Chicago Philanthropist Manfred Steinfeld Rededicates Wobbelin Memorial
On May 2, 2001, Steinfeld, one of Chicago's great Jewish philanthropists, honored the victims of Wobbelin once again in a moving ceremony rededicating the refurbished cemetery at the camp, thanks to Steinfeld's hard work and generous donation.
I feel that I have an obligation if my own circumstance permits me, he said, to devote the time and the dollars to do good in this world not only for Jewish purposes, but it is the first priority because we have an obligation to help those in need.
Born in the small town of Josbach, Germany, Steinfeld grew up there until the age of 14. Then, just before World War II broke out, as the situation was deteriorating in Germany, Steinfeld's widowed mother sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in Chicago. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the Jewish Children's Bureau (JCB) of the Jewish Federation made Steinfeld's immigration possible.
Around the same time, Steinfeld's brother traveled to Tel Aviv, where he fought and died for Israeli independence. His mother and sister were deported to Latvia in 1941 and died in the Stutthof concentration camp less than two months before Steinfeld helped liberate Wobbelin.
At the close of World War II, Steinfeld and the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division translated the unconditional surrender document of Nazi forces east of the Elbe River.
Afterward, the division came across the remnants of the concentration camp of Wobbelin, The Terrible Wobbelin, as it was called. Aptly named, the camp had no infrastructure and no sanitation or food facilities. It consisted merely of barracks with open spaces and no doors. Wobbelin had been established 10 weeks earlier as a work camp for 5,000 political prisoners from Belgium, Holland, Poland,
Czechoslovakia, France, the Balkans, and Russia, created as a sub-camp of the Hamburg concentration camp called Neuengamme.
I was frightened to go [to Wobbelin] because my mother and sister didn't get out of Germany, Steinfeld explained. I had a fear that, among the dead, we would find close relatives.
The division discovered more than 1,000 men dead, thrown into mass graves or lying on the grounds of the camp. Most of the men had died of starvation. Under the orders of Gen. Gavin of the 82nd Airborne Division, the paratroopers gave 200 of these victims a proper and decent burial, as is customary of the United States Army.
Before the burial ceremony, the townspeople of Ludwigslust and the entire command of the 21st German Wehrmacht Army were ordered to walk by the dead. Standing on each grave, the group displayed a wooden cross. On one quarter of the crosses, the Star of David was painted to commemorate the deaths of the Jewish victims an estimated 25 percent of the dead.
That day, the American army also liberated 3,500 men from the camp. It was a clear, blue sunny day and these guys [the paratroopers] showed up in the afternoon, remembered Laszlo Berkowits, who was liberated from Wobbelin that day and now serves as senior rabbi at a synagogue in Falls Church, Va. If G-d had sent an angel down, he couldn't have done a better job than these guys.
Nearly 56 years later, Steinfeld traveled back to Germany to film a documentary. He returned to Ludwigslust, but found almost no trace of the Wobbelin cemetery.
Over the years, some of the wooden markers had rotted away, while the local population had used other markers to aid them during a fuel shortage.
Steinfeld approached local authorities for an explanation. They informed him that communism had taken its toll on the cemetery, the grounds of which were located in East Germany until the reunification of the country in 1992. The only noticeable remnant of the cemetery, according to Steinfeld, was a small sign stating that 200 victims of fascism were buried there, which made no distinction between the Jewish and non-Jewish victims.
Appalled, Steinfeld offered to put up more than half the funds to rededicate and recreate the cemetery for the victims. The United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad and veterans from the 82nd Division paid additional funds to make the refurbished cemetery possible. This time, the grave markers were made thicker and heavier 120 pounds each preventing neo-Nazis and skinheads from harming them.
More than 1,000 people attended the rededication ceremony in front of the Ludwigslust castle. They included the following: officials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad, and the American Consulate General in Hamburg in addition to local Ludwigslust citizens, plus 100 Holocaust survivors.
Steinfeld began his remarks to those gathered at the ceremony with I am a German Jew. He then continued: I told them that I felt this rededication was important that forever established a permanent, recognized resting place for these victims, who should never be forgotten. It should never be forgotten what took place within four kilometers of this town.
Today, Steinfeld has made the American Dream a reality. The retired chairman of Shelby Williams Industries, the world's leading manufacturer of chairs for hotels, restaurants, offices, and stores, he currently is co-managing director of The Steinfeld Consultancy.
Spending the bulk of his life giving back to the Jewish community and to Federation, who helped him when he was first starting out in this world, Steinfeld has held just about every position available to him at Federation, including chairman of the board and JUF's General Campaign chairman. And most importantly, he surrounds himself with children, grandchildren, and his wife of more than 50 years Fern Steinfeld.
Steinfeld feels triumphant through all of his life experiences. I was put on this earth to be a survivor, he said. Does that come about because of luck? I think it more came about because of circumstances that you created yourself. As you face each circumstance, you have to take the best solution.