While working as a tour guide in her native town of Bad Buchau, Charlotte Mayenberger faced a frequent question from foreign Jewish visitors: "Do the gravestones of our forefathers still exist-and is there someone who can tell us where?
"That was what motivated me to investigate," she says, and in 1990, Mayenberger began photographing all 827 gravestones in the town's recently reopened Jewish cemetery, and compiling information about the people buried there. An exhibition two years later was followed by a CD entitled "Der Jüdische Friedhof Bad Buchau" (The Bad Buchau Jewish Cemetery) in which Mayenberger's grave-by-grave catalogue decoded the symbols, interpreted the ancient-and in some cases vandalized-script, and helped dozens of relatives locate and learn about their deceased family members for the first time.
"I've simply done it because no one else has done it," she says. Indeed, the Jewish legacy in this Baden-Württemberg town of 4,000 is no ordinary one: Albert Einstein's parents came from here. So did the parents of physiologist Joseph Erlanger, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1944. With a Jewish history that dates back more than 600 years, Bad Buchau was not only a thriving center of Jewish industry and the seat of a district Rabbinate, but its synagogue was one of only two or three in the world that had a bell-a gift of the philosemitic 19th century King Wilhelm I. Now, according to Theodore Einstein, a distant cousin of Albert Einstein who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, Mayenberger's "personal energy and success in networking have fostered the memory of that community."
Mayenberger, who has written articles, brochures and books, delivered talks and produced videos and other exhibitions about Bad Buchau's Jewish history, calls herself "a teacher who didn't study to be one." After training in sales and marrying at 20, Mayenberger-who is now 51 and has three children-learned everything she knows about Jewish culture and tradition through her own investigative reading. Her research started in the 1980s, she recalls, when she plumbed the Buchau archives for information about Moritz Vierfelder, a former café owner and the leader of Buchau's Jewish community, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1940. For decades, Vierfelder kept Buchau émigré Jews in contact through his Buchauer Blättle (Buchau Pages)-a story Mayenberger found so fascinating that she decided to write a book about him, "Moritz Vierfelder: Leben und Schicksal eines Buchauer Juden (Life and Fate of a Buchau Jew)", which she published in 2000.
Other achievements include her biography of the Holocaust survivor, Oskar Moos, "Von Buchau nach Theresienstadt: Dr. Oskar Moos (1869-1966)" (From Buchau to Theresienstadt); her 2003 DVD about the centuries-long Einstein family legacy ("Einstein's Swabian Roots"); and perhaps most impressive, her CD "Die Buchauer Synagogue: Eine virtuelle Rekonstruktion" ("The Buchau Synagogue: A Virtual Reconstruction"), in which Mayenberger and local architecture students graphically recreated the town's famous synagogue that was built in 1839 and destroyed on Kristallnacht.
About half of Bad Buchau's 200 Jews perished in the camps, Mayenberger says, and it was many years before residents here felt prepared to remember-and start talking about-the town's Jewish heritage. She herself fell victim to the silence: as a child Mayenberger remembers passing the closed Jewish cemetery each day on her way to school. No one talked about the cemetery or even considered entering it, she says. "We knew it was a Jewish cemetery but nothing else."
"Before, people were careful and didn't ask about a lot; 'the war is over, leave it' was the attitude. Now they ask so many questions and it continues getting better. There are many more young people interested."
Mayenberger recalls a tour she gave last year in which parents and children from the area showed up in droves. "So many people came wanting to know about the town's Jewish history. They know so little," she says. Another of Mayenberger's successes has been her integration of children into the performance readings she organizes each year on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Now, unlike in the past, residents of Bad-Buchau are excited to "connect with the names, with the history."
"Charlotte Mayenberger serves as the unofficial repository of written and photographic information about the former Jewish community in Buchau," says Theodore Einstein.
And she is not slowing down, either. Mayenberger is busy preparing an exhibition scheduled for 2008 about the personal lives of the 200 Jews who lived in Bad Buchau before the war, and who still "have no biographies." In the future, she says-while noting the difficulty to do so-she would like to open a museum about Buchau's Jewish legacy.
"In school I leaned to read, to listen, to write-that's all I need to do research in the archives, and to speak with people," she says. Mayenberger's personal library contains some 900 books on Jewish subjects, and she is adept at mining the internet for information used towards her research.
Having arrived indirectly at her task, Mayenberger sees the clear reasons to continue rescuing and preserving Bad Buchau's Jewish memory in the future.
"It would be a shame if it were forgotten-that's the motivation to do it," she says. "And so that it never happens again."