Bernhard Gradwohl – my Great-grandfather

Bernhard Gradwohl was born in Hörstein in 1859 as the second child to his parents Mathes and Bluemchen Gradwohl. Similarly to his brothers he engaged in trade and according to the records was a merchant. Again, similarly to his other siblings he was married in Hörstein, on June 3, 1886, to Mathilde Bornheimer from Miltenberg, Bavaria (a town close to Hörstein), who was six years older than him. After they got married, they moved to Frankfurt, where he eventually opened a “Kaffee, Oel und Kolonialwaren” shop – a type of an all-purpose shop, where one can buy imported foodstuff (not fresh) but also pots and pans, brooms, etc. The first address (1896) of Bernhard’s shop was 6, Broenner St. par terre (ground floor). The place was enlarged in 1900 to include the first floor and then again in 1905, when the Hinterhaus (the back house) was added. Initially he had a business partner – Ernst Ascher, and the business was registered as “Gradwohl & Ascher”.Since 1900 the business was registered on his name only. In 1913 the business moved to Seume St. 3, and remained there for over 25 years – until Bernhard’s death. 

Why did Bernhard leave Hörstein, his ancestral home town and move to the big city? Was he adventurous? Did his marriage with Mathilde Bornheimer provide him with funds to engage in this venture? At any rate, it is a clear breakup with his family’s tradition and despite the fact that Frankfurt is not so far away, he had to adapt to a very different way of life in the big city.

Frankfurt was a major commercial center and Jews lived and were active in the city’s commercial life for many centuries. The story of the Jewish community there is one of prosperity and success on the one hand and of deprivations, atrocities, massacres and expulsions on the other. The Jewish Ghetto (“Judengasse”), a location that was the only place where Jews could live for centuries, was a narrow street, where just a few hundred persons lived initially; eventually it housed 3000 persons in very congested conditions. Given the fact that houses were wooden, they would easily burn or set on fire by outsiders, which actually happened several times. Yet this is the location from where the famous Rothschild banking dynasty emerged, and where important Jewish thinkers such as Abraham Geiger, who developed Reform Judaism and Samson Raphael Hirsch, who established Neo-Orthodoxy, lived and practiced. 

The latter part of the 19thcentury, the time Bernhard Gradwohl came to Frankfurt, was an era of prosperity and relative stability under a unified Germany within the Prussian Empire. Jews, now emancipated, were relatively prosperous and were able to reside in different parts of the city. Bernhard chose to reside and have his business in the East End (“Ostende”) – the Orthodox community, where many Jewish institutions existed. Although he changed addresses several times, he never left that community. 

Bernhard and Mathilde’s marriage was childless and lasted only 3 years. Mathilde died in 1889 at the age of 36 of blood poisoning. She is buried at the Rat Beil Jewish Orthodox cemetery in Frankfurt.  

Two years after his first wife’s death, Bernhard married Cornelia (Knendel) Wurzmann from Fuerth, Bavaria (born 1866). The couple had two daughters: Betty, my grand-mother (born 1891) and Mathilde (born 1894, possibly named after his first wife).In later correspondence and titles for pictures she is called Hannah or Henny. Apparently, Mathilde was her official German name and Hannah – her Jewish name. It seems her family preferred to call her by the latter.

We have the following addresses for Bernhard’s residences in Frankfurt: Hanauer Landstraße 20, third floor (1891), Grüne Straße 31, ground floor (1896), Hermesweg 20, ground floor (1900), Hermesweg 20, ground and first floor (1905) – he was apparently able to enlarge his residence, Maulbeerstraße 4(1908), Bleichstraße 25(1909), Seumestraße 3(1913-1930) – his business listed at the same address. As already indicated, all addresses are in the Ostende (East End) quarter of Frankfurt. 

Given his residences, it can be deduced that Bernhard was a member in the “Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft” (“Israelite Religious Society”) and prayed in their synagogue, Adat Yeshurun, which was first on Schützenstraße 14. The rabbi in this synagogue (before Bernhard’s time) was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. 

Rabbi Hirsch was the founder and leader of the movement of Contemporary Orthodox Judaism (or Neo-Orthodoxy), which advocated a synthesis between the modern way of life and the traditional Jewish one. It was a reaction to Reform Judaism that developed in Germany in the 19thcentury and emphasized the integration into the general society by relinquishing many Jewish rites and practices. The Neo-Orthodoxy advocated integration into the general German society rather than leading a separate way of life (as Jews did for centuries) but without giving up their distinct Jewish identity. The slogan Rabbi Hirsch used was:  תורה ודרך ארץ– Torah and The Way of the Land,namely combining an orthodox Jewish way of life with the local one.   

We have the following information about Bernhard’s life in Frankfurt. In the domain of business, we know that he separated from his partner (for unknown reasons) in 1900 and operated the business by himself. The fact that it lasted proves that it was stable. According to the registration at the State Tax Authority, Bernhard Gradwohl’s business ceased to exist on 31.12.1924 and was deregistered on 07.09.1925. Right afterwards, on the same day, a new business was registered under his name – Representation in Wine and Spirits (wine & spirits shop), which he was operating since 01.01.1925, so actually for about 9 months he operated two businesses. He managed the latter shop for about two years as it stopped functioning on 31.03.1927 and was finally deregistered on 28.04.1927, three years before Bernhard’s death. 

Bernhard’s family life was tumultuous. His second wife Cornelia died in 1909. A year and a half after her death, Bernhard remarried for the third time – Johanna Sternberg (born in Frankfurt on 1871). Several months later, in October 1911, his older daughter Betty left home and the city of Frankfurt and moved to Berlin. About a decade later, on June 22, 1922, we have records that show his second daughter Mathilde/Henny married Jacob Haas, a businessman/trader from Frankfurt. Haas was born in 1886 in Oberwesel (Kreis Sankt Goar), and his address in Frankfurt was Sandweg 24. A year and a half after the marriage – on January 12, 1924 Jacob went to the US, apparently at the invitation of his uncle – S. W. Schuster. His wife Mathilde joined him the following year, arriving in New York on Dec. 10, 1925.

Bernhard died on March 28, 1930. He is buried next to his second wife Cornelia, the mother of his daughters, which suggests that he bought a grave-site for himself at the cemetery when burying his wife Cornelia. 

His third wife Johanna lived during the years 1933-39 on Rhönstraße 39. She died in 1940 of breast cancer and is buried too at the same cemetery. Thus, Bernhard and his three wives are all buried at the Orthodox section of the Rat Beil cemetery, actually not too far from Rabbi Hirsch.