Volkmarsen, Hesse

Nominated by Carol Davidson Baird, Solana Beach, CA; Bern Brent, Farrer, Australia; Leah Joan Dickstein, Cambridge, MA; Larry Hamberg, Mahopac, NY; Ilse Lichtenstein Meyer, Louisville, KY; Ralph Mollerick, Lake Worth, FL; Harold Nassau, Cambridge, MA; and Karl Heinz Stadtler, Waldchen, Germany

In 1985, on the occasion of Volkmarsen’s 850th anniversary, Ernst Klein helped research his town’s rich Jewish legacy and was angered when just two of 500 pages in the new Volkmarsen history were dedicated to recounting that past.

So he and his wife Brigitte organized a group of a half dozen citizens interested in “making our own research into the Jewish history, and with this work came the idea that we must rediscover where the people who came from here went to [after the war] and tell their stories.”

What grew out of the group was “Flashback Against Oblivion” (“Rückblende Gegen das Vergessen”), a charitable society that has rebuilt the town’s Jewish cemetery, established an education center devoted to Jewish history—and as its centerpiece, invited and reconnected the relatives of former Volkmarsen Jews to the town in ways more intimate than were ever imaginable.

“Many of those we invited asked, ‘Why are you doing this, why should we come?’ They felt afraid and uncomfortable; they didn’t want to step foot in Germany,” recalls Klein, who runs a door and window construction business with his wife. His response to them was: “’We only want to know what you have lived through and to show you that people in Germany today are different, that other people live here now.”

Since 1996, Jewish families from Australia to Israel, from Seattle to New York, have been showing up every two years in Volkmarsen to take part in 10-day, town-sponsored visits to explore their north Hessen past. Meanwhile, they have lodged with families they did not know, stayed up nights telling their life stories to the Kleins and other locals, and formed lasting bonds and friendships that have spanned the generations.

One memorable example was when the Kleins told Ilse Lichtenstein Meyer about her relative, a town tailor, who saved Ernst Klein’s grandfather’s life in World War I, but was later killed in Sobibor. Ilse Meyer took his arm in tears and said, “I felt 50 years of only hatred towards Germany and all that happened here, and with this visit my hate is gone.”

“A lot has changed in the thinking of the people here,” says Ernst, 64, who has worked alongside Brigitte, whom he married more than 40 years ago. Many years ago, the Kleins started their own door and window construction frm, which they continue to run successfully today. Most small business owners have little free time to heal the world, but the Kleins felt the need to do more. They have been partners in an untiring effort to remember the Jewish past.

“One sees that there are so many questions,” Ernst refects. “Young and old, they’ve discovered through individual, personal histories many things they never knew.”

As a boy himself, Klein recalls the times his father led him on walks through Volkmarsen, pointing out the places where Jews, who numbered around 200, used to live and work. “Who lived there and what happened to them afterwards was always my question,” he says. It wasn’t until 1985 that that question reawakened in him, and he and some 20 others in 1994 founded Flashback Against Oblivion in an effort to answer it. “I thought we must do it soon because the people will not live much longer,” says Klein. “We must fnd these people.”

Now comprising more than 125 people from 30 towns across the region, the society boasts a solid list of accomplishments. One is the Volkmarsen Jewish cemetery, where Nazis destroyed 118 tombstones during the war and where today, a rebuilt entrance and an 18-meter-long memorial wall—constructed, symbolically, out of Polish sandstone—commemorates the Jews killed in the Shoah. All 22 victims’ names along with their dates of birth and death are engraved on wall plaques outside the cemetery. Now, “many people who had never thought about it can, through this wall, know and interest themselves in this Jewish chapter of history,” say the Kleins.

Ernst and Brigitte also led efforts to establish a museum and education center devoted to the history of Volkmarsen’s Jews, using documents and stories collected from survivors. Formerly housed in a local school, the museum has relocated to a handsome 100-year-old villa which is awaiting renovation. Rich in text, what the museum now needs, Ernst Klein says, is more photography and video in the run-up to an exhibition planned for early 2009. Twice a year, they have helped arrange memorial events—on November 9 for Kristallnacht, and January 27 for the liberation of Auschwitz—to further keep local memories alive in the region around Kassel, winning respect far and wide.

Carol Davidson Baird of California praises “their extraordinary work raising awareness of Volkmarsen’s former Jewish residents and their contributions from their earliest arrival until the last Jews were deported during the Shoah.” On a personal note, says Larry Hamberg of New York: “The Kleins and their group have allowed me to teach my kids where they came from, and why they were forced to fee. They have been tireless workers in educating their countrymen, especially the young, about the lessons of the Holocaust.”

In November of 2008, Hessen’s state minister Wilhelm Dietzl and the German President Horst Köhler honored Brigitte with a Federal Medal of Service (Verdienstmedaille des Verdienstordens der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) and Ernst with a Federal Cross of Service (Verdienstkreuz am Bande) for their work. The extensive work they initiated can be viewed on the society’s webpage,

What can’t be viewed, of course, is the sense of deep connection and a desire for reconciliation that the Kleins and their supporters have built with Holocaust survivors and their relatives from around the world.

“I have so many letters from people saying, ‘We went home with a much better feeling than we came with.’ They had angst, they didn’t know what to expect, they had bad memories—then they came and after two days found new friends,” he says.

Forging a “new future” between Germany and Jews can’t happen just in Volkmarsen, the Kleins know. But “when friends from overseas come, they see what our small city has done and it’s nice to be able to say we’re not alone, that there are groups like ours all over Germany who through honest work are seeking understanding.”