BERLIN, Feb. 9 (JTA) — Christiane Walesch-Schneller doesn’t find anything unusual about her work peeling away the layers of her country’s Jewish past. In fact, trying to uncover local Jewish history before and during the Holocaust “is a kind of psychotherapy for people, including myself,” says psychoanalyst Walesch-Schneller, who helped rescue a former Jewish community center in her town of Breisach, Germany. While some Germans today would like to forget about the 12-year Nazi era and be a “normal” nation, there are a few tough souls like Walesch-Schneller, 53, who seek to probe the past rather than escape it. Late last month, on Germany’s ninth annual observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Walesch-Schneller and five other non-Jewish Germans were honored with the Obermayer German Jewish History Award in ceremonies at the Berlin State Parliament. The event was one of several marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany, on the Jan. 27 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 by Soviet troops. The honorees were: • Lothar Bembenek, a schoolteacher from Wiesbaden whose initiative led to the creation of the Active Museum Spiegelgasse for German Jewish History in Wiesbaden. • Dorothee Lottmann-Kaeseler, who became curator of the museum in Wiesbaden in 1998 after many years as a volunteer. She has initiated countless innovative exhibits and programs and pushed to preserve the city’s oldest Jewish building. • Klaus-Dieter Ehmke, a medical doctor from Berlin who recovered scattered tombstones and restored a Jewish cemetery in the former East German town of Niederhof. • Cordula Kappner, a librarian from Hassfurt, Bavaria, who for 20 years has researched local Jewish history in the Franconian region and mounted 34 separate exhibits in villages that once had Jewish populations. • Juergen Sielemann, an archivist and historian from Hamburg who initiated a project to post on the Internet the complete list of 5 million emigrants who came through the port of Hamburg, and who founded Germany’s first and only society for Jewish genealogy. • Walesch-Schneller, a medical doctor from Breisach, Baden-Wuerttemberg. Together with other residents, she formed the Society for the Promotion of the Former Jewish Community Center in Breisach, which researches local Jewish history, organizes visits for Jews originally from Breisach and offers other cultural programs. The community center building also has been used for Sabbath services by three Jewish families now living in Breisach. This is the fourth year of the award initiated by Arthur Obermayer, a Jewish businessman from Boston with roots in Germany. Prizewinners were nominated by Jews from the United States, Israel, France and Germany. Each winner receives a $1,250 honorarium. “These people are doing this with a great deal of dedication, and not for an honorarium,” Obermayer told JTA. “They do their work because they feel they ought to, because they want to.” Obermayer’s idea for creating the prize was born out of his own contacts with local historians in his family’s ancestral town of Creglingen. Thanks to Obermayer, that town now has a museum dedicated to local Jewish history. Rachel Esher knew Klaus-Dieter Ehmke for years before she learned of his project to reclaim the scattered Jewish tombstones of Niederhof. She was one of three people to nominate Ehmke for the prize. Ehmke, 45, a doctor working in Berlin, had returned to the region where he grew up, drawn by the need to find the tombstones and return them to their proper place. He managed to convince local residents to part with tombstones that had been turned into staircases and paving stones, promising to replace them with new ones. In this way, he slowly recovered more than 15 stones and fragments and helped reconstruct the Gute Ort cemetery. For Werner Frank, 74, a coordinator of the German-Jewish history group of the JewishGen.org Web site, the road to reconciliation with Germany has been a long one, and it still is not an easy journey. When Frank, who now lives in Los Angeles, first went back to the town of his birth, Eppingen, in 1952, he visited the Jewish cemetery, said his prayers over the graves of his grandparents and left. No one but he knew he had returned. After that, he made many business trips to Germany and heard from a teacher in Eppingen who wanted him to visit. He hesitated. “I sent the pupils 20 questions, like, ‘What do you know about the Jews in your town?’ and ‘Do you realize you have not done anything to recognize the Jews of Eppingen on your town Web site?’ ” Frank said. The schoolchildren answered all his questions, and then he visited them in 2002. “One teenager said to me, ‘Do you blame me?’ ” Frank said, unable to continue for a moment. “I told her, ‘Of course not. That’s why I’m here.’ “Walesch-Schneller is planning a gathering for the summer of 2004. She is seeking contact with any far-flung members of the Geismar family from Breisach. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
German non-Jews honored