WALTER OTT
Münsingen-Buttenhausen, Baden-Württemberg
Nominated by George Arnstein, Washington, DC; Bernice Blumenthal, Silver Spring, MD; Ann Dorzback, Louisville, KY; Donald Harrison, San Diego, CA; and Hans Hirsch, Bethesda, MD

2010

It was in 1973, when the castle outside Buttenhausen was being renovated, that Walter Ott's home became a temporary storage place for chests and boxes belonging to the city—some of which, he discovered, contained eye-opening documents like a letter from Baron von Liebenstein, inaugurating the town’s 200-year-old Jewish history.

“I was impressed with that history. It was taboo,” says Ott, who was born in 1928 near Stuttgart and spent most of his life working as a farmer. “The subject wasn’t talked about in Buttenhausen; it was new to me. So I asked people, ‘Why don’t you speak any more about the Jewish community?’ and they answered, ‘Oh, it was so long ago.’ This is a small village and no one wanted to talk, but the truth is that three-fourths of the citizens here were Nazis.”

With the material he found in the boxes, and later in the town archives, Ott sorted and catalogued Buttenhausen’s history into a first-ever Jewish archive—from 1787, when the first 25 Jewish families were granted the right to settle in Buttenhausen, to the residents’ deportations to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and other concentration camps in the final years of the war. (Located in a remote part of the Swabian Alps, Buttenhausen was used as a collection point for Jews deported from across Germany, before their shipment to the camps). A father of five, and the manager of a former royal family’s 1,000-acre estate, Ott turned his house into a cluttered “chaos” of documents as he worked nights and Sundays to compile the untold chapter of his town’s past. The result: Buttenhausen now has a Jewish museum, established by Ott, where to this day the 81-year-old works guiding visitors, from school children to ex-soldiers, explaining to them the history and traditions that the Jews left behind.

Not only that, he has worked alongside his children to restore the town’s Jewish cemetery—which had been left to decay ever since the gravestones were broken and overturned on Kristallnacht—and has organized exhibitions for young people to learn details about the local crimes of the Third Reich.

“When I started my research and began to restore the cemetery, people in the town didn’t support me. They said they didn’t want to see that. They had shut off their memories and they couldn’t remember the history,” says Ott. “That’s why it’s important—it’s necessary—that the young people come and learn about the Jewish history of Buttenhausen. Now residents thank me for having made the exhibitions. School classes come, they see original documents and photographs of the former Jewish community, and that’s especially important for me.”

As a boy, Ott joined the Hitler Youth and studied farming during the Second World War. His father, who worked for the railways, was ardently against the Nazi regime; but Ott’solder brother, who specialized in radio transmission, went at 19 with the Wehrmacht to Russia and died at Stalingrad. After the war, Ott got hired to work in agriculture in Buttenhausen, and as early as 1956 he encountered written references to the town’s vanished Jewish community. However, it wasn’t until the town castle was restored and its trove of historical documents showed up in boxes at his house that Ott realized his mission.

“As he studied the documents, Walter came to know the names of Jewish families that had lived in Buttenhausen for centuries. But when he asked questions and word of his studies spread through the village, the mayor tried to keep him from researching the history,” recalls Donald Harrison of San Diego, California. “‘What I am doing is my personal, private interest and it shouldn’t bother you,’ he told the mayor, and he continued to work. In a broader sense, Walter Ott is of pivotal importance in keeping alive the memory of a significant former Jewish community in southwestern Germany.” In addition to restoring the town’s abandoned Jewish cemetery, Ott collected family relics and worked tirelessly to reconnect with the descendants of Buttenhausen’s Jews—many of whom have visited with their families from across the globe. Ott contacted archives at Auschwitz, and in Berlin and Israel; a German television station made a documentary about his efforts, called “Of Men and Stones.”

In 1997, in Stuttgart, Ott was awarded the Otto Hirsch Memorial Medallion in honor of the former leader of Württemburg’s Jewish community and head of a nationwide organization which represented German Jews who disappeared during the Nazi era.

Nowadays, school children and German soldiers from around the region are brought to the Buttenhausen Jewish museum and taught about their difficult past—so that “they can see how it really was.”

“These were citizens from Buttenhausen whom I rediscovered,” Ott says. “This was a community until 1933, and then everything ended. It was so hard, so hard, when the old Jews from Buttenhausen, who escaped in Nazi times, came back and were interviewed and talked about their experience. For me, the worst about Buttenhausen was that it was a sort of ‘middle camp’ where Jews from across the country, from Karlsruhe to Munich, were brought before being put on their final deportation to their deaths. It was a collecting ground from the big cities.”

And what does the new generation make of Ott’s work? “Many ask, ‘Why have my parents not talked to me about this time?’” he says. “The subject in many families wasn’t discussed. It’s very important that young people come on their own. They take photos. They talk in small circles. They’re interested.”