Walter Nathan: Preserving the Past

By Marcia Faye

Trustee Memorializes Ancestors for Future Generations

 Preserving the Past
Walter Nathan at the ceremony memorial in Gau-Algesheim, Germany

History holds many dark secrets, but sooner or later, truth finds a way to shine through. One such lucid moment revealed itself to Walter Nathan (ME ’44) on a transatlantic flight in early 2006. Nathan, a member of IIT’s Board of Trustees, was reading an article in the Financial Times about how Germany’s Dresdner Bank was instrumental in the Aryanization of Jewish-owned enterprises in the 1930s. By 1938, the Nazis, in their radical idea to bring about a non-Jewish Caucasian or Aryan so-called master race, had prohibited Jews from operating trades and businesses, and from offering goods and services in Nazi Germany. Initially, the Nazis allowed the businesses to be sold to non-Jewish owners, with valuable assets being sold far below market value.

Founder and chair of RTC Industries, Inc., a Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based company that provides a wide range of business services to brand and retail clients the world over, Nathan was initially dumbstruck by the words in front of him and became overwhelmed by memories that conjured a looming possibility.

“When I read the article and all of the details, I said to myself, ‘That’s what happened to my father,’ says Nathan, whose love of family runs deep. “Even though I was a little boy at the time, and parents did not tell kids too much about their business, I had heard bits and pieces of the occurrences.”

“We have to know it, we have to understand it, and we must remember it. Otherwise, it will happen again.”

Not able to get the Times article out of his mind, Nathan contacted the reporter to learn more about what he felt certain was a link to his family’s past. The reporter put him in touch with the two academicians interviewed for the article, one of whom confirmed what Nathan had suspected: the Ada-Ada Shoe Company, founded by his father, Richard, and one of the largest shoe manufacturers in Germany, had fallen victim to Aryanization. He also told Nathan that he had written about this case in a book commissioned by the Dresdner Bank.

With that discovery, Nathan arranged to meet the researcher in Berlin, taking with him his youngest daughter, Betsy; her husband, Daniel; his oldest grandson, Ben; and one cousin. Nathan was invited to visit the archives of the Dresdner Bank, where he obtained the complete details of the business transaction between his father and the Nazis. Before the group returned home, Nathan took his family to the fifteenth-century Jewish cemetery in the town of Gau-Algesheim, his father’s birthplace, which he had last visited with his father 70 years earlier.

During that 1936 visit to the cemetery, Nathan took along his new 35mm camera, a recent bar mitzvah gift. He took photos of the many Nathan family headstones found throughout the cemetery, which held nearly 150 graves of Jews from Gau-Algesheim and the neighboring town, Ockenheim. Less than one year later, with the persecution of German Jews rampant and the Holocaust imminent, Nathan and his family fled the country to settle in Chicago.

Nathan recalls the sweltering day in summer 2006 when he returned to the burial grounds. His grandson and cousin, who accompanied him, helped the 83-year-old patriarch climb over the low wall that ringed the small cemetery. Inside, the devastation took his breath away. Only a few Nathan family headstones remained, propped up against the wall.

“I immediately remembered that I had photographs of the graves that I took when I was 13 years old, and assumed that I saved them,” says Nathan.

The group spent the next couple of hours contemplating the damage and trying to decipher the Hebrew inscriptions on each headstone. Returning to the town, Nathan saw three men approximately his age seated at a table in the local café. On a hunch, he approached the trio, telling them that his father was born in the town and asking if any of them could share information about the cemetery. One of the men put him in contact with Alois Ebert, the town’s historical records keeper, who gave Nathan the booklet Judaica: The History of the Jews in Gau-Algesheim, which provided extensive information on Nathan’s ancestors.

Nathan and the booklet’s author, Ludwig Hellriegel, a retired Catholic priest who served in Gau-Algesheim for 30 years, met during the autumn of 2006. Hellriegel shared with Nathan his grief over the murderous treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. After their conversation, there arose in Nathan a conviction that justice must be served. The only way this could be done, he felt, was to punish those who were responsible for the desecration of the cemetery. Nathan was so convinced that this was the correct approach that he sought the help of the Honorable Dieter Faust, mayor of Gau-Algesheim.

“I told the mayor that I would like to find the perpetrators who did this. He just kind of looked at me,” says Nathan, thinking back to that day with a wry smile. “I guess he thought that I was crazy.”

The mayor instead helped Nathan realize that too many years had passed between the vandalism at the cemetery and today. As his anger began to ebb, Nathan focused on his living family and came up with a new idea: a memorial that would pay tribute to all who were buried there—a reminder to visitors that hope prevails despite the sometimes heinous conduct of humankind. The mayor offered to contribute and gave his approval for a monument to be erected at the cemetery. He suggested that Nathan choose November 9 as the day for the unveiling ceremony.

“The ninth of November is now a memorial day in Germany because during that night in 1938, the Nazis stormed into Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues all over Germany, and ransacked and burned them,” explains Nathan, a benefactor of IIT’s Voices of the Holocaust archival project, which opened in April at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. “That marked the beginning of the physical persecution of the Jews. Many were sent to concentration camps that night, never to be seen again.”

Known as Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” by some and Pogrom Night by others (to denote organized violence against a minority group, particularly Jews), the event signaled the early stages of the Holocaust. It is estimated that during Kristallnacht nearly 30,000 men were sent to the camps, and many were murdered. More than 200 synagogues were burned, along with thousands of homes and businesses. Physical evidence from that night was rare until last year, when an Israeli researcher found mounds of looted possessions in a refuse dump in Klandorf, Germany.

Once a date for the unveiling ceremony had been selected, Nathan sent a letter to his immediate family of three daughters and a son, inviting them and their spouses, children, and grandchildren to Germany for the memorial service. Some weeks later, Nathan began receiving emails and phone calls from Nathans around the world, telling him they had heard about the event. All told, 55 relatives, many of whom had never met previously, gathered for a Nathan Family Reunion Party at the Dorint Hotel in Wiesbaden the night before the memorial dedication service.

On November 9, 2008, the extended family took a chartered bus for the 20-minute ride to the cemetery, where other honored guests and nearly 150 townspeople joined them. After a local horn trio played a traditional Israeli song, the monument was unveiled—a bronze plaque affixed to a single, five-foot-tall stone cut from the local quarry. Adorned simply with the Star of David, the plaque tells the story of the Jews buried there whose graves were defiled, both during the Nazi regime and again sometime after. It also recognizes those never laid to rest in graves—the legions of Jewish citizens murdered in the Shoah, or Holocaust. During the ceremony, the names of the Gau-Algesheim and Ockenheim residents known to have been killed in the Holocaust were recited. Also unveiled were three panels fastened to the wall next to the cemetery gate and which tell the names of the Gau-Algesheim and Ockenheim victims of the Holocaust, and the history of the Jewish families buried there.

For Nathan, the ceremony was also a way for his grandchildren to know why they were born in the United States and not in the land of their ancestors.

“I want them to understand what happened. Many in my family are kids who just finished high school,” explains Nathan. “To them, what happened 70 years ago is ancient history as the Civil War was to me. But it is really recent history. We have to know it, we have to understand it, and we must remember it. Otherwise, it will happen again.”

More Online

“Refuse Heap Is Archive for Night of Hatred”:
“Profits and Persecution: German Big Business and the Holocaust”:
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center: