Gilserberg, Hesse
Nominated by Janet Akaha, Salinas, CA; Marienne Ruth Duggan, Victoria, Australia; Marlene Houri, Givat Zeev, Israel; Arielle Katz, Great Neck, NY; Elizabeth Levy, Mevassaret Zion, Israel; Lisa Levy, Potomac, MD; Ellie Rodin, Wilmington, VT; Rishy Savin, Aventura, FL; Senta Seligman, Howard Beach, NY; and Jennifer Stern, Brooklyn, NY

Ask Barbara Greve what motivates her to unearth the Jewish past around the Kreis Ziegenhain region of Hessen, and you get a not-so-German response.

“It may not be the right way to say it, but I think of it as a kind of mitzvah,” she says. “It’s a moral duty. I’m giving people back their history.”

Indeed, for Greve, a primary school teacher who has become a crusader dedicated to rescuing 400 forgotten years of Jewish history in her area, much of her passion stems from the desire for local residents to get their facts straight.

In Neukirchen, for example, one of the largest towns in Kreis (county) Ziegenhain, it was always said that just nine Jews were deported in the Holocaust. “But many more had been deported, or were kicked out before, and I wanted to show that there were more victims than people remembered,” Greve says. After compiling a collection of individual biographies of all the Jewish residents of Neukirchen since 1900—called “Jeder Mensch hat einen Namen” (“Every Person has a Name”)—she discovered that “there were more than 100 Jews. More than half of them were killed, but people don’t know that. These were 100 people living beside them, playing with them, sharing their youths. But they forgot them. And that is what I wanted to show. I wanted to give [residents] back a part of their roots.”

Greve was born in Berlin in 1946 and first encountered Jews at an early age. When she was eight, a girl from Israel joined her class and was assigned to the seat beside her; the woman, who now lives in Shanghai, became a lifelong friend. In high school, Greve recalls, one-third of her classmates were Jews whose parents had fled during the war and returned. The headmaster himself had survived the war in hiding. From the beginning, “I got very interested in Jewish things. I got used to it,” she says.

Greve studied to be a primary school teacher. In 1976 she married; soon afterwards, she had a child. The family moved to Hessen, to a “house in the middle of nowhere, a former water mill, a ruin,” which they renovated. Greve enrolled at nearby Marburg University where she studied European ethnology and art history, because “I wanted to know what was around me—what people had been there, who they were,” and it was during her research into the closed, traditional culture of the Schwalm region that Greve first came into contact with the story of the Kreis Ziegenhain’s Jews.

“I became interested in how they lived, what their religion was like and particularly how they managed to practice it in these very traditional, Christian villages,” she recalls. She began writing articles on Jewish topics before she produced her first book, “Heimatvertriebene Nachbarn” (Neighbors Exiled from Home). Focusing on the neighboring towns of Oberaula, Neukirchen and others, she tracked down archives from the inter-war period and contacted Jewish former residents across the world as she set about writing the region’s Jewish history.

As a school teacher, she started an interactive program to introduce 10-year-olds to the history of the Jews formerly living in the town of Rauschenberg. She traveled, gave lectures in different villages, and described the meanings, symbols andrituals of Judaism, from the headstone markings to the significance of Pesach. “To remember that there had been so many Jews before and then [to say], ‘What happened to them?’” she says. “That’s what I wanted to ask: what happened to all the others? The younger generation had never heard anything about Jewish life before. There are no Jews in their surroundings; some people living right next door to the former synagogue don’t even know it. As for the Jewish cemetery, they knew about it but they had never been there and no one could explain the traditions. That was my project: to help teach them.”

Greve continued to collect information about the Jewish families deported from across the Kreis Ziegenhain, always starting with the basic questions: “What happened to them? Did they escape? Were they deported?” She contacted relatives of the residents to acquire photographs and documents, working like a detective to fit the pieces together.

In many cases it wasn’t easy. Some Jewish documents had been lost over time. In a few instances, German privacy law prohibited Greve from even obtaining basic facts from the archives such as marriage and death dates. So, “I could only go to the cemetery and look at the headstones where it was written,” she says. “It was quite interesting—like a big puzzle. What makes me happy is when I find missing links in the family stories.”

One of her most intimate discoveries was a photograph and a letter written by a 16-year-old girl named Bettina Wallach, who was deported from Oberaula to the camps, and about whose experience Greve wrote a moving article. But, “there are so many others for whom no remnant is left. It is very important to talk about these children. No one knows them. There are no pictures. No letters. No documents. There is nothing. I know about them from the birth register, but no one could talk about them; no one remembers.

Greve’s “unstinting and meticulous work over many years has kept the flame of hope burning for future discoveries similar to mine,” says Marienne Duggan of Victoria, Australia. “Unique and valuable information about a small but proud and bustling rural Jewish community in Hessen has been saved by Greve from destruction, and preserved for future generations to appreciate and discover and better understand their rich roots.

Elizabeth Levy, a descendant of Jews from Oberaula, recognizes that Greve “was able to piece together numerous family trees reaching back to about 1600… [bringing] the lives and entire communities of these villages back to life in her numerous articles and books and publications, and her talks to current residents of those villages. Barbara strives to remind local residents that Jewish life and history is a part of German life and history.”

Since retiring from teaching in 2007, Greve has been researching the history of three synagogues in the Kreis Ziegenhain, to be published in an anthology about Hessen synagogues.

“The most important for me is, on the one hand, to give people back a part of their roots—to help the Jewish people. But the other is to remember the people who had been living in the neighborhood: that they were Jews, your neighbors. You would have known them.”