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Finding Your Roots

The search for Jewish roots in Germany may be easier now, thanks to a new research center that opened last fall.

The Ephraim Gustav Hoenlein Genealogy Project is designed to help Jews of Germanic descent trace their origins. It is a joint project of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the Jewish Community of Würzburg.

“This will hopefully be a source for other people to look back to their roots,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The new center is named for Hoenlein’s father, who fled Nazi Germany with his family and immigrated to the United States.

The genealogy center is one of two new local Lauder Foundation projects announced October 14. The second, the Lauder Chorev Centre, will be completed in 2004.

The center will provide room and board for Jewish teenagers attending Lauder Jewish educational programs, summer camps and leadership-training seminars in Würzburg.

The Lauder Foundation has been active in Würzburg for three years, said Rabbi Binjamin Krauss, director of the foundation’s Frankfurt center.

Up to now, Lauder programs in Germany have focused on building a new generation of Jews with knowledge about Judaism. With the new genealogy center, the focus will be on building connections with the past.

“I hope it will be similar to what we have in Poland, with Jews from America and Israel coming here to find out more about their roots,” Krauss said. “This can range from simple inquiries to requests for help in fixing up certain places or in creating a family tree.”

Krauss said the center will accept donations from people who wish to use its services.

Archivist Michael Schneeberger will oversee the work of the new center, Krauss said.

“Today, Jewish family research is world research,” said Schneeberger, 53, a convert to Judaism. Even starting with only a family name and a place of origin, he has been able to reconstruct family trees and trace far-flung relatives.

Schneeberger’s interest in genealogy started with his own attempts — as yet unsuccessful — to track down a paternal Jewish ancestor.

“I want to help more people find out about their background,” he said.

Hoenlein knows the route well. Over the years, he has reconnected with his family history in Frankfurt, Wurzburg and Ermreuth.

During his visit for the dedication of the new center, Hoenlein saw the graves of his great-grandparents, spoke to neighbors who had known them and visited their house.

Like many refugees from Nazi Germany, Ephraim Hoenlein lost his parents and his home, but did not discuss his experiences with his children.

Now, his son said, “It is important for the younger generation to be able to find out about and explore their history.”

Hoenlein noted the Torah portion in which God tells Abraham where his ancestors came from, but does not say where Abraham is headed.

“For many people, knowing where they come from helps them to know where they are going,” Hoenlein said.

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