Historical society remembers early Jewish families

Published 6:30 pm Friday, May 3, 2019

VALLEY — Thursday of this week was Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel it’s commonly known as Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the millions of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in World War II. It has been observed in Israel since 1951. It’s become a national tradition for everyone to stop what they are doing at ten o’clock and observe two minutes of silence to remember those who died.

The holocaust was unspeakably harsh for the Jewish people of Europe. In 1939, the year World War II began, there was an estimated 16.5 million Jews worldwide, most of them in Europe. Some 80 years since the war started, the world’s Jewish population has yet to reach that number. It’s about 15 million with nine million living in Israel, which was founded in 1948.

With Holocaust Remembrance Day being observed last week in Israel, it was appropriate for the Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society to have a quarterly program last Sunday about a thriving Jewish community that existed in Lanett from the mid 1850s until modern times. Descendants of those families have long since moved away because of better economic opportunities elsewhere.

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In a program entitled “Early residents of Old Bluffton and the Temple They Built,” CVHS President Malinda Powers and her son, history professor Charles Powers, talked about several families who fled Europe and the long-time prejudices there for new opportunity in the United States. These families had names such as Heyman, Merz, Cohen, Sterne, Herzberg, Friesleben and Hagedorn.

“This is their story,” Malinda Powers said. “It’s a story of faith, family and friendship and how it bonded a community tightly together.”

Many of them owned stores in downtown West Point and built homes on Heyman Street in nearby Bluffton. In 1859, they organized Temple Beth El and in 1909 built a beautiful house of worship on what’s now North 4th Avenue in Lanett, just up the street from the office of The Valley Times-News.

Temple Beth El (Hebrew for House of God) stood until the 1970s, when it was down. By then, the local Jewish families had moved elsewhere. The Torah and other religious objects were transferred to a synagogue in Columbus.

The local Jewish legacy is carried on in some beautiful homes that were built and place names such as Heyman Pines.

Most of the immigrants who came to Bluffton came by way of Philadelphia.

In 1852, Heyman Heyman arrived in Philadelphia. Sam Cohen was already there, giving him at least one friend in the new world. On his way across the Atlantic, aboard an ocean liner, young Heyman met a newly married couple, Levi and Lena Sterne, and made two more friends. In Philadelphia, Sam Cohen introduced Heyman to a boarder in his home named Louis Merz. He was Sam’s cousin and was from Durkheim, in what is now Germany. They became fast friends and within the year they both decided to head south, first to LaGrange and shortly after that to West Point.

In a bustling town on the Georgia-Alabama state line, Heyman and Merz were taken in as boarders by Rueben and Arabella Lanier and their young sons, including Lafayette and Alexander Campbell Lanier. All of them saw opportunity to build businesses in this place called West Point, Georgia.

They would go on to establish mercantile establishments in the town.

Herman became a U.S. citizen in 1858. That same year, Levi and Lena Sterne settled in Bluffton, along with Levi’s brother, Ansel. Jacob Friesleben also came to Bluffton. By 1859, there were enough Jewish families living in Bluffton that they started holding worship services in their homes. In 1860, Louis Merz’s brother, Daniel, moved to Bluffton.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Heyman and Daniel Merz volunteered for service in the Confederate army but were turned down due to poor eyesight. Daniel’s brother, Louis, was accepted as a member of the West Point Guards, which became part of the 4th Georgia Regiment. The 4th Georgia camped at Fort Jackson, near Hampton Roads, Virginia. Being there in 1862 gave Louis Merz the chance to see the CSS Virginia (or Merrimack) being scuttled by the Confederates after its famed clash with the Monitor — the first ever engagement between ironclad vessels.

During this period, Merz kept a diary, recording events in the life of a Confederate soldier. It records events of the Seven Days battles in the spring of 1862 and the loss of the 4th Georgia’s captain, George Todd, at Malvern Hill.  His last entry was on July 9, 1862. He wrote about a visit he’d received in camp from his old friend Heyman Heyman, whom many were calling Herman by this time.

The war would go from bad to worse, with the 4th Georgia seeing action in campaigns in northern Virginia and being part of Robert E. Lee’s Maryland campaign. Near Antietam Creek on Sept. 17, 1862, Louis Merz lost his life in the Miller cornfield, a place that switched hands some 15 times that day. The Battle of Antietam has long been called the Bloodiest Day in American history, and West Point merchant and Bavarian immigrant Louis Merz was among the 23,000 Americans who were killed, wounded or captured that day.

Some of his artifacts, including his diary, were retrieved. That diary exists today and is one of the Historical Society’s most treasured artifacts. It was on public display for the first time in over 60 years in Sunday afternoon’s program. It was in a shadow box along with an 1861 photo of Pvt. Merz.