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Non-jewish Germans Bring Back a Once-familiar, Rich Jewish World


Lars Menk, a non-Jew, calls himself “meshuga.”

Instead of taking a lucrative job in advertising, the Berliner resident became a letter carrier so he’d have more time to pursue his passion of researching German Jewish names.

Menk’s 800-page volume with the etymology and geographical origins of 13,000 such names, collected on adventures across Germany, was published recently.

“I loved it,” Menk said of his cross-country tour. “I took pictures, I collected documents.”

Menk, 45, was one of five people to receive this year’s Obermayer German Jewish History Awards in a ceremony at the Berlin Parliament House. The event was among several in Germany marking Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.

The Obermayer Award highlights the richness of prewar Jewish life. It was created seven years ago by American Jewish businessman Arthur Obermayer, who was inspired by his contacts with historians in his family’s ancestral town of Creglingen in southwestern Germany. Obermayer later created a Jewish museum in the town.

His competition has recognized the work of some 40 Germans, all non-Jews. The awards include small financial stipends aimed at furthering their work.

Recipients have spent years building living memorials to German Jewish heritage, and many have established strong ties with survivors, their children and grandchildren.

“Thanks to their efforts, many Germans know more about the contours of a once familiar world,” Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s office here, said in her keynote talk at the event. “As stated in the Talmud, he who has saved a soul has saved the world. In this spirit, each of the honorees has touched the lives of many far beyond the borders of their towns and municipalities.”

Walter Momper, president of the Parliament, said the recipients’ works form an important bulwark against anti-Semitism.

“Without expecting any compensation, these people have of their own will and in their free time brought the Jewish heritage back to life,” he said.

Obermayer said their efforts showed “how a terrible period in a country’s history can continue to impact its inhabitants” half a century later.

The awards are co-sponsored 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, an international Jewish genealogy organization on the Internet.

Menk began his labor of love when, delving into his ancestry, he discovered a Jewish great-grandmother. He began studying the genealogy not only of his family, but of other Jews.

“I was fascinated,” he said.

Though their projects varied, the Obermayer honorees shared the qualities of modesty and volunteer spirit.

“I have a lot of helpers,” said Ernst Schaell, 79, who for 20 years has been painstakingly restoring tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Laupheim. Most of the Jews in that southwestern town were deported and never returned.

Schaell, who had a stroke a few years ago, says he is “a bit handicapped” and relies on the help of other volunteers, the youngest of whom is 35.

“You have to restore all sides of a stone,” Schaell explained, “and they are heavy.”

Former schoolteacher Johannes Bruno, who immigrated to Germany 50 years ago from Italy and has lived 40 years in Speyer, has devoted his retirement to researching the rich Jewish history of the Rhine River town, writing three books and numerous articles. Speyer once was renowned for its Jewish learning and culture.

He’s neither German by birth nor Jewish, so Bruno asks the inevitable question himself: “Why?

Smiling, he says the answer is simple.

“I discovered that there was too little information available,” Bruno said, and he offered to fill in the gaps.

Florence Covinsky of Scottsdale, Ariz., nominated Bruno for the award. They met after Covinsky visited Speyer in 2000 with her mother, Hannah Hirsch, then 90. Covinsky and Hirsch had searched the Jewish cemetery in vain for family tombstones.

“I always heard the saying that when you go to a cemetery, someone in heaven smiles,” Covinsky said.

After returning to the United States, Covinsky’s mother wrote to the town of Speyer and asked for help.

“Johannes wrote back and gave her the inscription” for the tombstone, Covinsky said. “And I kept on writing to him. He started telling me more about what he was doing” — guided tours, articles, books, tours of the mikvah, lectures — “and I realized, ‘Wow.’ “

Like Bruno, Wilfried Weinke was bothered by the lack of information about Jewish life in his home city of Hamburg.

“I am a muckracker of forgotten history,” said Weinke, a historian who has created exhibits that have been displayed at venues such as the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt.

Inga Franken of Berlin was honored for her reconciliation work and her efforts to unearth local history. Several years ago Franken, a co-founder of the One-by-One contact group for children of survivors and perpetrators, saw an elderly man staring at the building in the former East Berlin where One-by-One regularly meets.

“He told us it had been a Jewish children’s home,” she recalled.

Amazed, Franken sought and found survivors in Israel who had lived in the home.

“I was able to rescue their life stories,” she said.

Carole Vogel of Lenox, Mass. — whose father, Max Garbuny, was born in Berlin and managed to escape Nazi Germany — calls Franken’s work “phenomenal.”

Vogel and Franken visit schools in Germany and the United States, where they speak with students about “making choices.”

“Our fathers were born the same day,” Vogel said. “Her father was a Nazi and mine paid the price. We both grew up in the shadows, and there were no winners for either side.”

On the day of the award ceremony, Lucille Eichengreen, who nominated Weinke, asked Menk if he’d ever heard of her family name.

“Of course,” he said immediately, “it’s a very important Jewish name in Westphalia.”

Menk knows these names represent a great tragedy. Many are gone forever — they represent all that is left of murdered families. One name came to mind: Sochaczewer, from Posen.

“Only three people survived, and all three are very old men without any male descendants,” he said. “So the name will vanish.”

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