Hans-Jürgen Beck
Bad Kissingen, Bavaria

For centuries, the Bavarian town of Bad Kissingen has been famous for its healing hot springs. It also had a small, thriving Jewish community – many of its members catering
to spa visitors. But about them, after World War II, there was only silence.

The official town chronicle dismissed the theme perfunctorily: The fate of Jews was “sufficiently known.” The hot springs – shut during 1945, reopened. And that was that.

But for Hans-Jürgen Beck, born and raised here, the local chronicle was not enough. Inspired by excellent teachers who challenged the status quo, he went where few had dared to go. In so doing, he changed the picture forever. Today, books, exhibits and a Jewish cultural festival are among the credits to Beck’s name. But for him, his new Jewish friends “are the biggest gift – the personal contacts that have grown out of the work.”

It started in 1982, when Beck was studying German and theology at Würzburg University. He embarked on a search that would turn into his college dissertation. “There was almost nothing written” about local Jewish history at the time. “The past was not confronted. It was an empty page.” He interviewed townspeople who remembered their former Jewish neighbors. He visited archives. The town’s then-mayor, Georg Straus, shared his own contacts with former Jewish residents. Beck even tried to talk to an old Nazi who had once made a drawing of the Bad Kissingen synagogue. “He slammed the door in my face.” But Beck was not deterred. “The theme did not let me go.”

By 1988 he had managed to piece together hundreds of years of local Jewish history, from the middle ages to the Holocaust. His research provided the basis for the 1988 exhibition – assembled by the pupils of his former high school history teacher Rudolf Walter – marking the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. This became what is now the permanent exhibit at the Bad Kissingen Jewish Community House, alongside where the synagogue once stood. He and Walter have worked together since.

Thanks to Beck, now 50, the history of Bad Kissingen’s Jewish community is now well known: from its earliest mention in the 14th century up to the community’s end under the
Nazis. At its peak in the 1920s, the Jewish population reached 504, according to Beck. But many more were temporary guests, drawn by the healing waters. Jewish-run hotels and restaurants, Jewish doctors and religious communities catered to these guests.

That bustling life is documented in the permanent exhibit. In 1990, Beck and Walter collaborated on another project, publishing a comprehensive, illustrated work on the pre-Hitler Jewish community, entitled Jüdisches Leben in Bad Kissingen.

Since 1993, as a teacher of religion and German at the same school he attended - Bad Kissingen Gymnasium – Beck has imparted his knowledge to new generations. And he continues to nurture the connections he has made with former local Jewish families who, back in the 1980s, were longing for information about their roots.

Says nominator Elizabeth Levy, Beck “has touched – and continues to touch - the lives of many Jewish families who seek to discover the history of their families and countless others who wish to learn about the history of their town.”

Today, anyone who wants to know more about local Jewish history as well as Jewish faith and culture in general need only check what Beck is up to: He has organized conferences
and commemorative events, delivered lectures and created adult education materials on related themes. He has illuminated the dark side of local history: The events of Kristallnacht and the deportation of the Jews of Bad Kissingen are known and discussed, thanks in part to memorial events that Beck has organized from 1988 to today.

His unquenchable thirst for knowledge also has made Beck an authority on the local Jewish cemetery – as well as on the New Synagogue in Bad Kissingen, which was damaged on Kristallnacht and torn down in 1939. Beck’s research into original drawings and photographs helped college students digitally reconstruct the building, which now can be virtually visited online as part of a remarkable project of the Technical University in Darmstadt. In 2007, the project was shown for the first time, on a big screen. “The lights went out and the image came up. And there were many in the room who had seen the synagogue personally, at least from the outside,” Beck recalls. “It was so still in the room, and so haunting.”

Beck has done his best to ensure that local Jews are not forgotten. He initiated a yearlong Jewish cultural festival in 2002, with concerts, lectures and exhibitions; it is held every
few years. In 2011, he organized and presented a series of lectures and concerts, “Vom Kantorensohn zum Nobelpreisträger” (“From the cantor’s son to Nobel laureate”) marking
the 90th birthday of Nobel prize-winning physicist Jack Steinberger, whose family fled Nazi Germany to the USA.

Meanwhile, Beck has done genealogical research, organized family reunions and provided historical tours for Jews revisiting their former hometown. He describes their visits as unforgettable. One woman, after swearing never to return, finally did – accompanied by her adult son. “We walked into the concert hall and she began to cry” – it was the same hall she’d been barred from as a Jewish child, when her dance school held its final performance. Over the years, Beck has listened to many such recollections. He also has learned of gentiles who denounced Jewish neighbors to the Gestapo, and of the few non-Jews who reached out to help.

Putting names and faces on the lost Jewish community has been rewarding and painful. “Looking at the State Archive in Wurzburg, I had a choking feeling when I saw that last
page, with the list of deportations. I felt I had gotten to know them in a way. And then you read that they were deported and murdered.”

Thirty years have passed since Beck first started his own student project. Today, the rich and varied story of Bad Kissingen’s Jews is no longer a mere footnote, easily dismissed.
“I felt I owed it to these people,” that they not be forgotten.

Nominated by: Joske Ehreli, Kibbutz Ein Gedi Israel; Charles May Jacobson, The Villages, FL USA; Oda Kissinger and Doron Kaynar, Tel Aviv Israel; Elizabeth Levy, Mevassaret
Zion Israel; Lisa Levy, Potomac, MD USA; Michael Levy, Berlin Germany; Gad Kaynar, Tel Aviv Israel; Hilla Schütze, Bad Kissingen Germany; Jack Steinberger, Geneva Switzerland;
Georg Straus, Bad Kissingen Germany; Rudolf Walter, Bad Kissingen Germany