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by Rhonda Spivak, March 19, 2014

I have never really thought of the meaning of the Jewish surname "Bernstein"--although I do associate the name with Bernstein's Deli in Winnipeg . But there I was standing in the Marianplatz, the centre of the city of Munich, when I noticed a shop called Bernsteinladen that was selling amber jewelry.
As I went inside the shop, a sign on the wall said that this was the first amber jewelry store in the world, having opened in 1884.
Inside the shop, I asked about the meaning of the  name Bernstein, and learned that it comes from the German words "bernen", meaning to burn, and "stein", meaning "stone" (amber was thought to be made by burning, although it is in fact fossilized pine resin). 

The name could be derived from a place named Bernstein, in Bavaria and also in what used to be East Prussia in northwestern Poland). Both of these probably get their German names from the notion of a 'burnt stone.' The name may also be derived from Bärenstein, a common field and place name, especially in Bavaria and Austria.  Jews could have gotten this surname given to them as a result of these two derivations.

 It's also possible that some Jews got this name because they were dealers in amber, a gemstone, just as some got the surname Diamond since they were dealers in diamonds. Interestingly enough, amber is mentioned three times in the bible in Ezekiel (Ezek 1:4, 27, 8:2). 

 However, as Dr. Catherine Chatterley, a historian who teaches the history of antisemitism explains, in the 18th and 19th centuries "The only ones who had an interest in gems were the aristocracy and imperial court and there were only a few Jews in this business. Even in the 19th century few people could afford jewelry." 

Since I had accidentally come across the first amber store in the world, I assumed that at one point in time there must have been Jews in the Munich area who were given the surname Bernstein.  (note that Jews in Munich first arrived in the  13th century but in  1442 Jews  were excluded from Upper Bavaria. They only settled back in Munich at the end of the 18th century (53 in 1781, 127 in 1790).
Inside the amber shop, I learned that the surname of the family that opened this shop in 1884 was "Witzke." They were not Jewish but interestingly enough Witzke is also a Jewish surname.
Realizing all of this, I had a strong hunch that when I went to see the nearby Holocaust memorial which lists the names of the Jews of Munich who died during the World War II, I would find Jews with the name Bernstein. Afterall, if the first amber store in the world was opened in Munich, it made sense that at some point there were Jews in the Munich area had been given that surname, given the name's origins.
The Holocaust Memorial in Munich is located in an underground tunnel connecting the Jewish community centre of Munich on St. Jacobs Platz to the Ohel Jacob synagogue. A young Israeli guard who was on duty as security asked me where I was going, and I explained I wanted to see if I could find Jewish Bernsteins on the list of names of those who had perished in the Holocaust. 


"I've passed the Bernstein shop before, but I never thought about how Jews got this last name."

He decided to accompany me, since he said he was curious to see if we'd find "Bernsteins" listed.  I asked him how long he'd been in Munich. "Four years", he responded , adding that he didn't intend to live in Munich permanently. His friend, another Israeli who was also working as a security guard told me he was living in Munich because "my girlfriend is here".

At the Holocaust memorial, my Israeli friend helped me leaf through the list of names (numbering over 7000) until, sure enough, we found several Jews with the last name Bernstein who had perished.

It's only after getting back to Canada, that it crossed my mind that in Munich unlike other cities in cities in Europe, including in Berlin,  there are no small brass square stones with the names of Holocaust victims embedded in the sidewalks in front of their former homes as a remembrance . That's because, the city of Munich, where the population is mostly Catholic, hasn't allowed this. The City's explanation apparently is that the square stones are disrespectful to the victims since they can be stepped on. I don't buy the explanation. The truth I fear is more related to the fact that Munich which was the birthplace of Nazism, where Hitler first rose to power would like to underplay its connection to the Holocaust. If the square blocks were allowed, it would only draw attention to the fact that virtually all of the Jews of Munich were murdered in the Holocaust and it would also only accentuate that Munich was Hitler's stomping grounds.

 The result is that in Munich, the only place where you can see the names of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust is in the underground passageway that connects the Jewish community centre to the synagogue --A passageway that most tourists to Munich never see, no doubt. It was completely empty when I was there. (As an aside, note that an article by the JTA in Oct. 2013 reports that that two women have launched a new app called Munich Stumbling Blocks which creates a digital memorial to all Jewish Munich victims of the Nazis, using 8000 biographies.


A few streets over from Bernstein's amber shop, I happened to notice the memorial to what was once the Main Synagogue of Munich that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 on Herzog- Max Street near Karlsplatz.  The signage on the memorial is only in German. The destroyed Main Synagogue had been built around 1883/87 within sight of Munich's leading Frauenkirche church. For four decades the main synagogue had symbolized the apparent esteem enjoyed by the Jewish community of Munich as part of the social and political fabric. After the synagogue was destroyed, the site was used as a car park under the Nazi regime and was returned to the Jewish community in 1945. The Jewish community then sold the property to the City of Munich on condition it would be developed as a memorial.

 I stood there for  a moment , thinking that I have gotten used to seeing these kind  of memorials in Germany.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.