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Man Uses Old Paintings, Google Maps to Locate Grandmother's House in Germany

Shahar Shoshan speaks of finding his wife's grandmother's home in Harburg by matching Google Maps photos with historical paintings

By: Shahar Shoshan
Published: November 11th, 2013 in Business » World
Painting that started it all, and house as it is today

Our story begins in the home of Ruth Levi née Nebel, my wife's grandmother. In her living room I saw two paintings: One of a house with a green façade on a narrow and pastoral street, with a castle in the background, and on the opposite wall another painting of houses on the bank of a tranquil river with that same castle in the background.

When I noticed the common denominator, I asked about the paintings and discovered that they depict the house and town Ruth grew up in. I immediately decided to check whether the house still exists and can be found on Google Maps.

Geographical investigation

The starting point for locating the house was Google Maps, but the company's car-mounted cameras have yet to reach Harburg, so the Street View option was off the table, and I had to try to come up with the house's address, which was unclear from the aerial shots.

If we examine the pictures, we'll see that according to the towers, the castle is seen from the same height but at a slightly different horizontal area, while in the second painting, the castle appears a bit bigger and seems to have been drawn directly above the river.

According to logic, it was drawn on a bridge. Indeed, if we examine the aerial photo we'll discover a bridge facing the castle.


(Harburg, as seen over Wörnitz river, 1930s)

If in both paintings we can see the castle on a hill, then they are both facing the same direction, with the change of perspective between the towers (the gap between them grew significantly) showing that the picture depicting the river was painted on the left of the one depicting the house. That is strengthened by the knowledge that there is a bridge exactly on the logical angle.

All this tells us that the house should be behind and to the right of the bridge.


(Painting clarifies street structure and house with chimney and unique window)

A more accurate examination of the building reveals a chimney on the right corner, with a unique window on the left part of the roof turning towards the street. When I received the aerial photos in the logical area I managed to locate exactly one house that looks like that, and that is the green house on Egelsee Street in Harburg, Germany.

While I was working on the family tree for a family genealogy project, I scanned the Internet and run across records of the Jewish community in the area edited by a German journalist called Rolf Hofmann together with one of the family members, in which they documented the entire Nebel family and its offspring from 1759 to this day.

Hofmann directed me to a Harburg resident called Fritz Leimer, who has lived there all his life and is considered the regional expert on the town's Jews. Leimer did not only know the family members, but also the house's address, and so I got final confirmation for the building's existence and location.

Welcome back

The Nebel family home was built in 1613 and is located in the old area of Harburg. The house, which had been in the possession of Jews for the longest time in the history of the town – 183 years, was sold to a Jewish family in 1753 and contains three floors and an attic, with a different part of the family living on each floor.

In the Nebel family home, as well as in the adjacent house of the Oppenheimer family, is a room mentioned in history books as a Laubhütte. The room must face east, and the sunset and stars at night should be visible from it.

It turns out that the Jews in Germany would use it as a sukkah at the time. It's interesting to see that this tradition continues to this very day in modern construction in Bnei Brak and in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood. In the newer buildings constructed as condominium complexes, it is not always possible to take scaffolding out of the house or open a sukkah in the parking space, and so the houses are constructed in advance with the built-in sukkah and are called "kosher homes."

Facing the house is the synagogue built in 1754, which served as a community center and included the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath). Until its construction, the only mikveh in the town was located in the Oppenheimer family home, two houses away, where they built an underground descent leading into a small mikveh for the household members.

The synagogue, which served the Jewish community, had its problems as it is located exactly on the Wörnitz river, which tends to overflow once every decade or so, flooding the basements and ruining the first floor – the same floor which houses the benches and stage from which the Torah is read.

When the majority of the community left the town in 1936, the synagogue was deserted. Although it was not torched on Kristallnacht in November 1938, its content was plundered by the town's residents, who used the wooden furniture as firewood to heat their houses.

Related articles: Paintings, Google, Google Maps, World War II, History, Jewish News, Holocaust
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