Euskirchen, North Rhine-Westphalia


Nominated by Miriam Bruderman, Kfar-Saba, Israel; Doris Doctor, Wayne, NJ; Emmy Golding, Edgware, UK; Yvonne Gradwolh, Basel, Switzerland; Evelyn Heilbronn, Modesto, CA; Charlotte Hillburn, Forest Hills, NY; Leo Hoenig, New York, NY; Janet Bernd Isenberg, Glen Rock, NY; Wolf Murmelstein, Ladispoli Italy; Ilse Nathan, Birmingham, AL; Esther Eckstein Schwarz , Bridgewater, NJ; Laura and Scott Shields, Campbell, CA; Ruth Siegler, Birmingham, AL; Shulamit Spain-Gayer, Glasgow, Scotland; Doris Ruhr Strauss, Riverdale, NY; and Gerald Weiss, Forest Hills, NY

Hans-Dieter Arntz’s passion for Jewish history began in 1978 on the 40th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “when nobody spoke about that, nobody knew anything about that, and as a teacher at gymnasium I wanted to teach my pupils especially about that part of history nobody wanted to talk about.” It was the same year the television series “Holocaust” appeared sparking a nationwide discussion about Germany’s past, and Arntz took it upon himself to delve into the regional archives. He uncovered never-before seen documents and managed to track down old Jewish survivors of Euskirchen, his city of 50,000 just west of Bonn. When his frst speech and slideshow drew a crowd of 200 fascinated locals, he knew, “that was the beginning.”

Since then, Arntz, 67, has worked tirelessly as a teacher, a successful activist and a prolifc writer—one whose skill and patience to connect living individuals to their histories has impacted hundreds of Jewish families across the globe. “I see myself as a connection between the area where I live and that place where its former Jewish people live now,” he says. Arntz’s meticulous research providing details about where Jews lived, where they worked, and which ones were sent to prisons or to concentration camps, has in some cases allowed Israeli retirees to claim pensions they would not otherwise receive. Other times he has tracked down rare documents permitting Jews from around the world to reclaim possessions lost in the Holocaust.

More often, he has been a magnet—and a fountain of information—for relatives of Jews who make the long trek to Euskirchen seeking information about their past. “In the 1980s Jewish people came to our house. They wanted help getting documents,” he recalls. “They knocked on our windows. So many people—I can’t say how many Levi’s and Weiss’s came to our door—and I showed them around to the houses of their parents and grandparents. I am that point where everything comes together; when somebody comes to our town, they send them to me.”

When Arntz isn’t busy talking to people, he is busy writing about them. The author of hundreds of articles and 14 books—his 30-year-long archive can be viewed on his polished website, www.hans-dieter-arntz.de—Arntz achieved special recognition, and also notoriety, for his frst book, “Judaica: Jews in the Voreifel,” (“Judaica: Juden in der Voreifel”) (1986) a foundational work on Jewish history in the region around Euskirchen. “At frst everyone wanted to know, ‘Why are you researching something like that?’ No company wanted to publish the book. Even the administration and town council did not want to give any money to print” the 600-page text flled with undiscovered documents and pictures, he recalls. But when the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll heard Arntz discussing his efforts on a radio program, Böll contacted him and offered to help. The famous author made a few phone calls and “suddenly everyone wanted to help me. In the libraries there were lists you could write your name on so that you could buy the book if it were published. Even the shops were interested.”

The book ran through three printings and was followed up by successes like Arntz’s giant, 800-page work based on groundbreaking research, “Persecution of the Jews and Help in their Escape from the German-Belgian Border Region,” (“Judenverfolgung und Fluchthilfe im deutsch-belgischem Grenzgebiet”) (1990) about the German organizations and individuals who helped Jewish refugees from Austria fee across the border to Belgium. His most recent book, “Reichskristallnacht,” was published in 2008.

Yet Arntz’s activities extend even beyond teaching and writing, into politics, where he has fought for some eight monuments and streets to be named after Jews in his area. His first struggle involved building a monument to Euskirchen’s Jews on the green space where the former synagogue stood, which he succeeded in establishing in 1981. Another battle—to name a street after a popular Jewish doctor who helped Euskirchen’s poor—took 10 years to resolve and fnally resulted in 1994 in the naming of an entire square, Doktor Hugo Oster Platz.

Two years ago Arntz pushed for a street name in honor of Josef Weiss, the legendary “oldest Jew” of Bergen-Belsen who carried back from the war a personally compiled list of thousands of Jewish dead from the region. Although the mayor and town council have yet to agree, Arntz says, “I can tell you I will be successful.”

Arntz’s confrontational approach and his productivity—dedicated full-time to two professions—did not come without costs. He claims he often slept three or four hours a night while engaged in research, yet missed only nine days of class in a 40-year teaching career.

A higher price, perhaps, was the spate of anonymous letters, phone calls and threats he received—including having his car tires slashed—for his dogged investigation of Jewish history in the Euskirchen area where some 600 Jews once lived. “People did not like to see what I did,” which included speaking at schools, adult education centers, youth organizations and church communities on the subject of Jews’ persecution, he says.

“I got abusive letters even from as far away as South Africa. When you write books and worry about monuments and write articles and give speeches, you are the feigenblatt, or fg leaf, exposing the nakedness of the communities.” Most people, however, support Arntz’s work, and he continues to have a wide and constructive infuence following what he considers his most important motto: “Overcoming the past.”

“Simple and normal fates are important for me [to write about] because I can help more than if I write about prominent people,” he says. “It makes me proud to publish this kind of work, motivated by so many personal contacts which end in friendships not only with grandparents, but with parents and their children, too.

“There is no end,” he adds. “There will never be an end because there are always new connections.”