Moving Encounters

Photograph: A boy on a bull

Walter Brill on a bull in the town of Herzebrock, ca. 1913
© Jewish Museum Berlin, courtesy of Brill Family Archives

I first met Ralph Brill at the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2009. He was accompanying a donor, and it was only incidentally that I learned of his own interesting family history. Some months later he sent me copies of family photographs and documents, and I immediately realized that this impressive material was of historical importance. We were in frequent contact since then. In early 2013 Ralph Brill decided to donate all of his family holdings to the Jewish Museum Berlin. It was a most memorable day in May, when he visited Berlin with his children, Micah, Loren and Wade. The three young Brills had just obtained German citizenship, in addition to their American nationality. Present legislation assures this option to all, whose lives were affected by National Socialist persecution, as well as their descendants. The trip to Berlin was motivated by Micah, Loren and Wade’s interest in learning about their ancestors. It was the first time any of the three had set foot on German soil.

Hugo Brill, Ralph Brill’s grandfather, once owned a slaughterhouse and later a furniture factory in Herzebrock. In this same small town in Westphalia, his son Walter Brill was raised and trained as a cabinet-maker. In 1938 he married Irmgard Levy in Munich. Both a civil and a religious marriage ceremony are recorded in the surviving family register. In 1939 the young couple was able to escape to England, where Ralph Brill and two younger sons were born. In 1949 the family migrated to the United States.

Photograph: Nine people at the beach

Irmgard Levy (fourth from the right) and Walter Brill (fifth from the right) with friends at the beach, ca. 1934
© Jewish Museum Berlin, courtesy of Brill Family Archives

The remarkably well-preserved 125 photographs and documents cover three generations, from the early twentieth century to the present, although the majority relate to Walter and Irmgard Brill. In addition to many official documents, such as diplomas and certificates, the collection includes intimate documents, such as love letters written by the young Walter to his future wife. In a letter dated 21 May 1945, Walter Brill’s sister gives a detailed account of her arrest, her deportation, and her liberation from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Five people in the garden of the Jewish Museum Berlin

Loren Brill, Ralph Brill, Wade Brill, Micah Brill, and Theresia Ziehe (from right to left) in the garden of the Jewish Museum Berlin, May 2013
© Jewish Museum Berlin

In the coming months, the photographs and documents will be integrated in the museum’s database and we intend to publish some online, too. Family convolutes such as the one described here are the very heart of the Jewish Museum Berlin’s collection. Our donors enable us to talk about history by drawing on individual stories. Ralph and his brothers Winston and Peter Brill chose deliberately to give their artifacts to a German museum. During our meetings he stressed that he wanted to bring his family’s history home to Germany, where it began more than 200 years ago.
For this, we thank Ralph Brill and his family most sincerely.

Theresia Ziehe, Curator for Photography

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