Year of Grace, Day 147. Righteous among nations in a little town on the Rhine

Between 2004 and 2008 while I commuted between Leamington Spa and Bonn, I had been unaware that the next-door neighbour and good friend of a friend had been a formidable heroine during the Nazi regime. From May 1943 to the end of World War II in 1945, she had sheltered a Jewish family in her basement. That her husband was a high-ranking military officer, and that her house was in the middle of a very central neighbourhood in Bonn, make her even more heroic. I cannot imagine a riskier or more daring undertaking. How did she manage to do this? She must have had accomplices that were in on the secret, although she may not have risked sharing it at all. The fewer who know, the better, in this case. And her husband – who would have been home on leave from time to time from his posting – how did she keep him from discovering the family concealed under his own roof? It truly boggles the imagination! The tradition then of the kitchen and the basement (then as now used as a pantry and storage room) being the woman’s sole domain may have contributed to the success of this exceedingly audacious act.

For her astounding bravery and this feat of singular daring, in 2006 she was honoured by the State of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial with the title Righteous Among Nations. She was then 92 years old. Her name is Katharina Bayerwaltes. I wish I had had the chance to meet her and spend some time with her. Alas, she passed on in 2011, aged 97. Fluent in French and English, she became the chief interpreter and right-hand person to the British High Commander when the war ended. (What happened to her officer husband?) And thanks to her cultural efforts, Oxford is the sister-city of Bonn.

But I am equally curious about the family that she had sheltered. Who were they and how did they end up with Katharina Bayerwaltes? Here are a few facts I managed to dig up. It was an elderly couple, Salomon and Henriette Jacoby and their daughter Hildegard Schott, whose husband had already been deported to one of the concentration camps. Although some accounts put them as Cologne residents, they were actually from Oberwinter, a town just across the Rhine from Bonn, where there had been Jews recorded since the 17th century. (By 1888, there were 150, the most that had ever lived there. But by the 1930s however, only 25 remained.) The Jacoby family must have been taken with the other Oberwinter Jews to the assembly camp at Cologne, specifically Köln-Müngersdorf.

On the Jews of Oberwinter, Ute Metternich

An account of the Jews of Oberwinter, by Ute Metternich

From there, the Jacobys must have escaped to Rolandseck, according to Ute Metternich, though this is further from Cologne than Bonn, and from there (?) to Bonn with the help of Josephine and Heinz Odenthal, where Sibylla Cronenberg took them in. In May 1943 they made their way to the home of Katharina Bayerwaltes in Bonn’s south quarter, Südstadt, and there they stayed and survived till the end of the war.

As an aside, the assembly point for Jews scheduled for deportation was a building behind Bonn’s Central Station. This building was in recent years a venue for advanced German lessons for foreign residents (the so-called Integrationskurs, “Integration Course”).

Out of all the inhabitants of Bonn, why had the Jacoby family chosen to knock on Katharina’s door to seek shelter? On their way there and while at the door, how had they escaped the eyes of Katharina’s neighbours? The grand townhouses in this area, built in the early to mid-1800s, are heritage properties and, typical of that era’s town buildings, adjoin one another, wall to wall, with no intervening space in between. The only open spaces are the backgardens. And interestingly, the basements of these mansions were all interconnected. Might there have been some sort of underground railroad for Jews in the Rhineland? I surmise there had to have been, otherwise what are the chances that the Odenthals knew that Sibylla Cronenberg would take the Jacobys in, and later that Katharina Bayerwaltes would as well?

My friend relates that the Jacobys just came and knocked on Katharina’s door one day, and she let them in, and that was that. Katherina Bayerwaltes was the last living member of this group of Righteous Among Nations in this area of Germany; the Odenthals and Sibylla Cronenberg received their awards posthumously. There have been 500 of these awards conferred in Germany.

Oh, what an opportunity lost to have listened to a few stories from this fascinating woman! Once a week since 2008 until she passed away, I was just next door, mere steps away. And I could’ve asked to meet her at any time. But, not wishing to impose, I didn’t. A chance lost forever, alas. If the Jacobys’ daughter, Hildegard Schott, is still alive, she will certainly have some stories of her own to tell – most particularly of hers and her elderly parents’ daring escape and survival. Wherever in the world can she be?

To Katharina Bayerwaltes, Josephine and Heinz Odenthals, and Sibylla Cronenberg, Righteous Among Nations — to remember them and their kind hearts and their indomitable heroism is a blessing. And to Salomon and Henriette Jacoby, and their daughter Hildegard Jacoby Schott, three of the fortunate few to have miraculously survived.