JÖRG KAPS
Arnstadt, Thuringia
2015

There has been a surge of interest in recent years in the history of Jewish life in Arnstadt, and one reason may be that Jörg Kaps “can give the facts a face. I’m introducing the families, their history—not general information, but concrete. I show photos, I tell the ways they died, life in the concentration camps, who their relatives are, what jobs they did, where and how they lived, giving shape to local history. Now there is talk in Arnstadt about this history—people pass a house and they know its Jewish past. It’s in the consciousness of the city.”

Born in 1962 and raised in this industrial, former East German town, one of Kaps’s strongest early memories occurred when he was six or seven and he visited a cemetery not far from his grandparents’ home. On one of the memorial stones he read that the family Hirschmann had died at concentration camps in Buchenwald and Auschwitz. “I spelled the words and later I asked my mother, ‘What is Auschwitz? What is Buchenwald? What do they mean?’ My mother explained that they were concentration camps and that many people had been murdered there, and later my parents told me about the Nazis,” he recalls. Later as a teenager traveling in Budapest, Kaps entered a bookshop and bought the book, Der SS Staat (The SS State), in which he read about a couple killed in Buchenwald and sewn into their clothing were the names Hirschmann. “That was the moment I understood that the history which was far away had to do with Arnstadt, my home, and it made me ask more questions and have the desire to learn more about this history,” he says.

It wasn’t until many years later, while employed as a social worker, that he would finally seize the opportunity to do so—and begin to educate so many others as well. In the winter of 2007, the Arnstadt city council voted to install Stolpersteine outside the homes where Jews had formerly lived. The task fell to Kaps, an outspoken opponent of neo-Nazis, to research information about the city’s Jewish past. At the city archive they handed him a short book, Arnstadts Jüdische Mitbürger (Arnstadt’s Jewish Citizens), along with four additional pages of information, and warned he wouldn’t find anything further.

But soon Kaps did. Through his meticulous research at the archive, he uncovered unexpected details and documents about the city’s Jewish past. Kaps recalls scribbling notes into the margins of the book, and when he filled them up, he wrote on small pieces of paper that he stuck between the pages. “There was so much information it couldn’t all fit,” he said. And that’s when he realized this wealth of information needed to be publicized. “It was the crossroads of my life, when I took the direction that I’m still keeping on,” said Kaps. “Until that day, I thought the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the most exciting time in my life. But now I know this research is the other high point.”

Kaps traveled to Buchenwald, visited more archives and gathered additional contacts and sources about Jewish life in Arnstadt until he had filled 14 large files with information. When a man from New York named Robert Cohen finally contacted him about his work, it represented Kaps’s first communication with a Jewish descendant of Artstadt, and “it touched me deeply. It changed everything, and it gave me energy to do this hard work,” he says.

Today, as a result of those painstaking efforts, more than 120 Stumbling Stones in Arnstadt commemorate the Jewish families that once lived there. Kaps has developed relationships with 17 Jewish families spread literally across the world—from America and Israel to France, England, Holland and as far away as Chile, Argentina and Uruguay—whose relatives from Arnstadt died in the Holocaust. Without realizing where his social work would lead, Kaps became the foremost expert on his city’s Jewish history, giving symposia and public lectures and leading guided walking tours. He frequently gives talks at schools about Arnstadt’s Jewish past, and has led dozens of students on trips to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

In addition, Kaps undertook in-depth research and compiled geneological data to create extensive Arnstadt Jewish family trees—one of which expanded into a massive, streetsized roll of paper seven meters in length. Kaps has also steered reconciliation projects that bring together the relatives of victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust to speak in schools and generate open discussions about the past. “People meet face to face and tell the students their stories,” he says, and “young people are interested in this history more and more and more.”

Kaps’s feelings of social justice found early expression; while working as a machine technician in the 1980s, he joined a Protestant youth group called Schwerter zu Pflugscharen (Swords to Plowshares) which discussed social problems in the GDR. He found himself targeted by Stasi, the East German state security, and was interrogated twice. As a member of the Initiative für Frieden und Menschenrechte (Initiative for Peace and Human Rights), he helped organize street demonstrations in the months leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And immediately after, Kaps quit his technician job and became a social worker for the Arnstadt government, helping educate people about the rising dangers of the extreme right. He worked in a youth club organizing anti-Nazi demonstrations, and in 2006 he joined the group Demokratie braucht Zivilcourage (Democracy Needs Civil Courage). It was then that the Arnstadt city council approached Kaps to research the city’s Jewish history—and he has been impacting families across the globe, and educating Germans about their past, ever since.

Lisa Black, whose grandmother from Arnstadt escaped to Australia, praises Kaps as “a man who is endeavoring to right the wrongs of his past generation, and in doing so is deeply touching the lives of those that have been wronged around the world.” And Ruth Gofin, of Haifa, Israel, says Kaps “is educating the public about a human catastrophe by hightlighting the fates of individuals who lived as neighbors in his community, while honoring their memory.”

Still today, Kaps volunteers cleaning the Jewish cemetery in the nearby town of Plaue—one more way he has committed to rescuing the Jewish history of his region. “Even my generation should bear responsibility for the Holocaust. It’s not a question of guilt, but of responsibility of the following generations—for the present and for the future,” he says. “I will continue on the Holocaust issue—the research, talking about it, bringing it into consciousness. There’s still a lot of work to do. It’s not finished for the families, for the relatives of the Arnstadt Jews, and for the town’s citizens, too.”

Nominated by: Annie Arnold, Rishon Lezion, Israel; Lisa Black, Melbourne, Australia; Robert Cohen, Island Park, NY, USA; Salomea Genin, Berlin, Germany; Ruth Gofin, Haifa, Israel; Stefan Goldschmidt, Buenos Aires, Argentina; Alicia Gottfeld, Miami Beach, FL, USA; David Jonas, New York, NY, USA; Peter Lederman, New Providence, NJ, USA; Eduardo Mendel, Oldenburg, Germany; Eva Nickel, Berlin, Germany; Reinhard Schramm,
Erfurt, Germany; Irene Schwab, London, UK; Dorit Stern, Veitschöchheim, Germany; Donald Strauss, Naperville, IL, USA