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The Quest For Forgiveness

Kol Nidre Sermon 2007
Eli Rubenstein, Congregation Habonim
September 21, 2007
The Quest for Forgiveness
“You have the same characteristics as your family did, whether you
want to or not. What you do with all that…. is really what the difference
is between you and who came before you.”
I will not tell you who said this quote, until I reach the middle of this
But first I must begin with a story from the Holocaust…there are lots of
twists and turns and important details, so please pay close attention to the
(Note: Much of what follows has been adapted from media reports.)
There was a large department store in the city of Wurzberg owned by a
German Jew named Siegmund Ruschkewitz. In 1935, he was forced to sell
his store at 10% of its value to Josef Neckermann one of his employees.
As his grandson, Gad Ruschkewitz, 63, who lives in Israel, tells the story,
Neckermann brought a Nazi member to the store and together they threw
Siegmund Ruschkewitz out.. After he lost the business, Siegmund
Ruschkewitz left Wurzberg for Berlin and lived in a hotel until they could
get on a ship for Palestine, where one of his sons was already living. En
route, Ruschkewitz and his wife died of typhus aboard ship. Their bodies
were thrown overboard near the island of Crete. Their other son, Ernst, who
stayed behind in Germany, was killed at the Buchenwald concentration
camp on March 31, 1945 -- three weeks before the end of the war. Ernst's
wife, Ruth, was killed in Auschwitz, date unknown.
But Josef Neckerman was not finished with his crimes…2
In 1935 the Joel family from Nuremberg moved to Berlin. They ran a
successful mail order business selling fabric all across Germany, but had
been driven from their hometown of Nuremberg by a smear campaign
launched by Julius Streicher, the infamous editor of the virulently antiSemitic
newspaper Der Stuermer.
In the summer of 1938, Joel was forced to sell his life’s work at a fraction
of its true value. (His lawyers would later estimate the company’s value at
six times that amount.) The purchaser was none other than the identical
Josef Neckermann, the very same 25-year-old Wurzberg native and Naziparty
member who earlier had bought out the Jewish department store king,
Siegmund Ruschkewitz.
Fearing for their lives, the Joels fled to Switzerland where they tried to
collect the meager amount that Neckermann had agreed to pay them for the
business. Neckermann refused and then, after being swindled by a Berlin
city official who had promised to help them get more money from
Neckermann, they left for England, then Cuba, and finally New York. There,
Karl Joel opened a small store, but his life remained a constant economic
struggle. In Germany, Neckermann profited greatly on Joel’s successful
business, turning production over to the Nazi war effort and even using slave
labor from Lodz to supply Nazi troops on the eastern front.
After 1945, Neckermann built a vast business network and was transformed
into a postwar German celebrity. He mingled with politicians and started up
factories. He also became a celebrated equestrian Olympian, winning many
gold medals for Germany with his horsemanship. He was also involved in a
protracted lawsuit with Karl Joel - who in the post-war years was still trying
to collect his debt - a lawsuit which Neckermann fought bitterly for many
years.…When he died in 1991, his death was broadcast on all German radio
What happened to Karl Joel? Karl Anton Joel and his wife Meta and their
19-year-old son Helmut barely made it out of Hitler’s Europe, reaching the
United States and New York City — via Switzerland, England, and Cuba —
in 1942. Here, Karl Anton Joel started all over again from the Bronx with a
very small hair-ribbon business.
Their son Helmut was now known as Howard Joel and was drafted into the
U.S. Army.3
In the latter part of the war, Howard Joel found himself driving a Jeep in
Patton’s 7th Army as they advanced in Germany. He drove past the now
almost destroyed Joel factory in Nuremburg, with one single surviving
smokestack with the word “JOEL” still clearly visible. Howard Joel took
part in the liberation of the Dachau Nazi concentration - but by that time it
was too late for most of Europe's Jews. Fully two thirds had been murdered,
including many of Howard Joel's own family members in Auschwitz.
Howard Joel later married a Jewish girl from Brooklyn named Rosalind
Nyman whom he’d met performing Gilbert & Sullivan. Their son Joseph
Martin Joel was born May 9, 1949, in the Bronx, New York.
Howard Joel and Rosalind later divorced, and Howard Joel eventually
moved back to Eastern Europe. His parents –Karl & Meta - also later moved
back to Germany where they both passed away.
Howard Joel remarried in Europe and had a second son, Alexander Joel,
who went on to becoming an acclaimed classical pianist and conductor in
The most interesting part of the story is this….One day, Howard Joel’s
American born son decided to track down his father who he hadn’t seen
since he was 10 years of age..…
He did so successfully, and for the first time met his half brother Alexander
Joel and compared notes. Both loved music, both were excellent pianists,
and both were involved professionally in the music field – only Alex Joel
was on the classical side… and Joseph Martin Joel on the pop side of the
Oh and I forgot to tell you Joseph Martin Joel’s full name…it is William
Joseph Martin Joel..and William later became Billy…..Yes, Alex’s half
brother and the son and grandson of Holocaust refugees was none other than
Billy Joel…4
When I first came across this story, a few points came to mind:
1. When you personalize a tragedy how telling it is……As has been so
truthfully noted: Six million Jews did not perish in the Holocaust….one Jew
was murdered, then another, then another….. When we are confronted with
the individual lives of the people who were affected by the Holocaust, only
then does it cease to be a statistic, and begin to touch on the deepest, most
personal level.
2. This story also teaches us about the enormity of the loss – how many
exceptionally talented people like Billy Joel were murdered or were never
born, and how many people, just like you and me, equally deserving of life,
were murdered or were never born - because of the tragedy of the
But I would now like to move from the Holocaust to the second part of the
story, something that touches on an aspect of our lives that each one of us
should be grappling with at this time..
A decade after Billy Joel tracked down his father and brother, he came to
Nuremberg to give a master class. His father and half-brother went along.
They went to the Jewish cemetery, where Billy Joel read the names of his
family members written on the tombstones. He was in his 40’s and it was the
first time he ever wore a yarmulke in his life.
And here is the most interesting and perhaps saddest part of the story…
A meeting was organized between the son and the grandchildren of Joseph
Neckermann and the grandchildren of Karl Joel….but the anticipated
apology never happened.
Julia Neckermann simply said of the whole Nazi era: “Everybody just went
along and didn’t know what they were doing…
"My father was more famous in Germany than Billy Joel is in this country,"
said Johannes Neckermann, Joseph’s son. "He had six Olympic medals in
horseback riding..

Mon, January 25 2021 12 Shevat 5781