Slowly, with endless patience, he moves from one grave to another, reconstructing the history of bygone Jewish communities through the personal data engraved on each tombstone.
This is the self-imposed mission of Naftali Bamberger, a Jerusalem scholar who came to Germany seven years ago. He has since written five books, each telling the story of a former Jewish community.
“It is a mitzvah to commemorate the names of the deceased,” Bamberger said.
He has written the histories of the communities of Neuwied, Hoechburg, Celle, Jebenhausen and Geislingen.
Bamberger, 76, is almost finished collecting information from the Jewish cemetery of Hanau, which is near Frankfurt and once had a Jewish population of 300. Jews began to live in Hanau in the late 16th century.
Small communities such as Hanau tell the story of the 500,000 Jews in Germany before the rise of Nazism, Bamberger said.
“Families which were unable to trace the graves of their relatives can now receive a picture of their tombstones, along with documentation of the engravement,” Bamberger said.
“But I am also building a bridge to the past. I am among the last of my generation who can still speak both Hebrew and German and has the necessary Judaic education to make this kind of work.”
Recently, the National Library at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem gave Bamberger the names of Hanau’s deceased.
The list of names, in combination with Bamberger’s research, has resulted in the identification of some 2,000 Jews.
A handful of young German theologians from the University of Tubingen are helping Bamberger decode the graves. He gave them a crash course in Hebrew, which aids them in identifying the Scriptures on the graves.
Bamberger’s granddaughter Adi and her husband, Tamir Nir, who are both students, came to the cemetery this summer to help out.
“It’s like a window which opens to the world,” said Tamir Nir. He added that he was intrigued by tombstones that recounted special family histories, with text written especially for the deceased, such as rhymes glorifying virtues.
The cemetery was no desecrated during the Nazi period, but only because the plot was set aside for the expansion of a nearby hospital, plans that never materialized.
The undertaking in primarily funded by the Bamberger family trust. Donations have come from Jews in France and Switzerland as well.