“I feel like I’m gathering mosaic stones to build a great building...”
Egon Krüger’s interest in Jewish history began as a boy growing up in the late 1940s on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen, where his father’s friend, a Jewish spa owner named Adalbert Bela Kaba-Klein, would visit their home and tell stories about his survival under Nazi rule during World War II. Krüger’s parents, both farmers, had been friends with many Jewish shop owners in their village before the war, “so they actually knew life with Jewish citizens,” Krüger recalls.
Many years later, in 1962, he made an “accidental discovery” that reminded him of those stories and sparked his curiosity. By that time, he had earned his degree in chemistry and biology at the University of Greifswald and had become a high school teacher in the Mecklenburg-West Pomeranian town of Pasewalk, close to the Polish border.
His discovery was a memorial stone dedicated to Paul Behrendt, a former civic leader and iron foundry owner whose Jewish family played a prominent role in Pasewalk’s 19th-century development. “The school director told me one should be interested in local history but one should also deal with Jewish history,” says Krüger, who felt inspired to investigate further. What he found amounted to a revelation and led to a lifelong passion.
Prior to 1812, only two Jews had lived in Pasewalk, but an 1812 edict from the Prussian king allowed more Jews to settle there. The population quickly grew. By 1830, more than 100 Jews inhabited the town. In 1834 they built a synagogue, and shortly after that a Jewish cemetery. By the mid-19th century, some 300 Jews lived in Pasewalk, constituting more than 5 percent of its population and making it the second-most populous Jewish community in Pomerania. “Jews had equal rights, they were recognized citizens, and they made major contributions here as traders, doctors, lawyers, factory owners, and [in] other professions. They played an important role in the economy,” Krüger says.
Hardly any of this history was known to the town’s current inhabitants. He set out to learn more. “Once I started the research, I established contact with Jews all over the world. My work grew, and as I noticed how thankful people were for my discoveries, it gave me the motivation to carry on.”
Krüger proceeded to meticulously document the lives of Pasewalk’s former Jewish citizens. He also gave school lectures, wrote articles, hosted Jewish family reunions, and led tours through Jewish Pasewalk. Meanwhile, he developed a growing network of relationships with relatives of the town’s prewar inhabitants.
“My work raised the public interest and started people thinking about the past because they simply hadn’t known anything before,” Krüger says. “When I lead tours with students, I always notice how great their interest is. They’re so focused on listening to these stories, I could hear a needle drop. And I see that as a very positive thing.”
Since his retirement in 2002 from the department of medicine at the University of Greifswald, a position he took in 1985, he has devoted himself with even greater urgency to uncovering the past and educating the public about contributions made by Pasewalk’s former Jewish citizens. Now 81 years old, Krüger says his greatest motivation is to complete this work “before it’s forgotten by the next generation. If we don’t do it now, while there’s still the possibility to speak to eyewitnesses and talk to the people of that time, then everything is lost.”
He has worked tirelessly to personally commemorate the lives of Jews from Pasewalk who perished in the Holocaust, helping install all 78 of the Stolpersteine (small memorial plaques commonly called stumbling stones) that today exist on the town’s streets.
He has also written two books about Pasewalk’s Jews. Jewish Life in Pasewalk (Jüdisches Leben in Pasewalk), a detailed chronicle of family histories and the fates of Pasewalk’s Jews and their descendants, was published in 2009. The History of the Jewish Citizens in Pasewalk (Zur Geschichte der jüdischen Bürger in Pasewalk), published in 2017, includes a wealth of pictures, documents, letters, advertisements, and other archive material. It paints a complete historical portrait of the town’s Jewish legacy.
n 2005, at a ceremony to install stumbling stones for the Behrendt family, Krüger welcomed more than 30 of the family’s worldwide descendants to Pasewalk, and his research was critical in helping one of Paul Behrendt’s granddaughters complete her family’s biography.
Despite living in the former East Germany where right-wing extremism is on the rise—and where some residents have shown open hostility to his work, even showing up at some of his lectures in an attempt to intimidate him—Krüger shrugs off the threats. “I’m so well-known in Pasewalk that even those people who are among the right-wing extremists would never dare do anything to me. I can even talk with them,” he says. “There was one event in a neighboring town where I spoke at local parliament about the stumbling stones, and a right-wing politician asked me, ‘If I donate a stumbling stone, can I also get a statement for the tax authorities?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course you can,’ and everyone was astonished that this conversation took place at all.”
On Kristallnacht, Pasewalk’s century-old synagogue was burned to the ground and the cemetery destroyed. The last Pasewalk Jews were deported to concentration camps on February 12, 1940, marking the end of the town’s Jewish community. Today the cemetery has only its surrounding walls intact, with no gravestones. In 1988, on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Krüger helped the town install a plaque to commemorate where the synagogue once stood. In November 2018, with the support of the local church and the mayor, Krüger also led the town in unveiling a memorial stone on the site.
“Dr. Krüger’s work is invaluable in helping to educate the postwar generation of young Germans about the history of Jews in Germany,” says Irene Black, another of Paul Behrendt’s granddaughters. Currently, Krüger is preparing further collections of Pasewalk Jewish family trees for publication. He also continues to write and publish new articles regularly, as driven as ever to tell the family stories that haven’t yet been told, and to educate the next generation.
“As long as my health allows, I will continue to do this. I thoroughly enjoy the work and I get so much from it because I’m able to involve local people in these projects. I feel no pressure, it’s all voluntary—it is my passion. I feel like I’m gathering mosaic stones to build a great building, and I’m still in the process of building it. There’s no end to this kind of work because you can always keep adding smaller stones.”
Nominated by: Irene Black, Surrey, UK; Hava Jalon, Ashrat, Israel; Rosemarie Palliser, Aigues Mortes, France; Gabriel Ronen, Azor, Israel; Uri Rosenan, Yehud, Israel