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My Rehfisch Family – Part 1:

Who Was Sally Rehfisch?

By Peter Vanlaw

rehfisch headstone

Headstone of Sally Rehfisch


The headstone pictured here is in the Weissensee Cemetery in Berlin, Germany. It helped me solve a long-term question of mine: who was Sally Rehfisch? Or more specifically, what was Sally Rehfisch's gender.

I must give credit to a fellow JewishGenner, Bert de Jong, for helping me find the answer, plus a whole lot more.

Bert lives in Amsterdam and has been photographing headstones since he was twelve years old. In 2012, his hobby took him to the Weissenssee Cemetery where he photographed hundreds of headstones in answer to numerous requests from members of JewishGen, including myself.

The results were overwhelming for me because I not only found the answers to my Sally Rehfisch question, but also learned that the Jewish burial ground is a final resting place for many more ancestors of mine on the Rehfisch side of my family.

In addition to Sally Rehfisch, and the three relatives whose headstones are pictured below—Caecilie, Max and Aron Rehfisch, Bert also found these additional Rehfishes buried in the Weissenssee Cemetery:

  • Irma Rehfisch

  • Margarethe Rehfisch

  • Siegmund Rehfisch

  • Hedwig Rehfisch

  • Otilie Rehfisch nee Lipschuetz

vanlaw headstones
Headstones of Caecilie, Max, and Eugen Aron Rehfisch

But getting back to my search: my mother's maiden name was Rehfisch. When she passed away in 1998, I found a few old letters of hers that she'd kept in a box in a hall closet. Since they were hand written in German, I couldn't read them. So, I filed them away for the time being.

But then I discovered that she'd also left me half a dozen family photo albums. That's when I really got the urge to find out more about my family, and to identify all the nameless faces that appeared in those photos. I grew up knowing nothing about them, but assumed that many were relatives and possibly even close family members.

I wasn't sure how to identify them unless maybe those old letters of Mom's contained some answers. However, that would require someone to translate them. And that was a long time before I joined JewishGen with its access to ViewMate and the many members who could translate old German "Suetterlin Schrift".

Nevertheless, I did have access to the internet and was able to find a German woman in Kansas who could translate the letters and help me begin the rudiments of a family tree.

One of them was from Mom’s grandfather, Isidor Rehfisch, who wrote it in 1917, near the end of World War I. It was addressed to his daughter-in-law, Bertha Rehfisch, my grandmother, and described what was essentially a family reunion, reuniting five of his six grown children. Since Bertha and my grandfather Louis were not able to be there, Isidor sent her the letter to recap what they'd missed.

From his description I learned that four of the siblings were males. Their names were Berthold, Albert, Max and Leopold. While two of them were currently on leave from the war and the German Army, the fifth sibling was always referred to as Sally.

So, not knowing any better, I believed Sally was a woman. Mentioned a few times in the letter, Sally's name was usually combined with another diminutive, "Julchen", who I guessed was someone's little girl. Trying to build a scenario, I assumed that Sally and Julchen were possibly mother and child – maybe even Isidore's daughter and grand-daughter.

Unfortunately, my translator in Kansas couldn't solve it, either. So, I didn't learn the truth for more than a decade.

It was only when I finally got the Weissenssee Cemetery information from Bert de Jong that I realized that my earlier assessment about Sally could not have been more wrong!

She was really a he.

Isidore actually had six sons and Sally was one of them. Also in the German Army, he too was on furlough from the war. But he had the good fortune to be reassigned from his battalion on the front lines to a new post with the Army Finance Office in Berlin. And "Julchen" was not Isidor's grand-daughter either, but actually Sally's wife, Julie.

But what had made it so difficult to identify Sally's gender for such a long time was the fact the he never ever used his real given name, which was Salomon, of course.

Whether or not he felt it was too Jewish, we'll never know. But there's a certain irony to it, because he was able to maintain his nickname until he died; in public records and even on his grave stone, which continue to identify him as "Sally Rehfisch.”

Although Julie Rehfisch's name also appears on the tombstone under Sally's, along with their eldest daughter, Herta, neither of the two women are buried there. Their names must have been added later, as a tribute, since, sadly, both Julie and Herta perished in Sobibor in 1943.

They were probably added after World War II by Sally and Julie's younger daughters, Erna and Margot. Erna survived the war in Queens, New York, and Margot in the Netherlands, while Sally passed away a decade earlier in 1933.

NOTE: If any of you are interested in researching the Weissenssee Cemetery for other burials, Bert de Jong provided me with an Excel spread sheet containing nearly 7,500 names of folks interred there. If you contact me at, I'd be happy to email you a copy.

July 2016
Los Angeles, California, USA

A slightly different version of this story and other stories are included on Peter Vanlaw’s Blog:

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Research Notes and Hints

Peter learned of Bert de Jong through JewishGen’s German-Jewish Special Interest Group (SIG):

Further information regarding the Weissensee Cemetery can be found on the website of the Jewish Community of Berlin:

Peter’s story highlights the important family information that can be gathered from headstones. JewishGen’s Online Worldwide Burial Register (JOWBR) is a helpful resource:

Although JewishGen’s Family Finder did not play a role in this story, Peter entered the Rehfisch surname into the Family Finder database. If you have not yet done so, we encourage you to add the surnames you are researching to this valuable resource:

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Updated on July 10, 2016 .

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