HEINRICH NUHN
Rotenburg on the Fulda, Hesse
Nominated by Chris and Maggie Linz, Okemos, MI; and Ellen and Zvi Stepak, Ramat Gan, Israel

2005

When you visit Dr. Heinrich Nuhn’s home, files and documents about Rotenburg’s Jewish history are stacked from the basement to the roof. His garage has been turned into a multimedia workstation, and his house is both an archive and a hotel for Jewish visitors. Instead of taking relaxing holidays, he travels to conferences. Keeping the town’s Jewish history alive has become his primary objective. “It’s a kind of redress, although that sounds so cocky,” the 66-year-old says about his motivation, “but when you can grasp injustice with both hands, you should do so.”

Even as a child, Nuhn was fascinated by history. He became a teacher after his university studies, but he wanted to pursue research. As his children grew, he began to focus more on that. In the ’80s, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on anti-Semitism in the Rotenburg region. Later, when an exhibit prepared by students from his school provoked denials of the existence of anti-Semitism in Rotenburg during the Nazi era, he reacted forcefully. “The researcher in me felt challenged,” he remembers. “Who, if not I, should refute that charge?” Nuhn spent two years in the archives investigating Rotenburg’s Nazi-era history. In 1993, he presented his findings, exposing the myth of a Nazi-free Rotenburg.

At his school, he founded a student work group to research Jewish history. The group not only investigated and published a history of the Jews of the village of Rhina in the form of a fictitious diary; they also produced a virtual city tour on the Internet, an extensive bilingual history Web site (www.ag-spurensuche.de), and even a museum in the school. “He has inspired his pupils — hundreds over the years,” says Roland Jost, vice principal of the school where Nuhn taught English and German until his retirement a year ago. He also leads guided tours, organizes cultural events, and invites contemporary witnesses to present their stories to students and the public.

But Nuhn didn’t want to limit his activities to the school. “Many people have the attitude that ‘things that happen in school are only for pupils; that has nothing to do with me,’” he recounts. After discovering the building in which Rotenburg’s mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) once existed, Nuhn researched and published an article about it. As a result, the building was designated a historic monument. With a dozen students, colleagues, and other residents, Nuhn attempted to buy the building to restore it. Due to their efforts, the town bought the building in 2000, and it is being renovated. After completion, it will become a museum and cultural center.

The work group Nuhn established at school — and which he still runs despite his retirement — has won more than a half-dozen awards. Nuhn himself has been acknowledged with the highest honor in the German Republic, the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Order of Merit).

“Nuhn is not a zealot who thinks that God speaks through him,” says Alan Ehrlich, whose ancestors lived in Rotenburg. “He has really used his intellectual ability and depth of knowledge to keep the memory of Jewish history alive.” Ellen Stepak, who met Nuhn when she came from Israel to search for her ancestors, says that his sense of humor, his dedication, and his unshaken resolve are just a few of his “many wonderful qualities.”

Chris and Maggie Linz met Nuhn several years ago, during a trip they made to Rotenburg. Chris Linz’s mother was Christian, and he was raised in the same religion, but he wanted to learn about his father’s Jewish roots. Inspired by the information Nuhn gave them, the couple studied both the Linz family history and Judaism and ultimately converted.

Through Nuhn’s work, Rotenburg’s Jewish past is widely known and accepted. A mikvah preservation group, which he founded in 2002 and now chairs, has about 70 constituents, including the mayor and a local member of the Bundestag, the national parliament. In 2006, after the restoration is complete, several exhibits from the school’s museum will move to the building. “It is important that it is located in the center of Rotenburg, always visible,” Nuhn says. “That way, it will keep the history of the Jews in the center of people’s consciousness, as an example of what can happen to minorities.”