Focus on Families

Document evokes family’s life in 18th-century Germany

It was very rare for Jews to own property in Germany in the 1700s, but retired physician Edward Loebl has documentation that his family did. Passed down from generation to generation, the signed and sealed notification of property ownership was written in German and unintelligible to Loebl until recently. Although his father spoke German, he was unable to fully translate the document.

Loebl’s wife, Mary Ellen, attended a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Shalom Tucson activity this summer where she met Sonja L. Mekel, who moved to Tucson with her husband in July and holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Mekel speaks fluent German and will teach courses on German-Jewish history, specializing in German-Jewish American history, at the University of Arizona’s Center for Judaic Studies in the spring. She agreed to translate the Loebl family document, and Mary Ellen presented the translation to her husband for his 65th birthday.

Loebl had received the laminated document — dated July 30, 1792 — from his father, Julius Loebl, when Julius was in his late 70s. The document refers to Loebl’s great-great-great- great-grandfather Marcus’ home ownership as “a protected Jew of the estate Litschkau, purchased for himself, his heirs, and those entitled to the inheritance of the house…” and stipulates an annual house and protection fee. It also mentions the “synagogue or prayer chamber located in this domicile,” which Loebl says was “very rare” at the time. He also discovered from the translation that his ancestors were farmers who grew hops, another unusual bit of Jewish family history.

In addition, the 1792 document states how the homeowners were to behave: “The buyer and those belonging to him should conduct himself quietly at all times, lead an honest, irreproachable life, not accommodate any disruptive and suspicious persons, and not do anything that would be in the least detrimental to the high master, under pain of the harshest applicable penalty.”

A few years ago, Loebl and his son, David, traveled to Germany; they determined that the family “estate” was located not far from Dresden in what is probably now German-speaking Slovakia.

“It’s ironic,” says Loebl, that his 29-year-old son is named David, when unknown to Loebl and Mary Ellen, the Jewish judge who signed the official document more than two hundred years ago was David Loebl.

By the early 20th century, German Jews had been assimilated. “Many Jews considered themselves Germans first,” says Loebl. Then came World War II and the Holocaust. Loebl’s father emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1937, and Loebl has his German passport with the Nazi insignia among the family artifacts.

Loebl’s grandparents, Ernst and Henny Loebl, and their daughter, emigrated to the United States in 1941, having flown to Moscow, traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Japan, then boarded a ship to Seattle. It took them six weeks to get there. On his grandfather’s German passport the middle name “Israel” was inserted as it evidently was for all Jewish males, and the middle name “Sara” for Jewish females. On the upper left-hand corner of the inside page, his grandparents’ and aunt’s passports had a large red “J” for Jew stamped on it. His father’s passport had no such inclusions.

The possession of the passports and the 1792 document, with its translation, has clearly been significant to Loebl: “Isn’t it wonderful,” he asks, “that this Jewish community [finally] made the translation possible through the Jewish Federation?”