Nominated by Adele Adatto, New Orleans, LA; David Birnbaum, Rehovot, Israel; Yael and Meir Blaut, Netanya, Israel; Ralph Bloch, Dundas, ONT, Canada; Kitty Cooper, Albuquerque, NM; Susan Edel, Petach Tikva, Israel; Micheline Gutmann, Paris, France; Elizabeth Kutz, Arlington, TX; Martha Lev-Zion, Omer, Israel; Elizabeth Levy, Mevassaret Zion, Israel; Joan Pollack, Merion, PA; and Marcelo Rosenbaum, Stockport, England
When Rolf Hofmann moved from Stuttgart to Harburg, a small Swabian town in western Bavaria, he didn't plan to bring back the memory of Jewish families once living in this southern region of Germany. He had no special interest in following their traces as far as the American Rocky Mountains, nor in documenting their family gravestones. He just wanted to follow his partner to the countryside. The architect didn't have a specific plan in mind when he first saw the eye-catching baroque building from 1754 that once served as Harburg's synagogue. But he did know he wanted to do something more worthwhile in his life and he had made enough money to buy the historic building. "I said to myself, I have always wanted to do something meaningful for society. Here is my chance," the sixty-two-year-old remembers.
In 1986, Hofmann purchased the synagogue building and, by 1989, transformed it into a local cultural center with diverse programing for the outlying community. He funded over a hundred cultural events in three years-including jazz concerts, literary readings, and art exhibitions, attracting people from all over the region and beyond. Even with his contribution to his new community, he felt treated like an unwanted outsider by local politicians and church officials. At one point, he was accused of being associated with a religious sect, when he planned an event that included a Kundalini yoga workshop. By 1992, frustrated by misunderstandings and lack of support, he decided to give his Harburg project another direction and quit the cultural center. "I thought to myself, this undertaking has no future," he recalls. "I want to contribute, but the environment must be right."
Having become aware of local Jewish history through the synagogue project, Hofmann started his genealogical research on Jewish cemeteries and in the abundant archives of the Harburg Castle. Painstakingly, he hand-copied centuries of tax lists and sorted through burial lists, personal files, and other records to get a vivid picture of the Jewish families that had once lived in the historic County of Oettingen. As Wilfried Sponsel, head of the Harburg Castle Archives, describes his work, "Hofmann did a laborious job and, with great meticulousness and persistence, he managed to explore source materials dating back to the seventeenth century.''
Hofmann has not only cleaned and documented headstones of Harburg's Jewish cemetery and four others, he has assembled over 1,000 genealogical family charts. He generously shares both his research and his time. His personal archive and his material on the website <http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/harburgproject> are treasure troves for Jews all over the world who research their German roots. David Birnbaum from Israel, for example, recollects how Hofmann spent numerous days with archival material to provide him with data on his ancestors: "He then followed up when I came to Germany by spending an entire Sunday driving me from cemetery to cemetery, coordinating with the locals, and showing me around. He asked for nothing in return." By combining information from his international network of Jews whose families stem from the region and collaborating with other genealogists, he records stories that otherwise would be lost to the world. "It is fascinating to see how episodes of someone's life begin to emerge when you put together the individual stones of a mosaic," he explains.
Hofmann has even followed his Jewish families overseas. In New York and New Orleans, he photographed Jewish cemeteries, where his research had led him to the gravestones of people who had emigrated from the Harburg region. These photographs were later displayed in exhibitions across Germany. On his website and in local papers, he published articles about Swabian emigrants like merchant Leopold Guldmann, who made a fortune in the Rocky Mountains gold rush, and the Liebman family, who established the once-famous Rheingold brewery in Brooklyn. "It is amazing how far he spins his threads and what unbelievable details he discovers," comments former Obermayer award winner Joachim Hahn who often collaborates with Hofmann.
Today people appreciate
Rolf Hofmann's contributions to the Harburg community, says Petra Ostenrieder,
head of nearby Oettingen's local history museum: "I can clearly
see how he has left his mark here in the region." In nearby Moenchsdeggingen,
for example, he inspired a group of locals to reconstruct the old mikvah
(ritual bath house). In Moenchsdeggingen and Wallerstein, students from
nearby schools have helped to clean the gravestones of the Jewish cemetery.
Today, there is even a volunteer who maintains the cemetery and continues
to give guided tours based on Hofmann's research. As Ostenrieder tells
it, "Rolf Hofmannn brought the memory of Jews back to Harburg."