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American Jew Honors Germans Who Helped Preserve Jewish History

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Five Germans — a bookstore owner, a banker, a teacher and two historians — were honored here this week for helping preserve German Jewish history.

“This is an opportunity for Jews throughout the world to say thank you,” said Arthur Obermayer of Boston, presenting the Obermayer German Jewish History Award, which he initiated in 2000. “We hope you will be honored not only by us, but by the residents in your communities, by the German public and by people in other countries who have no idea what is going on in Germany.”

The awards were presented Sunday as Germany, along with many other European countries, marked Holocaust Memorial Day. The annual commemoration comes on the anniversary of the Jan. 27, 1945, liberation of Auschwitz.

The Obermayer Award is cosponsored by the German Jewish Community History Council, the Office of the President of the Berlin Parliament and the German Jewish Special Interest Group of JewishGen, a U.S.-based Internet genealogy organization.

Nominations are made by Jews around the world. Honorees are chosen by an international jury that includes Obermayer.

This year’s winners helped preserve forgotten synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, rescued rare Jewish documents from oblivion, made contact with the far-flung relatives of German Jewish families and wrote books about local Jewish history.

They reflect a growing trend in Germany: the exploration of the rich Jewish life that existed before the Nazi era.

One indicator of that interest is the fact that the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, which documents nearly 2,000 years of German Jewish history, has received more visitors than any other museum in Germany since it opened last September.

The honorees at Sunday’s ceremony in the German Parliament spoke of having to overcome local resistance in order to achieve their goals. They also said they hoped the award would encourage others to undertake such projects.

Honoree Josef Motschmann, a 50-year-old theology teacher and marriage counselor, researched Jewish history in his birthplace of Staffelstein.

“Some people said I was dirtying the nest,” he said of his efforts.

Monica Kingreen, a historian and teacher, started researching the Jewish history of her town of Windecken in 1983. She recalled how her neighbors reacted when she proposed changing the name of her street, Braugasse, back to its original name, Judengasse.

“One day, they collected signatures in my street under the slogan, ‘We don’t want to live in a Judengasse,’ ” said Kingreen, who has written numerous books and articles about German Jewish communities.

Olaf Ditzel recalled how he and others managed to rescue a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, in their town of Vacha in Thuringia, a state in what used to be East Germany.

“The area was supposed to be torn down so a new house could be built, and we managed to save it,” said Ditzel, who used to be a roofer and now has his own bookstore in Vacha.

“Now that there are many visitors to this site, people realized what a treasure we have there,” he said.

“The award is very encouraging,” said Gunter Boll, a 61-year-old teacher and researcher, whose scholarly work began in 1981, after he rescued rare Jewish documents and objects from a burning trash site.

The material came from the Mackenheim synagogue in the Alsace region of France.

Heinrich Schreiner, a retired state bank president from Mainz, was honored for organizing the reconstruction of the Mainz-Weisenau synagogue and for directing its use for cultural and religious events.

One of the honorees was not able to attend the ceremony: Gisele Bunge, an 82-year-old widow living in Gardelegen, who for decades defied the Communist authorities in her town in the former East Germany to document the history and fate of local Jews. She made contact with Jewish families with roots in Gardelegen, and wrote a history of the Jewish community there.

Bunge’s son-in-law, Karl-Heinz Reuschel, said, “The Jewish theme in East Germany was ignored, not discussed. She passed along her information by word of mouth.”

Several honorees said it was revealing that they had not received recognition from groups in Germany.

“My colleagues said it was not enough to get a prize from America,” Motschmann said, referring to the award from Obermayer, an American Jew with German roots.

For his part, Obermayer said at the ceremony that he still gets puzzled looks from some American Jewish friends when they hear about his award, which he created after he discovered “marvelous, caring Germans in the communities where my ancestors lived.”

Some American Jews “may scratch their heads, but they always acknowledge that they should treat Germans based on their actions,” Obermayer said. “My feeling is, it is important that this award comes from Jews outside of Germany.”

Kingreen suggested that the award might provoke greater interest on the part of some Germans in local Jewish history.

Many still think one has to be Jewish in order to be interested, she said.

Her daughter Halina, 21, said friends often ask whether she is Jewish when she mentions her mother’s work.

“It’s the same with me,” her mother said. “When they hear about my work, they ask me, ‘Were you affected by the Holocaust?’ It’s a way to avoid asking directly if I am Jewish. When I tell them no, they ask me, ‘Then why are you interested?’

“And I answer, ‘To be German is enough of a reason.’ “

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