Sometimes you pick up a magazine to browse, and are rewarded with a story that propels you back in time and space, while at the same time lending perspective to the future. The American Scholar is one of my favorite quarterlies, and this Autmun’s issue contains an article by Werner Gundersheimer about his parents, Hermann and Friedl. The surname isn’t a common one, and I recalled how as a youth in Logan we had a Gundersheimer family that seemed nondescript at the time. “Gundy”, as we affectionately called the father, was a teacher at Akiba Hebrew Academy, and neither I nor my sister – as we reminisced about this tonight – had any idea about the family’s genealogy. It would be surprising if that family weren’t related to the principals of The American Scholar piece.
As German culture tightened its stranglehold on German Jewry on August 17, 1938, all men whose first names were not recognizably Jewish were required to take the middle name Israel, and the women Sara. Hermann Israel Gundersheimer was curator of the Museum of Jewish Antiquities in Frankfurt, which contained many valuable artifacts, when on the evening of November 9 the museum was ransacked during the rage of Kristallnacht. The Gestapo realized that the art work strewn about might have significant value, so under armed guard Gunersheimer was ordered to go back to the museum each day for six months to document and reorganize the collection. At that point the Reich released him, and the rest is history.
The history of art, that is, as Gundersheimer emigrated to the U.S. and wound up in Philadelphia in 1941, becoming Temple University’s first art historian and only the second Jew to join their faculty. Though of the Big Five universities in Philly one doesn’t associate Temple with any religious leanings these days, it was founded as a Baptist college in the late 19th century. The Gods were evidently smiling on Gundersheimer, despite the fact that he had to endure bigotry and hatred.
I applied to Temple University in 1969, but opted instead to attend Yeshiva University in Manhattan. I developed a penchant for collegiate wrestling, and one summer when back in Philly I worked out with Tino Mantella, my weight class counterpart on the Temple U. wrestling team, in order to stay sharp for the upcoming academic year. It was that summer, in 1971, when Hermann Gundersheimer retired from Temple, and needless to say we never crossed paths. After reading his son’s account of Hermann’s career, I’m thankful for the opportunity to have met this “Gundy” through the pages of The American Scholar.