Hofgeismar, Hesse

Nominated by Chanan Frank, Herzelia, Israel; Dan Frank, Afula, Israel;
and Gideon Frank, Moshav Beit-Chanan, Israel

As a young theology student preparing to become a Protestant minister, Michael Dorhs did the unexpected: he helped establish a department of Jewish history in his hometown museum of Hofgeismar, to “preserve the German Jewish heritage of our region.”

“We didn’t have anything, maybe 20 books” at first, Dohrs recalls. So he placed announcements in newspapers like Aufbau in New York and Israel Nachrichten in Tel Aviv, asking Holocaust survivors and the descendents of Jews from the North Hessen region to contact him and tell their stories.

Some 30 years later, following his publication of dozens of articles and seven books exploring local Jewish history, Dorhs has awoken memories and ignited interest among both communities from Hofgeismar—the Jewish one that left it, and the German one that stayed.

“I want German non-Jews to have a feeling that Judaism is a part and a root of our religion, our culture. That it’s not their history, it’s also our own history,” says Dorhs, 48, whose most recent book “The Eighth Light: Jewish Contributions to the Social and Cultural History of North Hesse” (“Das achte Licht: Beiträge zur Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte der Juden in Nordhessen”) addresses that subject.

At the same time, he says, “it’s important for Jews to see that in their former Heimat—their homeland—they are not forgotten, that there is a special house where people are interested in their fates, in hearing and collecting their stories and in preserving their experiences, in order to show what happened to them.”

Dorhs’ journey into the Jewish past began in grade school, when he was assigned to photograph gravestones in Hofgeismar’s Jewish cemetery. At 18, seeing the TV film series “Holocaust” “was the frst time I came in touch with a single family from the Holocaust and connected with that history.” At university in Tübingen he poured through Hofgeismar’s archives to write a lengthy paper about the Church’s position in Nazi times.

His persistent investigation of North Hesse’s Jewish past, and his efforts to teach students about that history, have grown ever since.

“I know names. I know stories. When I guide students [through the museum] I don’t tell them all the things they can read in history books about Auschwitz or Poland,” he says, “but stories of human beings, men and women who lived in their home town. They see the street names and the houses and they can imagine what happened to the people here. It is like a bridge from the past to the present.”

Dorhs himself has a past that is many ways hard to reconcile. “The destiny of being a refugee was a topic in my family,” which came from East Prussia, he says, and where his grandparents and aunt were killed by Russian troops trying to fee during the Second World War. His father was a Nazi soldier who later became a police offcer. “I asked him, ‘What did you do in this time?’” Dorhs recalls. His father told him nothing, “but I’m not sure whether this is the truth or not, and I never got an answer.”

Having taught for seven years as an assistant theology professor at university in Margburg, Dorhs now travels around his Kurhessen-Waldeck region, north of Kassel, educating pastors often on Jewish topics.

He has written widely on subjects of Jewish interest—from synagogue and cemetery histories to individual biographies and stories of Jewish assimilation and persecution in Nazi times. Dorhs also edited important works like the Israeli Meta Frank’s memoir, “Shalom, meine Heimat,” (1994), a groundbreaking and intimate document of one family’s history in the region. Frank’s book shined a new, personal light on the Holocaust and became a hit; it ran through three printings thanks to Dorhs, who succeeded in getting one of Hofgeismar’s streets named after her in 1999.

Dorhs’ achievements include helping to discover and preserve an ancient Mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, in the nearby town of Trendelburg, and mounting commemorative plaques at the two Jewish cemeteries in the Hofgeismar area.

But what has brought him perhaps his greatest joy has been “combining that interest in Jewish history with teaching”—not just to Germans but to both sides of the divide.

“For the children and grandchildren of emigrants who visit our museum, they can [fnally] see the truth about what they have heard in their families,” he says. “Until then it’s abstract. But when you come to the region, to the roots of your family, you see the name of your aunt on the list of names: it’s written down.”

Apart from the voluminous data, personal objects, photographs and documents he assiduously collected, Dorhs established a room in the Hofgeismar Municipal Museum that consists of a large board chronicling the fates of the region’s former Jews. The message “was always to retell, not to accuse.”

“I have had some very emotional situations in that room” with the grandchildren of victims, he adds. “For me the most important point was to come into contact with so many Jewish people, young and old, who lived, or whose relatives lived, in our region before and during the Nazi period. The knowledge that people in Germany are interested and have collected their family histories is very important to the [relatives].”

Indeed, for the 100 or so Jewish families Dorhs has kept contact with over the years—from Israel to America to Holland and beyond—the appreciation is lasting.

“Michael’s passion for Jewish history seeps into his professional activity,” say Dan, Chanan and Gideon Frank, relatives of the author Meta. “As an educator and advisor of newly ordained pastors, he [is] spreading the knowledge and consciousness of the tragic past among the future spiritual leadership in Germany.”