Nominated by Angelika G. Ellmann-Krueger, Berlin, Germany

Before unification the prevailing attitude in East Germany was conservative and anti-religious. Yet during a period of strict Communist rule, two dedicated individuals, Olaf Ditzel, and Günter Hermes initiated their first Jewish research project through their local historical society under the guidance of the Protestant regional director Peter Raatz. Their continuing work over many years, later with the help of Inge Wimmer, created an important link between Jewish survivors and their past.

The historical society, which Olaf Ditzel now chairs, decided to mount a major exhibit focusing on the history of the Jewish communities once thriving in Vacha, Voelkershausen and Gehaus, three small villages in Thuringia. Mr. Ditzel, a 42-year-old roofer, used his free time to interview elderly residents about their memories of former Jewish inhabitants. He conducted extensive local research and then went on to contact Jews and their descendants who originally came from the region. As a result he was able to gather a great
deal of information that would serve as the basis for the exhibit and for future publications. His efforts encouraged Jewish people now living elsewhere to visit their ancestral home in order to locate information about the history of their families who fell victim to persecution and deportation.

The preservation of the Jewish cemeteries of Vacha and Gehaus was still another massive project of research and restoration. Tombstones, which had been knocked down or dislocated by the Nazis, have been set up again. A fence has been constructed, and many tombstones have been deciphered and restored so that their descendants can visit the cemetery and find the graves of their loved ones.

Olaf Ditzel’s research continues. He found a medieval mikvah or ritual bath in Vacha and after great effort got it designated as an official historic monument, which will ensure its future preservation. He has also published several important articles as part of major studies chronicling Jewish life in a region that eventually became East Germany.

The research of Olaf Ditzel and his colleagues resulted in a far more comprehensive exhibition, which is now open to students, tourists and the general public. In addition to his research and preservation efforts, both Mr. Ditzel and Mrs. Wimmer lead tours of Jewish cemeteries. He uses each tour to educate children about the need to prevent anti-Semitism and other forms of repression and bigotry.

The local historical society of Vacha continues to research Jewish history, using the talents and contributions of citizens from all over the country, who at one time resided in separate republics. This joint endeavor brings people together to study and learn about persecution and its impact. As a result, there is greater understanding among those who share a common culture, but whose history after World War II was quite different.