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Testimony of Ronald Philippsborn

From Ronald Philippsborn's private archive

My name is Ron Philippsborn. Together with my family I live in Olympia, Washington, USA. My Great-grandfather, Heymann Arzt – the father of my father’s mother – was born in Tremessen (Trzemeszno) in 1866. He wrote A Memoir and Diary which my father translated, and which both talks about his early years and describes the town he grew up in.

Unlike many of the Jewish families in Trzemeszno, the Arzts did not have deep roots in the community. According to the Diary, Heymann’s father, Nathan, moved there from Schubin (Szubin) in early 1840; Heymann departed for Berlin in 1888 to raise his family there (although his sister and two brothers did not leave at that time). That branch of our family largely emigrated from Germany to escape the Nazis during the 1930s, with members ending up in all corners of the globe. My parents spent their teens in the Dominican Republic, married there, and came to the United States in 1948.

Reading the Memoir, one is struck by how ordinary an account it gives of Heymann’s life. He grows up, deals with the death of his father and his mother’s second marriage, goes to the public Jewish school, becomes an apprentice, hates his boss . . . but still the sense of “otherness” is pronounced. Nathan needed a “Certificate of Toleration,” renewable annually, to be allowed to settle in Trzemeszno. At the time Heymann was born, Jews hadn’t yet gained equal civil rights; that happened in Prussia in 1869. Although he lived in a Prussian town populated to a large extent by Poles, his family interacted primarily with the rest of the Jewish community, where they lived, went to school, worked, shopped, worshipped, celebrated and grieved.

Apparently, it was a peaceful, ordinary town with a Jewish population that largely kept to itself, but went about its business as part of the community. Happily, there is little mention of problems with their non-Jewish neighbours. What is interesting is that it was during the period that the Arzts were living there that (according to Wikipedia) Tremessen became one of the main centres of the national liberation movement, which culminated in the town being reclaimed (and renamed) by Poland after the First World War. The fact that my great- grandfather does not mention this suggests that the Jews of Tremessen either chose not to involve themselves in the matter, or were simply unaware of what was going on between their Polish and Prussian neighbours. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that Poles, Germans and Jews somehow lived together for many decades, managing to coexist and thrive despite profound cultural differences, identities and aspirations. It’s an encouraging story of acceptance and tolerance (even if they most likely kept to themselves as much as possible and ignored the other communities most of the time).

photo of Heymann Arzt with his wife and children, from the private archives of Ronald Philippsborn

Clearly, Trzemeszno has an interesting story to tell, with the waves of history washing back and forth across it over the centuries. The story of the Jewish population there is as integral to that history as the accounts of the Native Americans and subsequent waves of immigrants are to my own country. I’m delighted that an effort is being made to preserve that history, particularly in the context of the community as a whole, with all of its constituent populations. One can only hope that current political and ethnic tensions do not diminish the appreciation of the people of Trzemeszno for all the facets of their fascinating history, of which their one-time Jewish neighbours were an integral part, and which helped make Trzemeszno the place it is today. And preserving the old Jewish cemetery as a historical site will undoubted be an important step toward accomplishing that.

Ron Philippsborn

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