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A Synagogue in Ehrstadt

Finding My Cahn Family Roots

“I had spent three years researching the Cahn family by conventional means, essential preparation for that one leap that in 20 minutes catapulted me from ignorance to a massive family tree....”

By Martin Cahn as told to Nancy Siegel


Mazel Tov in Jewish star

Star with mem-tet for "mazel tov" on Ehrstadt synagogue, built 1836


My Jewish ancestry comes from my father, who left Fuerth, Germany, as a child refugee in 1933, and even though he talked about relatives, I had always assumed that the family history there was a closed book.
Then, in 1998, I received an unexpected letter from a distant relative who provided me with an extensive family tree--dating back to the early 18th century--for my paternal grandmother’s mother’s Geiershofer family. Further research using resources such as JewishGen, and my father’s 2002 visit to his childhood home of Fuerth where he met a wonderful lady, Gisela Blume, who had researched all the Feurth families, provided me with details regarding my grandmother’s father’s Heinemann family. So much for the lack of information! I now had a very full comprehension of my paternal grandmother’s Geiershofer and Heinemann family lines.

Emil Selma and Baby Stephanie c1889 Wertheim am Main

Emil, Selma, and baby Stephanie ca. 1889
Wertheim am Main

Yet I still knew little of those with my family name, the family of my paternal grandfather’s father, Emil Cahn, who died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. I was determined to learn more about my Cahn family history, but all I had to go on were a few memories from my father, Robert Wolfgang Cahn.

My father told me that his father, Max Martin Cahn (for whom I was named), had been born in Stuttgart and that his grandfather, Emil Cahn, was a cantor in the synagogue there. My father remembered hearing Emil sing, showing off his beautiful, deep bass voice. My father also remembered accompanying his father to visit with Emil in Brussels in 1938. They had pleaded with my great-grandparents, Emil and Selma, to leave, to use the US visa they had gotten with great difficulty. Unfortunately, they chose to stay.

The Cahn Family of Wertheim am Main
I began my Cahn family research in 2002 by turning to JewishGen. I found many references for the Cahn name in Germany, but none seemed related to my family. Then, looking through the Family Tree of the Jewish People, I found an entry for my grandfather’s elder sister, Stephanie – who I remember as a fine if rather formidable woman (especially to a young child)--and learned that she had been born in Wertheim am Main, Germany. This was an important find!

"They provided an address for Langguth but no email, and so I put off writing to him and eventually forgot about him. Only later in my research did I realize how much time I would have saved if I had written to this most helpful man earlier!"

A great deal of useful--and often necessary--information is out there, and we should always be ready to extend our search beyond the internet. Martin's story also reminds us to follow up potential resources in a timely way!

I found the website for Wertheim am Main and sent an email to the Archives asking for information on the birth of my grandfather. I received a reply telling me (in German) that all the births were recorded in the Catholic Parish Church of St. Venatius up until 1870, and that these documents were held by the Land Archives in Karlsruhe. They gave me the email address of the Archives and also suggested that I contact Erich Langguth, the former archivist, who lived nearby. They provided an address for Langguth but no email, and so I put off writing to him and eventually forgot about him. Only later in my research did I realize how much time I would have saved if I had written to this most helpful man earlier!

The Archives in Karlsruhe replied to my inquiry, informing me that my great-grandfather, Emil (Elias) Kahn, had been born to Moritz Kahn and Johanna (nee Friedman) in Wertheim in 1861. Further research yielded a picture of Moritz’s grave and the information that he was for a long time head of the Jewish Community in Wertheim. He was no insignificant soul, Moritz! But where did Moritz come from? There was no more information on him. I had hit a brick wall.

Erich Langguth, archivist at Wertheim
Erich Langguth, archivist
at Wertheim, photographed during a visit by Martin

A few years later, I contacted a Wertheim-based gentleman interested in genealogy who I found on the Internet, asking him for advice. He, too, said that I had to contact Erich Langguth, the gentleman the Archives service had suggested three years earlier! So, finally, I penned a letter to Herr Langguth, giving him the information I had gathered and asking him if he had more information about Emil Cahn and his family.

Ten days later, I received my reply. Erich had been planning to document all the Jewish families in Wertheim and had decided to start with the Cahn family! He listed Emil and his seven brothers, including where each one lived in 1897--- this information certainly provided material for research. The earliest records had their names registered as Kahn but, from the mid-late 1860s, they changed it to Cahn. The key bit of information Erich provided, however, was that my great-great-grandfather Moritz, the son of Isaac Cahn and Sophia Rosenfeld, was born in Ehrstadt in 1835. Where was Ehrstadt? I had never heard of it.

Finding Ehrstadt
I searched the Internet for “Jews Ehrstadt” and found the Alemannia-Judaica website. This gave details of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries remaining in Germany. There was no cemetery in Ehrstadt, a tiny village near Sinsheim with 600 inhabitants, but what a surprise---the website had a page regarding the Ehrstadt synagogue. I looked through this web page and there, in the middle of the German text, was the name Elias Kahn! The name Elias appears in brackets in my great-grandfather Emil’s birth record--presumably this was his Hebrew name recorded by the evangelical pastor—so, I thought, this Elias must be a relation. But how could I find out for certain how this Elias fitted into my family?

This is where JewishGen worked its magic! I had no other information and nowhere to turn. I entered the name Cahn into the JewishGen Family Finder and, to my surprise, found someone else who was researching the Cahn name in Ehrstadt! My Cahns had been there all along, listed in the Family Finder by a Ned Lewison, but until now I hadn’t known enough to look for Cahns from Ehrstadt!

I sent an email to Ned and within 20 minutes I had his reply! He confirmed that Isaac (the brother of his great-great-great-grandmother) was the son of Elias Kahn. Now I had confirmation that Elias was my great-great-great-great-grandfather! I was able to add a large number of relatives to Ned’s family tree and he was able to add over a thousand names to mine. Through Family Finder I also connected with another researcher who was researching a different Ehrstadt family. She generously provided me with helpful information about Ehrstadt.

My fifth cousin Ned has proven to be an invaluable ally in my research. I wanted to trace the family of Emil’s brother David, who immigrated to the US at the age of 16, and to determine if there were any living descendants. With the help of Ned, and some extensive research into census records and newspaper obituaries, I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with David’s descendant Michael, Michael’s wife, and their five children. Ned and I identified many other distant cousins, and I continue to search for descendants.

Verses in Hebrew from Psalm 118

Hebrew verse from Psalm 118 over lintel of Ehrstadt synagogue:
"This is the gate unto The Lord, the Righteous shall enter into it."

The Synagogue of Elias Kahn
But the real pleasure was to come in Ehrstadt. I contacted the producer of the Alemannia-Judaica website, Joachim Hahn, a teacher in Stuttgart. He was very excited and said it was such a coincidence that I had contacted him, because the synagogue in Ehrstadt had been built in 1836 due to the persistence of my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Elias Kahn, who had worked for 12 years to raise the money to build it.

Ehrstadt synagogue before restoration, 1985

Ehrstadt synagogue in 1985, before restoration

Joachim told me that the Jewish community had eventually declined, as did many Jewish communities in the German countryside in the second half of the 19th century, as people moved to larger towns. In 1912, the synagogue building had been sold off as an agricultural barn. Over the years it had become dilapidated, but as a barn it had avoided being torched on Kristallnacht. Now the community wanted to restore it as a community centre, and it had taken them twelve years to raise the money. The work was under way at that time, and the building was to open in June. Shortly after connecting with Joachim Hahn, I received an invitation from the village head inviting us to the opening ceremony.

Cahn family and Ehrstadt synagogue Martin Cahn (2d from L) and family in front of restored Ehrstadt synagogue

How could we refuse? We are descendants of the Elias Kahn who had built the synagogue – and my father’s family has indeed proved to be the only surviving descendants of Elias, as far as we know, that still bear the Cohen name. In June 2005, three months after I discovered my Cahn origins, my wife and I spent a wonderful sunny day in the beautiful village of Ehrstadt in southern Germany, as guests of the local committee responsible for restoring the synagogue. The restoration was impeccable, supervised by an architect from nearby Eppingen who was fascinated by the Jewish history of the region.

The opening ceremony for the restored synagogue was a moving and delightful event. We heard how Jews had been welcomed with open arms to repopulate the area in the 17th century, after the Thirty Years War had nearly destroyed the population. We met the local landed gentry, who showed us the house they thought Elias had probably lived in – they felt sure he had been an agent for the local nobility. Along with other family members, we have revisited Ehrstadt every couple of years to see the wonderful synagogue in the village where our ancestors lived and prayed.

I had spent three years researching the Cahn family by conventional means, essential preparation for that one leap that in 20 minutes catapulted me from ignorance to a massive family tree and an invitation to visit my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s birthplace as guest of honour. Thank you, JewishGen!

May 2010
Cambridge, UK and Myslenice, Poland

On Tue, 8 Mar 2005, Martin writes to Ned Lewison:
I saw your notice on the Jewish Gen family finder. My gggrandfather Moritz Cahn was born in Ehrstadt in 1835 son of Isaak Cahn and Sophia Rosenfeld. I just got this information today from the Archives in Wertheim where Moritz became a businessman and head of the Jewish Gemeinde.

Does this tie in with your family tree by any chance????

Martin Cahn

Twenty minutes later, Ned replies:
Re: Isaak Cahn
Tuesday, March 08, 2005 12:13:59 PM
From: "Edward M Lewison"
To: Martin Cahn

Martin -

Sounds good to me.  My g-g-g-grandmother Sophie Cahn Strouse (1811 Ehrstadt - 1892 Baltimore) had a brother Isaac Cahn born 18 Oct. 1809 most likely in Ehrstadt.  (Below are the first 3 generations of my information.)

If you like c. 1809 as your g-g-g-grandfather's date of birth, then I think we must be 5th cousins.  Please let me know what you think.

Thanks for writing,
Ned Lewison
Baltimore, Maryland, USA

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Research Notes and Hints

Martin found an entry for his great-aunt Stephanie by searching the Family Tree of the Jewish People (FTJP), where you can post your own family tree and search in other JewishGenners' trees for names that you're researching. Once he had discovered the village where his great-great-grandfather was born, he found someone else who was researching the Cahn family name in Ehrstadt using the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF). These databases and resources are free to all researchers.

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Updated by MH on Monday, May 24, 2010.

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