Non-Jewish Germans honored for preserving local Jewish history


BERLIN (JTA) – Non-Jewish Germans who have helped preserve local Jewish history were honored at the 17th annual Obermayer German Jewish History Awards.

Rolf Wieland, president of the Berlin House of Representatives, presented the awards — established by the late American philanthropist Arthur Obermayer — on Monday in the Berlin Senate.

The ceremonies are among many events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz 72 years ago.

Virtually all the award winners said they face the same challenge: reaching a younger generation with a history rapidly fading from memory.

Many students agree “it’s important to remember, but they also want to be seen as normal people,” said prize-winner Angelika Rieber of Frankfurt, whose 40-year-old, nonprofit Jewish Life Project has brought thousands of local teens in contact with the city’s former Jewish residents and their descendants.

“Pupils are afraid to be put on the defendants’ bench. But these fears dissolve through conversations” with Jewish visitors, said Rieber, who was born after the Holocaust  in 1951.

In Bruchsal, a town in Baden-Württemberg, high school students inspired by prize-winner Rolf Schmitt work every year on biographies of Jewish citizens who were murdered in the Holocaust.

They “focus on the fate of Jews for whom ‘stumbling block’ memorials will be laid in the town,” said Schmitt, 64, who was honored for his work to reclaim the town’s forgotten Jewish history. “I am glad to see that these actions are not dying out with old people like me.”

“It’s not always easy, but we do get youth interested,” Wieland told JTA, noting an annual exhibition prepared by Berlin students that this year is titled  “We don’t talk about that?”

Other Obermayer awardees are:

* Thilo Figaj, a cosmetics manufacturer and local politician from Lorsch, Hesse, who has championed remembrance of the Jews of his town and written a biography of Heinz Jost, a local Nazi war criminal who was deliberately left out of postwar history books.

* Volker Landig and Hartmut Peters, co-founders of Gröschler House: Center for Jewish History and Contemporary History of the Friesland/Wilhelmshaven Region.

* Historian Ina Lorenz and attorney Jörg Berkemann, professors who spent 20 years researching and writing  a seven-volume history of the Jews in Hamburg under the Nazis.

A Distinguished Service Award was given to the Leipziger Synagogue Choir, founded in 1962 in the former East Germany by Cantor Werner Sander. Since its inception, most of its members have been non-Jews dedicated to reconnecting Germans with their Jewish musical past.

It was the first time that the award honored groups as well as individuals, according to Karen Franklin, president of the Obermayer German Jewish History Awards.

Contacts between the second and third generation on both sides “makes it clear that even though the past is very far back, it leaves traces in us,” Rieber said. “That brings us a step forward.”

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