My father, Dave Block, Jr., died in 1993. He was the third generation, and the last, of his family to work out of the same office in Wynne, Arkansas. Among the archived business papers, I discovered correspondence that documented attempts to provide a bequest to a French ancestor in the years immediately following World War II. Those letters set off a slow and sporadic search for Block ancestors in western France.
In 1870 my great grandfather, Rafael Block, left Alsace for America. A century later a namesake, my uncle, visited the ancestral village and copied Rafael’s birth certificate, showing that he was born in 1853, the son of Herman Block and Rebecca Feist in Trimbach, Bas-Rhin.
(As an aside, this would have made Rafael seventeen years old at the time of his emigration, an age ripe for conscription for service in the Franco-Prussian War.)
In 2009 my wife and I made a trip to Trimbach to see if we could discover any traces of Rafael’s family. We located the village cemetery, adjacent to the parish church, and walked through the headstones. A woman from the village—I assume she was local; she was placing flowers at a gravesite—sensed our purpose and asked for our family name. My first answer employed an anglicized pronunciation. “No one by that name buried here,” she said. Another attempt, that changed the vowel sound to a long “o”, made a better impression. “Were they Jews ?” she asked. “Then you want to visit the Jewish cemetery.”
She told us to drive south on highway D-104 and look for a wooded area on the west side of the road. After a bit of searching—there are several wooded areas—we spotted a pillar standing at the edge of cultivated fields. That five-foot obelisk marked the north entrance to the cemetery. Our efforts at exploration were severely handicapped by a tangle of trees and vines that covered most of the plots and by the Hebrew inscriptions on most of the tombstones that we could reach. I took photographs of some the inscriptions, and we drove on to Switzerland.
On our return to the States, I sent images of some of inscriptions to my nephew, Sam, who had recently studied Hebrew for his bar mitzvah. Nothing ever came back from Sam, but our 2009 visit verified that there was a Jewish cemetery in Trimbach and sparked hopes that exploring it might turn up markers of our ancestors.
Although my sisters and Block cousins greeted reports of our trip warmly, several years would pass before we followed up.
At the end of 2016, the descendents of one branch of the family agreed that the time had come to return to Trimbach. Cousin Diane began to search the copious genealogical information now available on the internet and turned up several possible leads. I made contact, in Google Translator French, with the Trimbach City Hall and received an immediate response promising access to village archives. Searching for someone to decipher the Hebrew inscriptions proved more of a challenge.
On our 2009 visit, my wife had the presence of mind to annotate our guidebook with the address of the synagogue in Haguenau, located on the Rue Rabbi Bloch. (We thought the name might be providential.) And using that address, I wrote a letter (ink on paper; I could not locate an e-mail address) explaining our purpose and need. I have no idea of how many hands that missive passed through subsequently-- the Haguenau synagogue is now closed-- but in four months a representative of the Jewish community in Strasbourg e-mailed to say that he had located a person willing to accompany us to Trimbach and interpret the headstones.
Six months later nine of us-- Blocks, spouses and offspring--converged on Strasbourg from Santa Fe, Houston, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Prague. After a couple of days spent comparing notes and enjoying ourselves, we decamped for Wissembourg, our base camp for exploring the cemetery. Our interpreter, Yanir Ritter, arrived the next day, and with the corps of discovery now complete, we set off for Trimbach, twenty kilometers away.
According to Wikipedia, Trimbach, Bas-Rhin, has a population of 462 (seems about right). There’s city hall (mairie)-- open Tuesday through Thursday-- a Catholic Church, and the Boulangerie Pâstisserie La Minzbrueck. It’s the kind of place where locals notice strangers. So with only a little effort, Diane made a contact, which led to another contact and through them we learned that the location of the Jewish cemetery was quite well known; it appears on the map displayed prominently on the Rue Principale. And an added gem, Madame Reine Birie had taken particular interest in it. At 10:00 the city hall opened, and we were invited to review the documents stored there. We, and especially Diane, were disappointed to learn that the birth certificate we already had in hand exhausted the traces left by Rafael Bloch.
A little before noon we left Trimbach for the cemetery. One of the villagers alerted us to watch for a large poultry farm across the road. Sure enough there stood the pillar, but where were the woods? Something had changed.
Working from memories of conditions in 2009, I advised everyone to carry work clothes, gloves and heavy shoes. At one time we considered buying garden tools capable of clearing at least our relatives’ plots. In the end we settled for a pair of hand clippers bought in Wissembourg. To my surprise, and our delight, advanced planning went for naught. Sometime in the recent past, a work party had cleared away the undergrowth and righted most of the gravestones, making our search much easier.
Turns out that there are several Blochs buried in Trimbach: Nanette who died in 1899, Emmanuel (d. 1892) and Babette (d. 1909). The inscriptions on their markers offered no additional information, and the Hebrew characters, citing passages from the Old Testament, were likewise unrevealing. None of these Blochs matched the names and birthdates that Diane had discovered.
But there was one other Bloch plot in the cemetery. And this one held the remains of a Rebecca, neè Feist, died 1855. This was Raphel’s mother who died when he was only two years old. We all rejoiced; Diane called it the happiest day of her life.
On the second day Reine Biri joined us. She brought along a wealth of information about the cemetery itself and about its clearing in 2015. The cemetery dates from the mid 19th century and served as the resting place for several small communities in the area. The last burials date from the mid 1930s, just before the forced evacuation preceding World War II. Diane copied it all and is working on a compilation.
So ends our America to Alsace. If nothing else, the trip to Trimbach furnished time to share meals, drinks and family stories. Perhaps it will provide an impetus for additional research and travels. Where is Herman?