Reese Lichtenstein and her grandmother, taken shortly before Irene Wolff’s death in January 2020. Reese has her grandmother’s image tattooed on her forearm. (Photo/Petal and Stone-Nan Patriquin); Part of the porcelain set kept by the Moritz family in Germany.
Reese Lichtenstein and her grandmother, taken shortly before Irene Wolff’s death in January 2020. Reese has her grandmother’s image tattooed on her forearm. (Photo/Petal and Stone-Nan Patriquin); Part of the porcelain set kept by the Moritz family in Germany.

From Germany to America: A family’s legacy, preserved in porcelain

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On Reese Lichtenstein’s left forearm is a tattoo of her beloved grandmother’s face. On her right is the German phrase “Langsam werden wir wieder Menschen,” which translates to “Slowly, we became human again.” The words were part of her grandmother’s written testimony about the first time she ate with a fork and knife from a plate, after being liberated from Bergen-Belsen.

Irene Wolff Lichtenstein died in January 2020. “Out of everyone in my family, I’m the keeper of her story,” said Lichtenstein, 31, of Oakland.

The first time Lichtenstein heard the phrase was in 2012, when she traveled to Germany to participate in the dialogue program One by One, which brings together descendants of Holocaust survivors and Nazi perpetrators.

Last month she made another trip to Germany, this time for a deeply personal reason: The Lichtenstein family was invited to retrieve a family heirloom that, until a few months ago, they had no idea existed.

The story begins in Lehmen, a small town between Cologne and Frankfurt where Irene’s great-uncle Siegmund Feiner lived with his wife Thekla and daughter Johanna. (Irene and her family lived in nearby Kobern-Gondorf.) The Feiners were friendly with their non-Jewish neighbors the Marxes. Eberhard Marx was the town’s sole teacher from 1933 to 1942, and when the Nazis forbade Jewish children from attending school, Marx taught them for a time — there was only a handful of Jewish families in town — secretly, in the evenings.

The Feb. 27, 1920 wedding of Reese Lichtenstein’s great-grandparents. Standing on the right side are Siegmund (bald, full beard) and Thekla Feiner, who gave their dishes to a neighbor in 1942.
The Feb. 27, 1920 wedding of Reese Lichtenstein’s great-grandparents. Standing on the right side are Siegmund (bald, full beard) and Thekla Feiner, who gave their dishes to a neighbor in 1942.

Which is why the Feiners, feeling particularly sentimental about a set of porcelain dishes, asked the Marx family for a favor: On the eve of their deportation in 1942, Siegmund Feiner asked his neighbor to keep the porcelain safe, believing they would one day be back to retrieve it. The Marx family took the dishes at great personal risk, as helping Jews in this way was illegal.

The Feiners were deported to three different concentration camps. None survived.

Eberhard Marx’s daughter, who was friends with the Feiners’ daughter, was a teenager when the Jewish family was deported. Scarred by the memory, she didn’t speak about the war, according to her daughter Ulrike Moritz, 69, who has been the caretaker of the dishes since both her mother and her sister died in 2013.

“We were advised not to use them, because they weren’t ours,” she said. Rather, the German family considered themselves the dishes’ guardians through the generations.

Detail on a soup tureen, part of the porcelain set kept by the Moritz family in Germany.
Detail on a soup tureen, part of the porcelain set kept by the Moritz family in Germany.

The Feiners owned service for six, plus multiple serving pieces, made by Hutschenreuther in 1920. They are in two complementary patterns, both white with a rim of gold leaf and cobalt blue. While the plates are simple, the serving pieces, especially the soup tureen, have more elaborate flourishes.

For 80 years, Moritz’s family has treated them as the precious heirlooms they are. The dishes are in near perfect condition; together they’re worth several thousand dollars. Selling them was never considered.

“Surely the memory of the deceased neighbors and friends should be preserved, but there was also a sense of duty perhaps, a sense of family and justice, hope and perseverance,” said Moritz. “My daughters would have kept on tending the dishes without a second thought.”

Moritz had tried to search for descendants of the Feiner family but never got very far.

This past spring, she heard that Lehmen was planning a commemoration of 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany, and was looking for information about its former Jewish residents. (Lehmen today has about 1,300 residents, none Jewish). Moritz reached out to Christoph Stoffel, who oversees the town’s cultural events, sharing what she knew about the Feiner family and the dishes.

The local paper did an article about Moritz and the porcelain set, which got the attention of retired local pastor Ulrich Offerhaus, who had done a lot of research on the Jewish community over the years and offered to see if there were any living descendants of the Feiners. It didn’t take long before he found the Lichtenstein-Feiner family tree and a blog Reese Lichtenstein wrote when she participated in the One by One program.

Reese Lichenstein of Oakland (foreground) and Ulrike Moritz, keeper of the dishes, walking in Kobern, Germany.
Reese Lichtenstein of Oakland (foreground) and Ulrike Moritz, keeper of the dishes, walking in Kobern, Germany.

In June, Lichtenstein was out getting coffee in Oakland when she received a call from Menlo Park. After introducing himself, Ron Friedman asked: “Are you the granddaughter of Irene Wolff, who was the granddaughter of Alexander Feiner?” She hadn’t heard her grandmother’s name in a while. She burst into tears.

Friedman explained that he had done genealogical research on his family from Koblenz, near Lehmen, with Offerhaus’ help. He was calling on behalf of Offerhaus and a German family who were looking for descendants of Siegmund Feiner, he said. Then he told her about the dishes.

Lichtenstein immediately called her father. Neither he nor his sister knew about any dishes. At first, she couldn’t help but think this was some kind of scam. But she was soon introduced via email to Stoffel and Moritz, and with the help of a translation website, read the article about Moritz and the dishes in the German newspaper.

Stoffel was thrilled to have made contact. “It was like she fell from the clouds to us,” he said.

“I’ve always been very interested in German history,” Stoffel, 53, said, “but you have to confront the darkest part. In the past, the Holocaust was very abstract, only black and white. And then the dishes appeared, and history suddenly became tangible and colorful. It was not only the history of the Holocaust, but the history of my town.”

Lichtenstein thought the next obvious step would be for the Moritz family to send her the set of dishes. But Stoffel had something grander in mind.

He and Offerhaus had learned through their research that what would have been Irene’s 100th birthday was in a few months. Would the Lichtenstein family come to Germany as their guests, for a ceremonial return of the dishes on their matriarch’s centennial birthday?

And that is how Lichtenstein and her husband, Cory Lubarsky, along with her family in Massachusetts — parents Barry and Esta Lichtenstein, sibling Charley and aunt Carole Skowronski — found themselves traveling to Germany in November. The family paid for their flights, but their entire stay was paid for by funds that Stoffel raised from individuals, local businesses, the cities of Lehmen and Kobern-Gondorf, as well as state funds.

The two families reunited for a ceremony to hand over the dishes.
Christoph Stoffel is flanked by the two families reunited at the ceremony to hand over the dishes.

Carolin Lange, a Munich-based historian and expert on Nazi-looted property, said that while it’s quite common for museums to return items in their collections that were looted by the Nazis, for private citizens to return items to their rightful Jewish heirs is much less common, even when they desire to do so.

“I haven’t heard of any examples like this,” she said. “If they don’t involve an expert on provenance research, and they don’t have the skillset of a historian, it’s very hard to know who to call or where to look. This was a lucky mixture of perseverance and coincidence.”

The family spent over a week in Germany, with Moritz and Stoffel joining them for much of their itinerary and other town officials and historians participating at various times. They were treated like visiting dignitaries.

They visited sites of Jewish interest in the region, including those particular to their family. They’d been to some of these places before, and had made pilgrimages to Wolff’s house in nearby Kobern-Gondorf, but they had never been inside the house itself. This time, Stoffel contacted the owner in advance and asked permission to enter.

“I gathered everyone in the courtyard and said, ‘We’re going to go inside,’ said Lichtenstein, who wanted to surprise her family. “They all lost their minds. Everyone was crying.”

Lichtenstein and Lubarsky arrived a few days earlier than the rest of the family, and Moritz was able to arrange a private tour of Bergen-Belsen. The couple also participated in a Kristallnacht commemoration.

Through their correspondence, Moritz had already come to consider Lichtenstein a friend.

“At Bergen-Belsen, [Reese] was crying a lot,” she said. “I saw my task as being with her and comforting her. Although we were strangers before, she let me share in her pain and her unwavering optimism.”

German newspapers and television stations covered different parts of their trip, especially the Nov. 18 ceremony to present the dishes to the family. It took place in the banquet hall of a historic municipal building in Kobern-Gondorf and was attended by local residents and officials. Everyone in town was invited, as were Jews who live elsewhere in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

German media also televised the family singing Shehechiyanu (a prayer thanking God for reaching this moment, often said when something happens for the first time) as they stood over a table set with the dishes.

Reese Lichenstein is interviewed by a German radio station.
Reese Lichtenstein is interviewed by a German radio station.

At the ceremony, Lichtenstein spoke about the Moritz family, using the dishes as a metaphor: “It is like they have all held our family safe, passing us through generations, caring for us and preserving our memories, until it was time to finally send us home.”

Her words were translated and read in German by a friend from the One by One program.

The generosity their hosts extended, their heartfelt effort to return the dishes and the time they spent planning and accompanying them on the trip were deeply appreciated by her family, Lichtenstein said. Even more so since they are a generation removed from the war and have no direct connection to it.

“We aren’t special,” she said. “There are so many families like ours.”

Stoffel and Moritz would disagree.

“We always knew there were survivors of the Holocaust, but it was only in theory, as after the war they immigrated to Israel and the U.S.,” said Stoffel. “To meet the family of a survivor was very exciting for us. And we got to become friends with such a nice family.”

Stoffel, who serves on the Lehmen town council, ended up raising more money than the family visit cost. He plans to use the rest for the planning and installation of stolpersteine, memorial plaques placed in the ground in front of the former homes of Jewish residents. The plaques feature the names of those who used to live in the building, along with the place and date of their death, or their liberation. There are none in Lehmen thus far.

Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stone,” in front of the house where Irene Wolff and her family lived in Kobern-Gondorf.
Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stone,” in front of the house where Irene Wolff and her family lived in Kobern-Gondorf.

How did Moritz feel to give up items of such importance that were part of her family for the last 80 years? “It feels really good,” she said. “[Reese] and her family are the owners, not us.”

Reflecting on the trip when she returned, Lichtenstein, who had started the process of obtaining German citizenship right before she got the call last June, said with all the coincidences at play — that she is the keeper of her grandmother’s story, and she was the person first contacted about the dishes — she couldn’t help but feel that her grandmother had a hand in what had transpired. Also, of all of her grandmother’s insights that she could have chosen to ink on her arm, it was her testimony about the symbolic power of eating off a plate after liberation.

One of the things Lichtenstein admired most about her grandmother was the way she attributed her survival not only to luck, but also to the small acts of kindness people showed. Despite the horror she experienced, she wanted her children and grandchildren to know that not all Germans were Nazis, and that some did what they could to help, no matter how small the gesture.

The family reuniting with the dishes felt like she was reminding them of this lesson from beyond the grave.

And the dishes will soon be put to use. This March, Lichtenstein and Lubarsky will have a vow renewal and proper wedding celebration that the pandemic robbed from them; when it became clear their planned wedding wouldn’t happen, they married in March 2020 in front of six friends outside the UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science. The event will take place at the Lichtenstein’s family’s synagogue in Natick, Massachusetts, and both Stoffel and Moritz hope to attend. The dishes will be used at the celebratory meal following, and then divided among all the Wolff descendants. The family may also donate one or two of the pieces to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

That is, except for one. Lichtenstein, who loves a good surprise, thought of the perfect way to express her gratitude to Moritz. Before the dishes were shipped, she asked one of Moritz’s daughters to secretly visit her mother’s house, pull out one of the serving platters and wrap it as a present, which her mother will open on Christmas morning.

“Now that dish will really be hers,” Lichtenstein said. “She can use it, and still be connected to us.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."