As a child growing up in Bavaria after the war, Detlev Herbst played hide and seek in his town’s Jewish cemetery and observed the ruins of a synagogue, destroyed in Kristallnacht, which stood opposite his grammar school—though he had no understanding of what the sites meant because no one in the town discussed them. His father had died of pneumonia while serving in the Wehrmacht medical corps in Warsaw during the war, and Herbst, born in 1943, was evacuated with his mother and grandmother when their home was bombed in Hannover. It wasn’t until many decades later when Herbst, a secondary school teacher in the town of Uslar in Lower Saxony, plunged into Jewish historical research and resuscitated his own region’s rich Jewish legacy while striving to make sure there was never any silence again about the Holocaust.
Herbst’s discoveries began in the 1980s, when he assigned his students a project researching the lives of children during the Third Reich. “In the schoolbooks I only found material about Jewish life in the cities—in Berlin and Hannover and Cologne—but nothing about the rural places,” he recalls, “so we started to ask older people what they knew about Jews who had lived here before.” Herbst and his students developed a series of questions for Uslar’s residents. “We stopped people on the street and got a lot of interesting answers, so much information. Some even said, ‘I can tell you the names of Jewish families and show you where the families lived.’”
Herbst turned the interviews into a small exhibition at the Uslar town hall, but that was just the beginning. Soon, a local journalist contacted Herbst to tell him about an ancient, little known synagogue and Jewish cemetery that existed in the neighboring town of Bodenfelde. “I didn’t know about it, nobody before had mentioned it,” Herbst says, and when he visited the town he found the 1825 synagogue. Built in the traditional half-timbered construction, with thick external beams embedded in clay bricks, the synagogue “was still standing but it was in a really poor state. The roof was leaking, water penetrated into the building, the condition was really poor. I showed it to my students, and then I thought, ‘Why not show it to the people of Uslar and Bodenfelde?’”
So began Herbst’s efforts to restore one of Lower Saxony’s great historic synagogues. In 2006, with the organizational and fundraising help of another Obermayer Award winner, Brigitta Stammer (2011), the Bodenfelde synagogue was dismantled, piece by piece, and moved to nearby Göttingen, where it became the new anchor to the city’s liberal Jewish community of 300. Herbst also worked with more than 200 students to restore and tend to Bodenfelde’s Jewish cemetery, where he has led tours, held lectures and taught young people and locals alike about their region’s Jewish past.
Herbst says he is driven by three main reasons to do this work. First, because “I want to give back names and faces to the forgotten Jewish neighbors and help the descendants of Jews from Uslar and Bodenfelde find information on their families’ history.” Second, he is showing today’s population “that a minority of people lived here who were very useful for the community, as Jewish people established factories andshops and gave thousands of people work in furniture, stones, coal and glass [industries].” And third, because “the Jewish population of this region was forced to leave this place, they were driven away and killed only because of their religion, and this must not be forgotten.”
As articles about Herbst’s work appeared in the local press, more and more residents stepped forward to tell him details and stories about what they remembered before the war. “I learned that some had worked in Jewish shops, or had a Jewish neighbor,” he says, and people delivered to him previously unseen documents, files, photographs, letters and other biographical items relating to the 60 to 80 Jews who had once lived in Uslar and Bodenfelde. Meanwhile, Herbst grew relationships and was able to collect information from descendants of several dozen Jewish families from the region, now living in places as remote as South Africa and Australia, the U.S. and Brazil, Italy, Britain, Sweden, Norway and Israel.
His work culminated in an exhibition at Uslar’s regional museum entitled “Jüdisches Leben Im Solling” (Jewish Life in Solling), which received more than 2,500 visitors and later became a one-room permanent exhibit, containing detailed biographies of the families and descriptions of the town’s former Jewish life dating back more than 400 years. Herbst wrote an accompanying book, Jüdisches Leben im Solling (Jewish Life in Solling), in addition to numerous articles about the Jewish heritage of Uslar and Bodenfelde. His latest book, Spuren Jüdischer Geschichte zwischen Solling und Weser (Traces of Former Jewish Life Between Solling and Weser), was published in 2014.
Additionally, Herbst has helped raise money to install more than a dozen Stolpersteine and numerous mounted plaques outside the homes where Uslar’s Jews formerly lived. He is also responsible for a Holocaust memorial erected in a central park in Bodenfelde dedicated in memory of the town’s 20 residents who were murdered in concentration camps.
In the words of Livingstone Treumann of Redington Beach, Florida, whose grandparents fled from Bodenfelde: “Detlev Herbst is not only helping to restore synagogues and cemeteries, he is restoring something much more important and powerful: memories for future generations.” And Rabbi Philip Heilbrunn, past President of Orthodox Rabbis of Australia, said Herbst “has been a tower of strength and support in my passion to explore the roots of my mother’s family... [his] untiring efforts to broaden and deepen the understanding of the lives of this district’s Jews, and his deep sense of care and sensitivty to his mission to restore their memory, is unsurpassed.”
Still today, while striving in so many ways to keep alive the memory of Jews from Uslar, Herbst also manages several times a year to take his students to clean Bodenfelde’s Jewish cemetery—cutting branches and grass, taking away rotting leaves and cleaning the graves. “The students really like working there, we stay for five or six hours,” he says. “It’s so important that this part of the history of the region must not be forgotten.”
Nominated by: Ronald Bildstein, Beachwood, OH, USA; Sabine Bloch, Herrsching, Germany; Anne Forrester, Vero Beach, FL, USA; Rabbi Philip Heilbrunn, Victoria, Australia; Harald Jüttner, Rosdorf-Atzenhausen, Germany; Yehudith Mogle, Mevasseret Zion, Israel; Ruth Oppenheimer-Katz, Jerusalem, Israel; Livingstone Treumann, Redington Beach, FL, USA