Eduard and Ernestine Leiter knew they didn’t have much time. It was 1942 in Germany, and Nazi soldiers had already forced the elderly Jewish couple to leave their home to move in with seven other families in the community of Oberdorf. (Their adult son, Sali, had managed to escape Germany in 1939.) In an attic of their temporary new housing, they hid their few remaining possessions including a treasured Jewish family Bible from 1874 — hoping to retrieve them one day. The next month, the couple was sent to the extermination camp near the Polish village of Treblinka, and the Bible was forgotten. Until decades later, that is, when it was finally reunited with the family through an incredible journey of kindness and connections that started on eBay.
Photo credit: Gerhard Roese
The Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, remained hidden for decades before it was rediscovered in 1990 by a father and son who were renovating that same three-story house in Oberdorf. In the attic behind a fake wall they came across a chest that held the treasure with its beautifully gilded cover and scores of sumptuous illustrations by French illustrator Gustave Doré, measuring well over two feet tall.
Photo credit: Jacob Leiter
This precious item had been so delicately packed away, it was clear someone had wanted to make sure that it was preserved. But who had it belonged to? Unsure what to do with the Jewish Bible, the father and son took it with them as they moved throughout Germany over the next quarter century.
In 2017, the son decided to auction the Bible on eBay. It caught the eye of an artist and art historian named Gerhard Roese, who lives near Frankfurt. Describing his own work as a “museum of memories,” Gerhard explained that he often scours eBay, flea markets and other places for items that are likely to elicit a response from viewers.
Gerhard was thrilled to find out that he had won the auction. (He paid 65 euros — about $73 in today's currency.)
When it finally arrived at his door, he carefully examined the Jewish Bible for an inscription or some other clue about the original owner, but there was nothing. Still, he had a strong feeling that he was intruding somewhere he was not welcome.
“I could feel that this was not just any book,” he said. “It was something spiritual, something religious. It belonged to a culture that was not my culture. I’m a descendant of the ones who committed the crimes. These were victims of my forefathers.”
That’s when Gerhard decided he should allow other people who felt a connection to the book because of their heritage or its history to see it for themselves. For him, this was a way to return the book to Eduard and Ernestine Leiter’s surviving descendants and create new lasting connections going forward. Almost 100 people looked through it, including one person who came across a postcard addressed to Eduard Leiter in Stuttgart.
This was the clue that Gerhard had been looking for. With the help of local researchers, he discovered the Leiters had a granddaughter, who survived the Holocaust, named Marianne. He quickly sent her a letter telling her about the Bible.
“I was too late,” Gerhard said. “Marianne had died. My letter that I sent to her came back.”
Thinking that Marianne was perhaps the last descendent of the Leiters to survive the Holocaust, Gerhard donated the Bible to the synagogue Ernestine Leiter attended as a girl, the Ehemalige Synagoge Oberdorf. But he never gave up trying to find the Bible’s rightful heirs.
As the next step in his search, he contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2020. Through their Rescue the Evidence program, the museum helps find art and artifacts that have gone astray over the years. Gerhard reached out to the museum to see if it might be possible to trace the Leiters’ descendants.
“Normally we don’t get asked to find people who have a connection to a certain item,” said Jo-Ellyn Decker, a research and reference librarian. “I have never encountered that in the 13 years that I have worked at the museum.”
Jo-Ellyn knew the chances of finding a descendant were slim. But the postcard addressed to Eduard Leiter was a tantalizing clue and she decided to join Gerhard with his quest.
Searching through every archive she could think of, Jo-Ellyn began to piece together the Leiter family tree. She slowly uncovered the fact that Eduard and Ernestine Leiter had one son named Sali who had been able to escape from Germany, ending up in New York, where he changed his name to Charles. He and his wife had two children: a daughter Marianne and a son Max.
An obituary for Max from The New York Times included the most important clue yet: Max and his wife Susi had had two children named Richard and Steven and three grandchildren: Alexandra, Samantha and Jacob.
Jo-Ellyn began looking for them every way she could, including on social media. In February 2021, she chanced across a LinkedIn account for a young man named Jacob Leiter who seemed to be about the right age and lived in the New York City area — and she reached out.
Jacob was floored. He confirmed with Jo-Ellyn that yes, he was indeed the great-great-grandson of Eduard and Ernestine Leiter. “I have always been interested in learning about my family history. I had already done research into my ancestry,” said Jacob.
The first thing Jacob did was call his 94-year-old grandmother, Susi Kasper Leiter, who had been married to Max, and had been lucky enough to escape from Germany in the Kindertransport, an organized rescue effort to get children out of Nazi Germany and other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. Elated, he shared the news of the Jewish family Bible with her.
The main goal from that point forward was to get the Bible to Susi as quickly as possible, given her age. All hands were on deck. While the staff of the Ehemalige Synagoge Oberdorf figured out how to transport the Bible to the Leiters, and began the delicate process of packing it up, Jo-Ellyn gave Jacob more and more information about his family tree. Meanwhile, Gerhard sent Jacob a photo of his great-great-grandparents that he had uncovered during his years of research, bringing the connection full circle.
Photo credit: Gerhard Roese
Another chance player entered the mix. Worried that the Bible would get lost in transit, the staff of the synagogue found a businessman traveling to New York who was willing to hand-deliver it to the Leiters. After a long flight with the 22-pound Bible on his lap, the businessman brought it to Susi’s New York apartment on June 9. Jacob was there to witness the historic moment, along with the rest of the family. It was the biggest celebration anyone could remember.
Photo credit: Jacob Leiter
Gerhard was relieved that after years of effort, the artifact had found its way back to its rightful owners. “It’s maybe the best thing that I’ve done in my life so far,” he said.
“Before this, I was a big believer that everything happens for a reason,” said Jacob, “but this was beyond anything you can imagine.”
For her part, Susi was overwhelmed that so many people had worked together to reunite her family with their long-lost Jewish Bible. “The kindness of people will never cease to amaze me,” she said. “Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, out of all the death and disaster and cruelty, came something beautiful.”