Phil Rabinowitz was “very emotional” as he held the Torah scroll at the first religious service since before the Holocaust at the Austrian synagogue where his grandfather served as cantor.
Rabinowitz and his wife, Marilyn, of Highland Park, were invited to the Ehemalige Synagogue in St. Polten, which was heavily damaged during Kristallnacht in 1938, for several days of commemorative events for descendants of former members. Converging on the town for the June 19-30 gathering were some 100 people representing 70 families from around the world. The 50,000-person municipality is about 40 miles west of Vienna.
In a phone interview with NJJN, Phil described the intensity of his emotions while visiting the shul. “To stand up there holding a Torah while everybody recited Kaddish — there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” he said.
The synagogue — which was used by the Nazis as a transfer station for Russian prisoners and as a supply depot — was restored 28 years ago “to its full splendor,” Marilyn said, and the house attached to the building, in which Phil’s grandparents lived, became the Institute for the History of the Jews in Austria.
The Rabinowitzes made the journey with his twin brother, Louis, of Cherry Hill and his sister, Marion, of Marlborough, Mass.
It was the family’s second journey to the historic synagogue. In 2008, Marilyn, Phil, and his siblings went to St. Polten for the 20th anniversary of the institute.
Phil’s grandfather, Philipp Wolf Rabinowitsch — for whom he is named — served as cantor at the synagogue from 1899 to 1921. He also served as the town shohet, or kosher butcher, and as a religious school teacher. Before the Holocaust, St. Polten and the surrounding area had 200,000 Jews and 96 synagogues.
As a young boy, Phil’s father, Emil, sang in the synagogue’s choir. The cantor’s last name was changed to Rabinowitz by immigration officials when he arrived at Ellis Island in 1922.
“The story is that the synagogue was rebuilt in 1913,” Phil said. “Emperor Franz Joseph, who was very friendly toward the Jews, came to the dedication and my father, as a nine-year-old in the choir, sang for him. My grandfather sang Mah Tovu.”
Phil said his father, who died 14 years ago at 98, told him that anti-Semitism was so rampant in the area that Jews started to emigrate after World War I. Unfortunately, his grandfather, the cantor, died of pleurisy at age 51, three years after arriving in the United States and two weeks before he was to start a cantorial job in Lowell, Mass. After his death, Phil’s grandmother, Amelia, moved from Boston to the Bronx to be near a daughter who lived there and another daughter who had moved to Maplewood.
In Austria, their hosts gave the visitors “a tour of the city where our families had lived,” Phil said. “We found the town to be very friendly. As we walked through town, everyone was very hospitable to all of us. The government officials talked a lot about the Holocaust, which is taught in the schools there.”
They also attended a reception with the town’s mayor and a program in the offices of the regional government of lower Austria.
Marilyn said her husband knew a lot about his family history, but a database that had been set up proved helpful to returning descendants to discover information about their forebears.
Although Phil said there were many memorable moments on the trip, none was more exciting than the memorial service held at the synagogue — the first service held there since 1938. It was conducted by Cantor Paul Heller of Great Britain, who was among the descendants; among the attendees was Vienna’s chief rabbi, Arie Folger.
Heller knew about Phil Rabinowitz’s connection to the synagogue, Marilyn said, so “in this special memorial service, with the chanting of ‘El Maleh Rahamim’ prayer, he asked Phil to hold the Torah.”
The couple, who are longtime members of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, also toured the synagogue’s cemetery, which is maintained by the institute. There, Phil located the grave of his great-grandmother, Matilda Neumann.
In the cemetery is a monument for 258 Jews buried in a mass grave who had been killed by Nazis two days before the war’s end.
“It was a mass killing just for revenge of men, women, and children because they knew the war was ending…. There are now only two elderly Jews left in town,” Marilyn said, adding that the descendants were found through a two-year project conducted by local high school students “to locate Jews who formerly lived there because town officials wanted them to realize what happened there.”