The German Conscience:
Keeping Alive the Jewish Memory
Germany is a
country for which Jews have a very visceral reaction. Few Jews have
visited Germany in the past 50 years, and have little understanding
of the values of German society today. In the past 34 years, I have
been to Germany on a number of occasions and have seen significant
changes. As a scientist, I am trained to question and observe with
precision and without bias in a search for fact and in a sense,
for truth. And it was as a scientist fully as much as a Jew that
I tried to approach my first visit to the infamous concentration
camp at Dachau in 1964.
Dachau is a short drive from Munich, but that first trip took my
wife, Judy, and me nearly two hours. The problems began at an intersection.
We later found out the road signs had been altered to point us in
the wrong direction, but all we could do then was drive aimlessly
for what seemed an eternity and then retrace our route back to that
intersection to ask for directions from two elderly men waiting
there at a bus stop. They were attentive until I said Dachau. Then
they turned away and ignored us.
Next, we stopped
a middle-aged woman walking along the road and asked her. She adamantly
insisted she could simply not understand my German, which had been
good enough to get us comfortably around the rest of Germany for
a week before we came to Munich. If we had not been determined to
visit the death camp, we would have given up. However, we persevered
and finally found our way to Dachau.
on that first jarring visit, it is clear that then, scarcely nineteen
years after the Holocaust, many Germans refused to face up to their
past. Some claimed ignorance of events and accordingly, denied responsibility.
Others denied the existence of the Holocaust itself. Others who
were ashamed of their involvement were silenced by their own guilt,
while others continued to play political games to divert world attention
from their history of atrocity. But now, thankfully and hopefully,
I have seen a deep change for the better.
is a new generation of Germans who have been taught about the barbarism
of their forebears in detail from an early age and given a truthful
and continuing, government-mandated education in democracy and tolerance.
While these young Germans do not bear the emotional scars of personal
involvement in the Holocaust, they feel a collective responsibility
to the Jewish people. Instead of hiding their past, many Germans
are anxious to deal with it openly and forthrightly.
wife and I toured southern Germany in search of my roots. I am a
Jew of German descent. All four of my grandparents were born in
Germany in the 19th century. As Jews visiting German ancestral towns,
we were accorded treatment normally reserved for visiting dignitaries.
Furthermore, in every one of the five communities visited, we encountered
individuals who, as an avocation, had carried out research on the
Jews of that community and could provide extensive background on
my ancestors. They did this not because of any personal feelings
of guilt, for most of them were born too late to assume any direct
accountability for the actions of older generations. These people
came from a broad range of backgrounds and experience, but what
they had in common was a deep sense of concern and a commitment
to do their small part to respond to past injustices to Jews. The
best they could do was to memorialize their Jewish communities by
preserving and publishing material on Jewish history, traditions
and genealogy. They were motivated as German citizens who feel a
responsibility to Jews and to the rest of the world to atone for
what their country did. None of the people we encountered would
accept money for the work they did on my behalf. The common comment
was that Jews have already paid too much. We cannot let them pay
In almost every
German city and town, there is some memorial or monument to the
Jews who once lived there. Jewish cultural centers exist in more
than 80 cities, mostly with non-Jewish staffs, who preserve and
protect the Jewish remnants of their community and regularly publish
documents about the Jews who once lived there. Most communities
also invite their former Jewish residents back on all-expenses-paid
One of our stops
in Germany was Fuerth, a city of about 250,000 near Nuremberg, where
my grandmother was born. While there, we spent a day and a half
with a remarkable woman named Gisela Blume. She has devoted the
past eight years of her life to the preservation of the memory of
the Jews of Fuerth. She is a widow in her late 50s. Her father,
an eminent physician who knew 10 languages, was killed by the Russians
after the end of World War II and buried in a mass grave with other
German soldiers. She developed her interest in the Jews of Fuerth
while she was on a walking pilgrimage in northern Spain in 1990.
One of her fellow pilgrims mentioned how much gratification she
had gotten out of doing research on the history of the Jews of Fuerth
and how the old Jewish cemetery in Fuerth had been badly desecrated
by the Nazis and needed someone to reconstruct it. Gisela said she
would like to help, and the other woman said, Go do it yourself.
There is no one to lead you. That started a four year effort
to put the tombstones over the grave sites where they belonged.
I know how difficult a job it must have been, because I had visited
the cemetery in 1984 and saw that most of the tombstones were in
a pile on one side of the cemetery, unconnected to their gravesites.
She got photographs and plot plans of the cemetery prior to the
Holocaust. She interviewed families, and learned Hebrew so that
she could read the tombstones herself. Today the cemetery has been
reconstructed and looks like any old cemetery which has not been
desecrated. During the course of reconstructing the cemetery, she
had to learn about the Jewish genealogy of Fuerth.
When the cemetery
project was complete, she extended her genealogical work and now
has put together a computer database with the names of over 15,000
Jews of Fuerth. She introduced me to my great great great great
grandfather, Israel Lichtenstaedter, who in 1763 founded the first
Jewish orphanage in all of Germany. The orphanage continued in operation
until 1942, when its last residents were sent to a concentration
camp. Today, the only Jewish services in Fuerth are held in the
orphanages synagogue. Gisela took us to Shabbat services and
demonstrated there and elsewhere that she was more familiar with
Jewish traditioins, customs and history than most Jews.
As we toured
Fuerth with her, she made us aware time after time of the tremendous
contributions of Jews to the city of Fuerth and the desire of the
people of Fuerth never to forget. For example, we saw the pre-war
grand opera house, for which over 60% of the contributions came
from Jews, even though they represented less than 10% of the population.
As another example, the City of Fuerth has been providing funds
each year to invite former Jewish residents to visit Fuerth. This
year when the city budget was tight, private citizens immediately
contributed 80% of the required money. Giselas most recent
project has been the preparation of a book containing vital information,
stories, and photographs about the Jews of Fuerth who were killed
in the Holocaust. This project has been all-consuming. It has taken
her to Israel three times to meet with the publisher, and it has
required extensive communications with people throughout the world.
She said with deep conviction that the last seven years of her life
have been more satisfying than any work she ever did in the past.
to the U.S., I have spoken to many Jews who have traveled through
Germany and have had similar experiences in other communities. My
observations were certainly not unique, and have been shared by
a large number of Jews. A few other examples here will provide a
was Hardheim, a town of 7,000, equidistant from Frankfurt, Wurtzburg
and Stuttgart. My great grandfather, Aaron Sinsheimer, after whom
I was named, was born there in 1846. In advance of our trip, I sent
a letter to the archive director of Hardheim (recognizing that the
town was too small to have an archive director, but the post office
would direct the letter to the appropriate person), and ten days
later, I received a telephone call from Gerhard Wanitschek, a 60
year old former salesman in Hardheim who was spending his retirement
doing Jewish genealogical research. He told me that he had information
about my ancestors and would give it to me when I visited. When
I asked him to mail it to me, he responded, But it is too
much! Finally, he agreed to send me a diskette containing
a tremendous amount of information about 90 of my Sinsheimer ancestors
going back before 1800. He also informed us that we were coming
at a propitious time because they were having a special exhibit
in the town museum on Jewish life in Hardheim. When we actually
attended the exhibit, we happened to encounter a high school class
that was one of many that were being brought there to see this exhibit.
I was asked to say a few words about my Hardheim ancestors, which
were received with great enthusiasm by the students. Wanitcshek
had done a lot of work preparing for our visit. He set up a meeting
with the mayor of Hardheim, who, like a true politician, presented
us with a tie and scarf containing the Hardheim insignia, and then
brought in a photographer and reporter to prepare a story for their
local news program. Wanitcshek had located the houses in which my
ancestors had lived, and also took us to the synagogue building
and the old and new cemeteries. The cemeteries were well maintained
and protected. The principal destructive element was the effect
of acid rain on the fragile sandstone. A complete list of those
buried in the newer cemetery was posted at the Jewish exhibit at
the museum. An additional source of information on my Hardheim ancestors
came through an Internet web site in Stuttgart, whose database currently
contains the names of 55,000 Jews buried in 145 cemeteries in the
state of Baden-Wuerttemberg..
When we visited
Creglingen, the birthplace of my grandfather, I was interviewed
by a young reporter who worked for the Tauber valley newspaper.
She felt that it was important to write a story so that her readers
would never forget what had happened. She faithfully reported what
I had said, but she went further by reminding the audience that
my great uncle was the only survivor among 3 Jews who were unmercifully
beaten up by the Gestapo in 1933. I have since learned that the
grandson of the Gestapo leader was recently shown photographs of
his grandfather beating up the Jews. Although the grandson had never
known his grandfather and had previously not been aware of the incident,
he was so mortified that he provided the funds for a monument for
the slain Jews.
My other grandmother
was born in the tiny village of Archshofen, which is also in the
Tauber valley. In addition to being taken by the village leader
to the house where my grandmother was born and to the synagogue,
I was given a 200-page book on the history of the Jews of Archshofen.
I was amazed that such a book could have been written because at
its peak in the late 19th century, less than 200 Jews lived in Archshofen,
and in the early 1930s, the number was down to about 25. I learned,
however, that hundreds of books, theses and articles have been written
by German academics about the Jewish history of their local community.
so many stories about neo-Nazis in Germany today, my positive encounters
have caused me to reevaluate the situation. Indeed, they have their
extremists, just as we have them in the United States. In fact,
the Germans complain that the anti-Semitic literature that their
police confiscate was often printed legally in the United States.
I could not detect any anti-Semitic feelings among the reporters,
the government bureaucrats, the homeowners, and the others whom
we met; in fact, they were extra-solicitous just because we were
Jewish. My experiences may have been exceptional ones, but they
cannot be considered isolated examples, either.
As Jews, we
can never forget the past atrocities. But our goal now should be
to fight bigotry, prejudice, and anti-Semitism wherever they may
occur. We are showing our own prejudices if we do not evaluate the
new German generation for the values they hold and the actions they
take. We cannot hold them personally responsible for the reprehensible
acts of their forefathers.
For more information,
contact Arthur Obermayer.