the youngest, my Uncle Paul had his stone replaced and adorned with a Jewish star.

Today I feel the ancient symbol produces a twinkling light which beckons a visit. It points me in a direction for adventure. It marks the location of my genetic and cultural link to the past. My ancestor deserves my gratitude for his strength of character and sacrifice. On some level, the content of this post rekindles his essence. I am happy to be his medium.

Below is my translation of the letter from the original German.

30 August 1918

Still we have no solid place to live. I look forward to the next time to be able to change clothes and bathe. But I am well, healthier than all the others. These are defeated guys around me. Young people and old. They can't endure a march, they need to eat and sleep and are freezing as well. Under these circumstances, I will have to forego Rosh Hashonah (Jewish New Year). How lovely it would be if I were with you! We (would) want to wish one another the best. Thank God that he he has brought us so far, that he has let us remain healthy and let us earn so much, that we live comfortably and the children have been able to learn something. What has been granted to us, we want to transform into doing good acts, to help orphans and the sick. Always to have before our eyes to see where there are things to do and what we can and must in addition contribute.

And this all must be taught to the children and continually reminded to them. They should learn as much as possible to be tactful and pursue goodness. They should not become nor be raised like other children have been raised: to give something only to rich family members. "Whoever does not give to Jacob, has to give to Esau"

Reader's note: The story of the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau can be found in Genesis 25 though Genesis 28. It tells of a complicated family tale of rivalry and deceit which is necessary to fulfill God's will. My belief is that my grandfather arbitrarily chose the names above, not to reference this portion of the Torah, but simply to take advantage of a familiar colloquialism of the times used to describe the advantaged and the disadvantaged.  


  1. There is so much I could say in response to this post that I'm feeling a little bit overwhelmed right now. So any substantial comment will have to wait for another time. But the last thought that crossed my mind before I started typing is this: By trying to steal your grandfather's honor, after he had already sacrificed his life for Germany, the Nazis only added to it in the long run. You can be very proud of your namesake, as I know you are and as you have every right to be.

  2. This is a really wonderful post. I'm sure Moritz would be pleased. And I'm sure you will visit his stone someday in Le Cateau.