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Monday, 16 April 2012


This is the story of some of the relatives of my matrilineal great great grandmother, Clothilde Rieser, who were involved on different sides of the Franco-Prussian War and its aftermath.

Historical background

In 1870, the French declared war on Prussia and her allies (these being many of the southern German states and Austria). They did this because they felt unduly threatened by the actions of the Prussians, including their increasing military strength, their desire to unify the states of Germany, and their attempt to put a Prussian prince on the recently vacated throne of Spain[1]. The Franco-Prussian War (July 1870- May 1871) resulted in a resounding defeat for the French, and the Prussian annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. Avenging this may have been one of France's objectives after the First World War. The Franco-Prussian War ended shortly after the Siege of Paris. Two decades later, partly as a reaction by the French to their débâcle, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew from Alsace, an officer in the French Army, was falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. This was the beginning of the so-called “Dreyfus Affair”.

Click on this to see family tree relating the characters mentioned in this essay

Clothilde Rieser (née Wimpfheimer - lived 1841 - 1921) was born in Ichenhausen, near Augsburg in Bavaria[2]. She married Abraham Rieser (1833-1870) from Laupheim (in Württemberg), moved to Augsburg, then Munich. Clothilde's father Heinrich (1813-1876) was the oldest child of Moses Wimpfheimer (born 1784) of Ichenhausen and his wife Bessle (1791-1829), and Clothilde’s mother was Rebecka (née Seligmann, she died in 1893) also of Ichenhausen. Three of Clothilde's first cousins were involved in significant ways with aspects of this period of history. Her cousin Friedrich Reitlinger (1836-1907) was a son of Sara (1819-1906), one of Heinrich Wimpfheimer's sisters, and Heinrich Reitlinger (1812-1884) of Ichenhausen. Friedrich migrated to France where he became a French diplomat. One of Heinrich's siblings, Jakob (born 1821) went to the USA in 1852[3]. There, he and his wife Rosalie (née Frauenfeld, 1821 - before 1874) had children including Clothilde's first cousins Louisa (1852-1931) and her younger brother Sam (born about 1854[4]), both connected with the "Dreyfus Affair". One of Clothilde's daughters, Hedwig (1867-1955), married Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936), in South Africa. Franz was born in the Upper Silesian city of Beuthen (in Prussia) as was his half-brother, Leo Ginsberg (1845-1895), who served in the Prussian forces that invaded France in 1870.

A Prussian soldier and colonist in Strasbourg

Leo Ginsberg, a brother-in-law of Clothilde Rieser's daughter Hedwig, was the only son of Dr. Nathan Ginsberg (1814 - 1890)[5] and his first wife, born Singer (died 1846), the widow of a Mr. Feldmann[6]. Leo, like the many other German Jews who were patriotic during the Franco-Prussian War[7], fought for Prussia[8]. He was one of a number of Jews, from Germany who, after the Prussian victory, settled in the large commercial and industrial centers of the Reichsland[9] (the name for Alsace-Lorraine after its annexation by the Germans).  By 1872, Leo, who was a merchant ("Kauffmann"), and his wife Louise (née Hoexter, 1850-1906) had settled in Strasbourg, in the "Reichsland". They moved to a house at number 5 Tribunalgasse in 1874[10]. They had four children: twins born in 1873, Fritz (died 1941) and Else (died 1934), Otto (1877- 1937) and Anna (1880 - 1950). Fritz joined a medical instrument firm in Germany. His sisters Else and Anna studied art in Berlin under Professor Franz Skarbina[11]. Otto, fluent in French and German, worked as an engineer, specializing in heating and air-conditioning. He worked in Belgium before the First World War and after this in Germany, where he had many government contracts. All of Leo's children lived out their lives in South Africa.

Friedrich becomes Frédéric[12]

While Clothilde Rieser's future[13] in-law, Leo Ginsberg, was helping Prussia to defeat France, her first cousin Friedrich Reitlinger was attempting to extricate France from the conflict. Friedrich was born in Ichenhausen. After attending a college in Augsburg he undertook Talmudic studies in Breslau before studying law at the universities of Munich and Heidelberg. After practicing as a lawyer in Germany for a few years, Friedrich went to Paris in 1866. In Paris he met, and was asked by, the Emperor Napoleon III to write a book about cooperative societies in Germany. This work was of so much importance to France that in 1867 the Emperor granted him the "grande naturalisation", a 'fast-track' French naturalization: he assumed the French name of " Frédéric".

Frédéric Reitlinger and the Siege of Paris[14]

Soon Frédéric was a successful attorney in Paris. Jules Favre, who was the Vice-President and foreign affairs minister of France's National Defense Government from 1870, chose him to be one of his private secretaries.  In late October 1870, the Prussian Army had besieged Paris for almost two months, and Favre, feeling that public opinion in Austria and Great Britain was becoming sympathetic to the French, asked Frédéric to leave Paris and to go to London and Vienna in order to plead the French cause. Frédéric described his mission in a book, "A Diplomat's Memoir of 1870"[15], some of which I have abstracted below. 

An aerial adventure

The only way to get out of the besieged city was by balloon. At nine o' clock on the 28th October Reitlinger's balloon, the "Vauban", was ready to leave the Gare d'Orleans. It was a sunny morning as the balloon was loaded. The wind was favorable, blowing towards the west, away from the east of France, which was behind Prussian lines. On board the balloon, in addition to Frédéric were Monsieur Cassier, a Belgian pigeon-fancier and Director of the French Pigeon Post, 23 of his pigeons and a sailor named Guillaume who was to act as "aeronaut"[16]. After the balloon had been carefully guided past the rooftops around the launching site, it was freed from its moorings. The balloon began its ascent, "It was a short moment and passed like a flash. The balloon turned on itself with a dizzy swiftness. It went up, and up, always turning….Where were we and where were we going?", wrote Frédéric. And well might he ask, for, "…our balloon had no compass…" and the sailor who was their aeronaut had no knowledge of aerial navigation. They crossed enemy lines high enough to be out of range of the Prussian marksmen's bullets. In the afternoon, they struck a storm: "Our poor balloon, though it was great, as I have said, not less than a ton, was as light as a feather on the wings of the hurricane. It danced madly up and down, shaken and tossed about like a fragile skiff".  The balloon crash-landed, without any personal injury being suffered, in a forest. They had no idea where they were[17], and whether they were in Prussian-held territory, which in fact they were! Luckily, a Frenchman, Julien Thiébeaux, rescued them. He told them that the Prussian soldiers were looking for them, and then escorted them to the Belgian frontier and safety.

A diplomatic mission

In Vienna, Frédéric must have realized that his mission was unlikely to succeed. The Austrian statesman Count Friedrich Ferdinand Von Beust told him, "…Prussia will listen to no one in Europe. She will be influenced by nothing except the number of soldiers whom Europe can send to the theatre of war, and she (i.e. Europe) has none to send." From Vienna, Frédéric went to London, arriving in early December. There, he met both the Foreign Secretary Lord Granville and the Prime Minister Mr. Gladstone who were sympathetic to the plight of the French but felt that they could not interfere in the conflict, as it was not Britain's problem. (In this and the preceding section all quotations are from Reitlinger's own published account).

After the Treaty of Frankfurt (May 1871)[18], which marked the end of the Franco-Prussian War, while Leo Ginsberg settled into his new home in occupied France, Frédéric devoted himself to his legal work at the Cour d'Appel[19]. France rewarded Frédéric for his services, by making him an officer in the Légion d'Honneur[20]. He married Mathilde Cattaui (1870-1919), of Egyptian Jewish origin. They had five children, one of who died in 1917, and two more who died in Auschwitz.

Leo's children cross the Equator

Many Jews left the Reichsland to avoid military conscription[21]. Leo Ginsberg's sons did not leave for that reason. When his son Fritz was about 20 years old, he was sent to South Africa by the firm for which he worked, possibly because he had a relative living in South Africa involved in the business community there. His uncle Franz Ginsberg[22] who was a prominent industrialist in King Williamstown[23] ran a flourishing match factory (and other factories) there. Shortly after Fritz arrived[24] in Africa, his company went bankrupt, leaving him without a job. Fritz then joined his uncle's firm and worked as an accountant in it, soon becoming one of its directors[25]. In September 1903, Fritz visited Germany where he married Emma Rosenstein (1878 - 1964). In April 1904[26], they returned to South Africa. They had three children there. Fritz's sisters Else and Anna, having completed their studies in Berlin, joined their brother in King Williamstown. They opened a photographic studio there in late 1899[27]. Else remained a spinster, and was always in poor health. In 1903, her sister Anna married her uncle, Leo's half-brother, Oscar Ginsberg (1876- 1961)[28]. In 1937, the last year of Otto's life, when, as a result of pressure from the National Socialist regime, all opportunities for work in Germany dried up for him, he, his wife, Helene Rosenstein (1881-1973), who was Fritz's wife's sister[29], and their three children, joined his siblings in South Africa[30]. Thus, Leo Ginsberg's children left Europe and avoided the Holocaust.

Louisa and Jacques Dreyfus

Clothilde Rieser's uncle Jakob Wimpfheimer, born in Ichenhausen, an uncle of Frederic Reitlinger, married Rosalie Frauenfeld, and before they emigrated to the USA had a few children[31].  The family settled in Philadelphia where Jakob became an industrialist[32], and where Clothilde Rieser's first cousins Louisa, and, later, Sam were born. In 1874, Louisa, with her widowed father, came to Paris to marry Jacques[33] Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew[34] born in Mulhouse  (1844 -1915). They were married in Paris on the 28th June of that year[35]. When Alsace-Lorraine became a Prussian territory in 1871 a clause in the Treaty of Frankfurt allowed residents in this region to opt for French citizenship before October 1872, provided that they became domiciled outside the Reichsland[36]. This created opportunities for Germans, like Leo Ginsberg, to take their place. Many of the French Jews who took advantage of this clause were from the middle- and upper-middle classes[37]. Included among them was the Dreyfus family who, with the exception of Jacques, did so.  Jacques Dreyfus and his family stayed in Mulhouse to salvage and run the family's textile interests.

The Dreyfus Affair

Jacques Dreyfus's youngest brother Alfred (1859 - 1935) joined the French army. By 1894, he was a captain with a very good service record. In October 1894, Alfred was arrested, and accused of having passed military secrets to the Germans. This was the beginning of the "Dreyfus Affair"[38], which unleashed a pent-up surge of anti-Semitism in France. A trial was held in camera. His sister-in-law's (Louisa's) American brother Sam Wimpfheimer who was in Paris at the time was one of three members of the family who waited in the corridors of the city's Cherche-Midi prison for news of the court's verdict[39]. Alfred was found guilty[40] and sentenced to perpetual exile. He was confined under the harsh conditions on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana.  His family and many others, notably the author Emile Zola, were convinced, correctly as it turned out, that Alfred had been wrongly accused, but needed to demonstrate it and to petition for a re-trial.  This proved to be very difficult.

Sam Wimpfheimer steps in

In April 1896 Mathieu, a brother-in-law of Louisa Dreyfus, accompanied by her brother Sam Wimpfheimer, acting as translator, went to London to approach the Cook Detective Agency for help[41]. Cook, with the co-operation of Clifford Millage, the Paris correspondent of the "Daily Chronicle", arranged for the paper to publish in September 1896[42], a bogus report that Alfred had escaped from exile. The French press took this up and reprinted it, without checking its veracity. This was soon shown to be untrue, the government denying it publicly. However, this ruse was sufficient to demonstrate to the French public that their press, much of it anti-Semitic, which had generally poisoned them against Dreyfus's innocence, was unreliable. This led to the turn in the tide for Alfred, and was one of the factors leading to his return to France for his re-trial in 1899 and his eventual pardon in September 1899. Securing Alfred's release and pardon was not cheap, but the family industries run by Jacques Dreyfus helped to supply the finance for this. Louisa lived on in France long after her husband died. In 1915, as a recent widow, Louisa joined the many members of the Dreyfus family who lived in Carpentras[43], in the south of France, but she died in Paris[44]. Unlike her cousin’s, Clothilde Rieser's, descendants who left Europe, many of Louisa Dreyfus's family had to suffer the traumas of Europe in the 1940s.

Destination and destiny

Clothilde Wimpfheimer, her uncles and some of her first cousins were born in Ichenhausen, many of whose inhabitants, as many as 40% in 1806, were Jewish during the 19th century[45]. In 1861, the rules determining the numbers of Jews allowed to live in a particular place (the Matrikelparagraphen) were repealed[46], allowing migration of Jews to the larger towns.  Amongst those who did this was Clothilde Rieser. In an exodus that began earlier, in the 1840s, many others left Bavaria to seek a better life abroad. A number of these including Clothilde Wimpfheimer's uncle Abraham Wimpfheimer[47] (born 1817) emigrated as a consequence of the revolutionary upheavals of 1848-49[48]. Most left Europe, the majority of those including Clothilde's uncles Abraham, Joseph and Jakob Wimpfheimer went to the USA, a land with its own, largely fulfilled, ideals of liberty and equality where fortunes were to be made. Unlike Europe, it was relatively free of endemic anti-Semitism.  A few, including Clothilde's cousin Frédéric Reitlinger, went to France with its promise, largely fulfilled, of "Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité". Like most countries in 19th century Europe France had a baseline of anti-Semitic sentiment, the level which was subject to considerable fluctuation[49]. In France, Jews were offered full civil rights in the early 1790s, and they entered French society, free to live as they wished. In contrast, German Jews first had to acculturate somewhat before being offered equal rights as German citizens (in the late 1860s)[50].  Although conditions improved for the Jews in Germany, after about 1870, the gentiles never offered the "fraternité", which despite serious hiccups, such as the Dreyfus Affair whose repercussions were to reverberate well into the 1930s[51], the French did. Moreover, the French people elected a Jewish Prime Minister, Léon Blum who unlike the British Prime Minister Disraeli, born a Jew, did not feel the need to shed his religion. Unfortunately, the conditions that made France attractive to, and hospitable towards, the Jews, were unexpectedly destroyed in 1940. The Germans once again invaded most of the country; the Vichy regime changed the ideals of France to "Travail, Famille, Patrie " - and this "famille" harshly excluded the Jews.

However hard the Jews in Germany tried to acculturate and assimilate, their compatriots did not reward their efforts wholeheartedly [52]. An early sense of this may have subconsciously influenced Clothilde to encourage Hedwig Rieser and also her three siblings to leave the country. They went to South Africa[53], a destination rarely chosen by German Jews in the 19th century. Hedwig Rieser's groom, Franz Ginsberg, Leo Ginsberg's half-brother, had left Germany for South Africa some years before her. Franz's father, Nathan, had had to change the direction of his career from university academic to school teacher because of Germany's restrictions of the range of employment open to Jews[54]. This experience and the anti-Semitism that accompanied the economic crash in  Germany in 1873[55] may have made Nathan Ginsberg more farsighted than many of his contemporaries about the future of Jews in Germany. Many of his children (7 out of his 11 children who survived into adulthood) went abroad, most of them to South Africa, probably on their father's advice, and this saved them from a frightening future.

In this article, I have tried to show how family history research can illustrate in a personal way events that find their way into the history books, and how a migrant's choice of destination can affect his or her family's destiny.

[1] See "A History of Germany 1815-1990" by W. Carr, publ. by Edward Arnold: London, 1991, pages 113-115. For much more detail, see "The Fall of Paris" by A. Horne, publ. by Pan Books:London, 2002, chapter 3 and also  "The Franco-Prussian War" by G. Wawro, publ. by Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2003. NB.  what started as a Franco-Prussian War ended as a Franco-German War, as during that period the German states underwent unification.
[2] I have a copy of her Enthaltungs-Schein (a school certificate of sorts) dated Ichenhausen,May 1859
[3] Jakob and his wife Rosalie arrived in New York from Bremen via Southampton on 18th March 1852 on the steamship "Washington", The ship's manifest (found for me by Alice Josephs on www.ancestry.com ) gives Rosalie's age as 31, and Jakob's as 31 yr. and 8 mos. on that date. So Rosalie was born about 1851.
[4] From the 1870 US Census, Louisa's year of birth appears to be 1851, but was actually 1852. This same census shows Sam to have been born in 1853. Assuming that the age difference is correct Sam was probably born about 1854. (Census from www.ancestry.com. , thanks to Miriam Margolyes).
[5]Nathan was a founder (in 1861), and also director of, the Jewish Community School in Beuthen For information about the Jüdische Gemeindeschul see Jüdisches Gemeindeblatt für Beuthen, Gleiwitz & Hindenburg, No. 19, 31 Dec. 1936.
And "Jüden in Oberschlesien", Teil 1, by P. Maser and A. Weiser, publ. by gebr. Mann Verlag: Berlin, 1992, page 81.
[6] After his mother died Leo's father re-married. Leo's stepmother Rosalie Berg (1830 - 1916) produced 12 half-siblings to keep him company, including Clothide Wimpfheimer's son-in-law Franz.
[7] See "Kultur and Civilisation, after the Franco-Prussian War, a Debate between German and French Jews", by S. Cresti, a paper in EURONAT and IAPASIS Joint Seminar Series on The Stranger 2002 , European University Institute.
[8] Information from his great granddaughter Wendy Wayburne (1943-2004), and also from another independent source Estrid Else Hansen(1904- after 1988) who was a daughter of Hermine Ginsberg(1865-1940), one of Leo's half-siblings. Incidentally, German Jews exhibited this same patriotism again in 1914. An enquiry made to the Prussian Military Archives was in vain as the records pertinent to the period when Leo was serving, stored at Potsdam, were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945 (information from K. Erdmann at the German Bundesarchiv.)
[9] See "The Social and religious Transformation of Alsace-Lorraine Jewry 1871 - 1914" by V. Caron in Leo Baeck Institute Year Book XXX, publ. by Secker & Warburg: London, 1985, page 335.
[10] Information from the archives of Strasbourg, kindly researched for me by Pierre Kogan.
[11] See Cape Mercury (publ. in King Williamstown, South Africa), Sept 7th., 1899. Skarbina (1849-1910) was born in Berlin, son of a goldsmith from Zagreb. After a successful artistic career he became a professor at the Kgl. Akademie der Künste in Berlin in 1888. He became a founding member of the Berlin Secession movement in 1898, and took part in their exhibitions of 1899, 1900 and 1901. (see http://www.musee-imaginaire.de/lesesaal/skarbina/biografi.htm ).)
[12] Early life of Frédéric from article in "The Jewish Encyclopaedia", accessed via http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com.
[13] Hedwig Rieser married Franz Ginsberg in 1888, in Rouxville, South Africa.
[14] The Siege of Paris lasted 20th September 1870- 28th January 1871. (See Horne, above)
[15] The English translation of this book, from which I quote,was published in 1915 by Chatto and Windus, London. It was translated into English by his nephew Henry Scipio Reitlinger (1885-1951), a graduate of Kings College Cambridge and connoisseur of art. (See his obituary in King's College Annual Report, 1950). Also, Henry's younger brother Gerald (1900-1971), also a connoisseur of art, and a writer on the subject, was a historian, being the author of the well-known account of the Holocaust, "The Final Solution" first published in 1953, as well as other books about the activities of the National Socialists. Gerald's sister Nellie (1892-1978) was married to the English popular historian Philip Guedalla(1883-1944).
[16] See "Les Ballons d'Espoir" by H. Azeau, publ. by Editions Robert Laffort: Paris, 1987, page 157.
[17] They landed in the Bois de Vigneulles, 3 kilometres from Vigneulle-lés-Hattonchâtel (See Azeau, page 157).
[19] From a biographical note by Henry Scipio Reitlinger in his translation of Frédéric's account of his balloon trip.
[21] See Caron, page 324.
[22] Franz Ginsberg who was son of Nathan and Leo's stepmother Rosalie Ginsberg (née Berg, 1830-1916) was married to Clothilde Rieser's daughter Hedwig.
[23] King Williamstown was in the heart of an area where many Germans had settled after the end of the Crimean War: many of the Europeans who lived in the area were German speakers.
[24] This makes his date of arrival about 1894. He lived in Cape Town and Johannesburg before he moved to King Williamstown (see obituary in Cape Mercury, 14th October 1941) The earliest reference I can find to him is in the Cape Mercury of King Williamstown of  January 29th., 1900 when he and his uncle Gustav Ginsberg (1872-1920)  were members of an orchestra, which was helping the German Club of King Williamstown to celebrate the Kaiser's birthday.
[25] He was a director from before 1901 until 1940, just before his death. (Information from minutes of the company's AGMs preserved in the Amathole Museum in King Williamstown.)
[26] See Cape Mercury, 7th., April, 1904.
[27]Their photographic studio was the first such establishment in South Africa to be run solely by women (Information from Stephanie Victor, a historian at the Amathole museum, King Williamstown.) The first advertisement for their studio was in the Cape Mercury of 1st. December, 1899.
[28] As such uncle-niece marriages were not permitted in South Africa, they had to get married in Laurenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa, (Information from W. Wayburne). Uncle-niece marriages are permitted in Judaism, but not in Islam, and clearly not in South Africa in the early 20th century. In the US State of Rhode Island they were also forbidden, but an exception to this rule was made for Jewish uncle-niece marriages. (See, for example, http://www.consang.net/summary.html ).
[29] The Rosenstein sisters were children of Simon and Henriette Rosenstein.
[30] Information from his daughter Mrs. K. Sapiro who lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
[31] Information from Prof. Georg Kreuzer, the archivist for Günzburg, the administrative district in which Ichenhausen is located.
[32] See http://www.lizeray.com/arbregen/pafg611.htm and  http://www.judaicultures.info/Parcours-de-grandes-familles  (this web-site has much of interest about noteworthy families in Belfort).
[33] Although Jacque's parents who were German speakers could hardly speak French, they gave their son a French name. This was a sign that the family was becoming acculturated in favour of the French. See "Dreyfus, a Family Affair", by M. Burns, publ. by Harper Collins:New York, 1991, page 29.
[34] Most of the Jews in what was pre-1870 France lived in Alsace-Lorraine. They were almost all Ashkenazi.  See Cresti.
[35] Information on the marriage from the archives in Paris sent to me by Eve-Line Blum.
[36] See Burns, page 60.
[37] See Caron, page 320.
[38] For accounts of this see for example Burns, and also "The Affair", by J-D Bredin (transl. by J. Mehlman), publ. by George Brazillier: New York, 1986.
[39] See Burns page 135.
[40] Part of his punishment was being stripped of his braid and buttons and having his sword broken in front of his comrades and the public. This more than anything else was the greatest cause of Alfred's subsequent suffering.
[41] See Burns, pages 178-179
[42] See http://www.columbia.edu/cu/french/ maison/conferences/jaccuse/Pages.pdf .
[43] See Burns, page 376.
[44] Information from J-B. Ponthus, a great great grandson of Louisa and Jacques Dreyfus.
[45] By 1830, there was a peak in the Jewish population of the village, reaching 1300 souls See the exhibition catalogue "Village Jews - The Example of Ichenhausen", publ. by Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte: Munich, 1992, page 7.
[46] Ibid., page 8.
[47] See "Here am I", by S.J. Woolf, publ. by Random House: New York, 1941 page 4.
[48] See "Between Orthodoxy and Reform, Revolution and reaction: The Jewish Community in Ichenhausen, 1813-1861" by L. Harries-Schumann in Leo Baeck Institute Year Book XXX, publ. by Secker & Warburg: London, 1997, pages  42-44.
[49] See "Vichy France and the Jews", by M.R. Marrus and R.O.Paxton, publ. by Schocken Books: New York, 1983, pages 25-29.
[50] See Benbessa , quoted by Cresti.
[51] See Marrus and Paxton, page 32.
[52] For a discussion of this complex subject, see "Jewish Self-hatred", by S. Gilman, publ. by Johns Hopkins: Baltimore, 1986, and "The Pity of it All", by A. Elon, publ. by Allen Lane: London, 2002.
[53] Hedwig Rieser went to South Africa in 1887, and her brother Emanuel in 1881.
[54] See my article in Stammbaum, Winter 2006.
[55] See for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Germany