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A German cellist’s obsession: Reuniting a family scattered by the Holocaust

Selma and Julius Blach’s children, Gertrud, Friedrich, Paula, Ernst, Margarethe, and Else pose for a portrait, circa 1892. The children lived in Heilgeistrstrasse 89 in Strasland, Germany, prior to World War II.Friederike Fechner

The house in the German city of Stralsund was once home to a Jewish family named Blach and its leather business. It stood through Nazism and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

In 1994, a married couple moved to the east German city, which had entered a new era after four decades of communist rule. In 2012, they bought the run-down building, which had stood vacant since the 1970s, and renovated it, creating retail space on the ground level and apartments upstairs.

The building (left, in 2012) had been abandoned for years. On the right, it is shown after the renovation.Friederike Fechner

Once the home was restored, the story of the Jewish family that lived there before World War II emerged from the shadows, coaxed from obscurity by Friederike Fechner, a cellist who purchased and renovated the home with her husband, Martin an American-born ophthalmologist.

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What Fechner found was a tale of tragedy and survival on a global scale, extending to New England, Israel, Brazil, the Netherlands, and California, but shrouded in silence. At least 10 members of the Blach family were murdered during the Holocaust. And with those deaths, Fechner learned, the Nazis inflicted another terrible blow.

Running for their lives, the surviving Blachs scattered. Some descendants believed they were the last of their family, while others couldn’t bear to revisit the past in search of relatives, family members said. It wasn’t until Fechner delved into their story that some Blachs learned they didn’t walk this world alone.

Christina Blake Oliver, with her son, Seth Oliver (right), and grandsons Jakob and Ben Oliver, is among dozens of descendants of the Blach family of Stralsund, Germany, who have been connected with relatives worldwide through the research of a German cellist Friederike Fechner. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

“It was unbelievable to go from thinking you don’t have any relatives to learning that there are at least 40 people, who are alive and well,” said Christina Blake Oliver, 73, a Blach descendant who lives in Newton.

Fechner’s research began in 2014, when the restoration project earned a prize and she was asked to look into the house’s history for the awards ceremony.

Fechner, 60, went to the Stralsund archives and learned the home once belonged to the Blachs. Julius Blach and his family lived in the home, while his brother, Felix, and his family operated the leather business, she said.

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Selma Blach, photographed in Strasland, Germany. Friederike Fechner

Julius Blach and his wife, Selma Wallmann, had six children: a son who died in 1932, a year before Adolf Hitler became German chancellor; four sisters who were killed in Nazi death camps in Poland; and another son, Friedrich Blach, a lawyer who escaped to the United States before the war began.

Julius Blach, photographed in Strasland, Germany. Friederike Fechner

“It struck me,” Fechner said in an interview via Zoom. “I thought right away, I have to find this last owner who fled to the US in 1937.”

In early 2016, Fechner happened to meet a genealogist and told her of the quest to identify Friedrich Blach’s descendants. Within a day, the genealogist sent her the manifest for the US-bound vessel St. Louis, which Friedrich Blach boarded in Hamburg on Aug. 21, 1937, and an e-mail address for his grandson, Casey Blake, Christina Blake Oliver’s brother and a professor at Columbia University, Fechner said.

Fechner e-mailed Blake and heard back two days later.

“Thank you so very much for writing. What a wonderful surprise,” Blake wrote. “Yes, I am the grandson of Friedrich and great-grandson of Julius Blach. My grandfather Friedrich and my grandmother Kate managed to escape Germany during the Nazi period, eventually settling in New York with their children.”

Fechner had brought the Blach house back to life and had now found the family that carried its name.

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“It was totally awful to eliminate the Jews in Stralsund and also to murder them,” she said. “It was also a total loss of culture.”

Inspired by her initial success, Fechner delved deeper. She gathered vital records for the Blachs, including birth, marriage, and death certificates, photographed family graves in the local Jewish cemetery, prepared a genealogy, and sent it to Blake in New York. In October 2016, she and her husband met Blake in New York City. As time went on, Fechner’s research forged connections with more Blach descendants who were awakened to their ancestors’ history.

German cellist Friederike Fechner (second from left), with her husband, Martin, spoke with descendants Ellen Levine (left) and Leah Granick. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

She felt a duty to preserve the Blach family name. The words, “Lederhandel Gebr. Blach,” a reference to the Blach leather business, were painted on the house’s façade. Brass memorial stones honoring three family members were placed outside. Members of the younger generations traveled to Stralsund to meet Fechner and see their ancestors’ house. Fechner has also given lectures about her research.

Growing up, Fechner said, her family never discussed the Holocaust, but she knew the history and felt ashamed of what the Nazis did to Jewish people. Researching the Blachs became a way she could support families who carry the scars of Nazi Germany, she said.

The Blach story could have easily been lost. Oliver said her grandfather, Friedrich Blach, remained fearful of the Nazis well into the 1950s and demanded that she be baptized as an Episcopalian.

“He was afraid that the Nazis were going to get me,” she said.

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Her father, a prominent architect and author, changed his name to Peter Blake and mostly refused to discuss his childhood in Germany. In the opening chapter of his 1993 memoir, he wrote that most of his relatives who stayed in Stralsund were “murdered by the Nazi government.”

“So much for that,” wrote Blake, who died in 2006.

Christina Blake Oliver (center) greeted Leah and Jack Granick in Newton.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

But after connecting with Fechner, Oliver said she eventually discovered that she shares her ancestry with another Newton resident, Ellen Haas Levine, the great grandniece of Julius Blach.

“It’s amazing,” Levine said. Oliver “lives just down the street.”

Another descendant, Ruth Zuk, 85, lives in Southborough. Her grandmother, Paula, was Friedrich Blach’s sister and died at Majdanek concentration camp in 1941.

Zuk, who was born in Tel Aviv, said her mother took her to Germany to visit her grandmother when she was a toddler.

“What happened in Germany to the Jews, that is something that I can sit and cry about,” she said.

The family’s heartache is etched in some of the documents Fechner has amassed.

Felix Blach’s son, Carl-Philipp, operated the family’s leather company until June 27, 1938, when his “wish to preserve the business for my sons did not come true” and he closed down. Antisemitism, he wrote, had driven away customers and suppliers. He made a plea to his “deceased ancestors.”

“I call to YOU that I have always tried to preserve your heritage but that I had to give way to fate,” Carl-Philipp Blach wrote. His two sons died in Auschwitz and he died in 1946, Fechner wrote in a lecture, of malnutrition and a broken heart.

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Fechner’s efforts were recognized earlier this year with an Obermayer Award. The honor is administered by Widen the Circle, an organization based in Dedham that seeks to combat antisemitism and prejudice. A few weeks ago, Fechner visited Newton, where she discussed her research before an audience that included members of the Blach family.

On Thursday, Fechner marked another milestone with the publication of an online book about Jewish people who were born or have lived in Stralsund since 1856. The book is sponsored by the Initiative for the Commemoration of Jewish life in Stralsund, which Fechner founded.

A gathering of Blachs in Stralsund is tentatively planned for next summer, though the reunion has already been postponed twice because of the pandemic.

Fechner concludes her lectures with a question she often fields: Why are you doing this?

This is her answer: “The most painful rejection of these innocent and individual victims would be in the continued refusal to remember — in forgetting. We should never let that happen.”


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.