In 2004, Christian Repkewitz met a man named Ingolf Strassmann, who as a child during World War II had fled Altenburg with two of his four siblings and escaped to Palestine. Strassmann was writing a history about Jewish life in Altenburg and he contacted Repkewitz, who was a resident there, to seek assistance finding a publisher and funding for the project. The more the two spoke, the more Repkewitz became immersed in Strassmann’s stories. “I really didn’t know anything about Jewish life in Altenburg,” says Repkewitz. “But step by step I wanted to know more and more and more. My interest and research grew, and in the end, I was in.”
The 24-year-old Repkewitz had moved just three years prior to this Thuringian city to work as a public relations officer in the mayor’s office. He had little prior knowledge of Germany’s Jewish history other than what he’d learned about the Holocaust in his East German schooling. Soon, Repkewitz would put his new passion for Jewish history into action, organizing the 70th anniversary commemoration of Kristallnacht in Altenburg, where some 300 Jews had lived before the war. He also arranged the installation of three Stolpersteine outside the warehouse of the wellknown Levy family, and his connections to other descendants of Altenburg’s former Jews flourished. Then, tackling his biggest project, Repkewitz “wanted to know what families lived here, what their work was,” and he began making a map of the city, locating all the buildings once connected to the city’s Jewish past.
“At the beginning I thought it would just be some houses in the city, but it grew bigger and bigger,” he recalls. Repkewitz visited the city and state archives in Altenburg and examined reparation files in archives in Hannover. A friend of his wrote a computer program that allowed him to insert Jewish residences directly into a Google map. Finally, after four years of painstaking work that he funded entirely on his own, Repkewitz posted the Online City Map of Jewish Altenburg, containing over 300 Jewish homes and businesses with information about the people who had lived and worked there. He also led guided walking tours through Jewish Altenburg on European Heritage Day and wrote articles for the local newspaper about his discoveries.
But that wasn’t enough for Repkewitz, who one day realized, “I had researched so much info and was the only one who knew it at the time—why not make a book for others to know this information as well?” So in 2011, Repkewitz began what he called a “flowing process” of research, in which he gathered some 190 separate stories based on letters, photographs, documents and archived materials provided to him by the families of Altenburg’s descendants. “I had to find out more about these people,” he says, and his efforts culminated in the 2014 book, Verblasste Spuren: Lebens- und Leidenswege jüdischer Einwohner der Stadt Altenburg von 1869 bis 1945 (Faded Tracks: The Life and Suffering of Jewish Inhabitants of Altenburg from 1869-1945), which explored the histories and fate of 500 Jews since the city’s founding.
Now 34 years old, Repkewitz is a leading young voice for Jewish remembrance in the region. In addition to his book, he has also established a school project called Anne Frank War Nicht Allein (Anne Frank Was Not Alone), using the story of the tragic teenage author from Amsterdam to engage Altenburg’s students in Holocaust history—particularly the stories of the city’s Jewish children who weren’t recognized but “who suffered the same fate” as Frank. In addition, Repkewitz wrote a booklet commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Polish Action of 1938, when thousands of Polish Jews were expelled from Germany back to Poland. He also founded and led a political tolerance and education group called KORA, which for the 2012 commemoration of Kristallnacht produced a banner with names and information about 221 Jews from Altenburg who died in the Holocaust—a unique event that Repkewitz says received “a very big and positive response” from the community.
“All of these people I’m showing in my book were neighbors, colleagues, friends of Altenburg residents, and now all the traces of them, or most of the traces, are gone,” he says. Repkewitz has received praise from Jewish families in Israel, America and Europe whose relatives’ stories he helped rescue. According to nominator Dafna Yalon from Ein-Vered, Israel, Repkewitz not only “has succeeded in reviving the memory of the extinct Jewish community in Altenburg, [but] is creating constant opportunities to awaken interest in his community – especially in the young generation. He has single-handedly and voluntarily created public awareness about the past Jewish life in his town.”
Indeed, Repkewitz is driven to reach people his age and younger with the history. “I think all people of my generation, and the generation before and the generation after, have to know about these people because they were citizens like the other Altenburg citizens, and they were driven out. We have to remember,” he says, because “when you see anti-Semitism today, or encounter the Israel question, you see it’s actual and current, not only in 1945.”
Before his work, there was little talk about the Jewish legacy in Altenburg, a city of 33,000 located 50 kilometers south of Leipzig in the heart of the former East Germany. Now, Repkewitz believes students here “are especially interested [because] in the GDR, Jewish history was not the focus. So I think the young people want to know everything about their city—not just the facts, but about the people, who they were, their fates.”
“The connections, the exchange with Jewish descendants of former Altenburg residents, was the important thing, There’s not much information left, so it’s the personal connections that matter most,” he adds. Looking ahead, “I will go on with my work. Maybe there will be another book. I want to continue and hopefully I’ll get more details about Jewish life in Altenburg. I don’t feel I’m at the end of my work.”
Nominated by: Jürgen Fröhlich, Altenburg, Germany; Olaf Strassmann, Rehovot, Israel; Dafna Yalon, Ein-Vered, Israel