Hello, Germany

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 04, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It is cold, unreasonably cold, and the fact that the news from around the world is mostly terrible doesn’t help. Having in mind the good and welfare of my readers, as also my own desire for an uplifting thaw, here is some news to warm the freezing heart.

For the 11th year in a row, the Obermayer Foundation, of Newton, Mass., has given awards to five non-Jewish Germans who have made extraordinary contributions to preserving Jewish history, culture, cemeteries and synagogues in their own local communities. The Obermayer German Jewish History Awards are co-sponsored by Berlin’s House of Representatives and given in its elegant plenary chamber. You can access the full report on all 55 winners (so far) of the award here, and that is really the only way to comprehend the extent of their efforts.

Many of the awardees began their work by reviving dead cemeteries — neglected places with broken and toppled tombstones, overgrown with vegetation, abused. And work on clearing the debris and refurbishing the stones and their legends led many to search records and to develop elaborate genealogical histories. And sometimes their research recovered names and histories that had been long forgotten, men and women and children whose names and therefore whose existence would otherwise have been obliterated. More: They reached out to Jews around the world whose roots lay in the towns and cities where they lived, and invited them to visit; many have.

One example: Brigitta Stammer, who was largely responsible for relocating a synagogue that had survived Kristallnacht from a town called Bodenfelde, where there are no longer any Jews, to her own town of Göttingen 25 miles away. Göttingen had precisely the reverse problem: It is home to a small Jewish community (immigrants from the former Soviet Union) but had no synagogue.

Stammer raised 500,000 euros, much of it from Protestant and Catholic congregations, for the project. Every board from the synagogue was labeled and brought to Göttingen, where the synagogue was rebuilt in its original design. The project, including its painted decorations, took 12 years to complete. The “new” synagogue, as the award citation notes, “was rededicated in November 2008, 70 years after the destruction of the large synagogue of Göttingen” during Kristallnacht. (And this I learned just the other day: The great-grandfather of a dear friend of mine in Jerusalem used to pray at the Bodenfelde synagogue.)

Many of the awardees are or were teachers, but there are others, too — a psychoanalyst, a mailman, social workers, a farmer, journalists, lawyers, a mechanic, medical doctors and Protestant ministers, a stone mason. The awards are given on or about January 27 each year, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz; the date is both the German Holocaust Memorial Day and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Of course this is all about the Holocaust, often prompted by guilt, more often by curiosity. Their questions: Who were these people, our neighbors? Why did my parents have nothing to say about those times? Can we do more than discover and remember, can we in any way revive? Can there be a future for our past? Genealogies yes and museums, yes — but yes also to community centers. And our questions, obviously: Who are these people, these friends, and wherefrom their passion?

Another example: Heinrich Schreiner was president of the Central Bank of the state of Rheinland-Pfalz. After retiring, he began the work for which he would, in 2002, be honored. He, too, was responsible for the reconstruction of a synagogue, this one in Mainz, which had once been considered one of Europe’s leading centers of Jewish scholarship. This synagogue had lasted from 1737, when it was built, until Kristallnacht, two centuries later, when it was vandalized. After the war, the synagogue’s site was used variously as a chicken coop, for storing lumber and as a dump.

As the award’s citation recounts, it was Schreiner, a leader in the Catholic church, who “raised the funds (about $2 million), encouraged community leaders to participate; engaged the architects; handled the complex legal, business and political issues; and oversaw the physical restoration of the synagogue.” It was not, however, rededicated on Holocaust Remembrance Day but rather on May 27, 1996, commemorating the 900th anniversary of the slaughter of Mainz’s Jews in the First Crusade.

Not all questions have answers. Some beget, instead, responses. When you read through the 55 citations, and the brief biographies that chronicle the work of the honorees, you are left with the puzzle: What is it that led them to devote themselves to searching out the history of the Jews, to refurbishing the cemeteries, to rebuilding houses of worship and often adding cultural or community centers hard by?

I doubt we will ever know, beyond occasional glimmers of insight. What we can know and can celebrate is what has been accomplished and the gift of recognition provided by Judith and Arthur Obermayer, whose eclectic interests include not only their own family history (see “The Obermayers: A History of a Jewish Family in Germany and America”) but also social justice work both in the United States and in Israel. Not for nothing was Arthur Obermayer, in 2007, honored by the Bundesverdienstkreuz award, the highest honor provided by the German Federal Republic. No, for something both modest and immense, for encouraging and acknowledging the ongoing repair of a rent fabric.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.