Speech of Arthur S. Obermayer
January 25, 2010

It is an honor for me to be here this evening with such a distinguished group of very important people. Every year after our first, Ernst Cramer was a participant and an active member of our jury. This year he was the first jury member to submit his votes and made lots of constructive suggestions. Although I would not normally reveal individual votes, I am sure that tonight's awardees will be proud to know that he voted for each one of you. Ernst Cramer will be missed by all of us. This is the tenth year in which we have given these awards, and it is the first year that a majority of the awardees have been women. Sarah Nachama, the executive director and vice president of Touro College Berlin, who is with us tonight, played a key role at the beginning and has continued to be a strong supporter and jury member. After the first year, Reinhard Fuehrer, who is also here, the former president of the Berlin Parliament, brought the awards to this institution. Then the following year, Walter Momper, the current president of the Berlin Parliament, took on the leadership role and has been the most important supporter and sponsor since then. Karen Franklin, our jury member from New York, who reviewed all of the supplemental materials, was planning to be here tonight, but her mother passed away just last week. I also want to recognize Jutta Limbach, the former vice president of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, who will speak to you later.

I would particularly like to thank several other people who have made major contributions to this evening's event. Stefanie Pruschansky and her staff in the Parliament's Protokoll office, who has organized this event and the reception which will follow, and Betty Solbjor, our U.S. Coordinator, who has made all of the other arrangements. Special thanks is due to my wife, Judith Obermayer who has been my advisor and supporter for the past 46 years.

I wish I could address you in German, but my language skills are limited. Although all four of my grandparents were born in Germany in the 19th century, the ability to speak in German has been lost by my generation. However, I retain a lot of my German heritage. For example, the gold ring on my finger is inscribed, "Gut schutze dich". It was given to me by my father at the time of my bar mitzvah. My father had received a similar ring from his father, and all of my children have received them from me. I moved it from one hand to the other at the time of my marriage. There are many other connections I have had to my German Jewish heritage which have bridged the gap between the 19th and the 21st centuries, a gap which included both horrendous events and positive experiences.

The idea for these awards arose in 1997 during a trip I took through your country to discover my roots. In every community visited, there were marvelous, caring individuals who had devoted significant parts of their lives to uncovering and preserving their local Jewish history.

In Hardheim, I was given a diskette with the names and complete information about over 90 of my relatives who lived there in the 19th century and was shown some of their houses, as well as my ancestor's soap manufacturing operations. In Archshofen, I obtained a 200-page book on the history of the Jews of that community. That village of less than 1,000 people never had more than 130 Jews, and in 1930, only 28 remained. In Fuerth, I visited the old Jewish cemetery where my ancestors were buried with the woman who had reconstructed it. I had been there in 1984 and found all of the tombstones piled on top of each other nowhere near the gravesites. Through photos, plot plans, and genealogical charts, she was able to replace the tombstones over the appropriate gravesites. In Augsburg, I was given a copy of the marriage contract of my great grandparents and was shown the houses where they and their parents had lived over 200 years ago and the cemetery where they were buried. In Creglingen, as an outgrowth of that trip, a local resident did the research to take my ancestors back 11 generations to the year 1618, and identified where they lived and what they did. Today that location houses a Jewish museum.
My experience that year is not unique, but as a result of it, I decided that these extraordinary volunteers deserve recognition. We have given over 50 awards and continue to discover individuals in Germany who have dedicated themselves to preserving the Jewish history of their communities. The awardees tonight have done exceptional work. They are the cream of the crop, but there are so many other devoted individuals.

Just three weeks ago, I personally had an exciting experience. I decided to find out what I could learn about my ancestry from much more distant times through DNA testing. Surprisingly, I discovered that a woman - a complete stranger - who lives in the state of Washington at the other end of the US, has identical mitochondrial DNA to me - a very rare occurrence which indicates that we have a common ancestral mother. As we exchanged emails about our known history, we discovered that both of us could trace our female lineage, i.e., our mothers' mothers' mothers', etc., five generations back to the region around the town of Gunzenhausen in Bavaria. One of our awardees tonight, Angelika Brosig, lives 40 kilometers from there, and a previous awardee, Rolf Hofmann, who is also with us tonight, lives nearby and has helped me learn more about my Gunzenhausen ancestors. Furthermore, I found that students in the Middle School in Gunzenhausen have been working for the past ten years to learn as much as possible about the former Jews of their community and have generated an extensive website in German and in English on this subject, including many of my ancestors.

Profiles of each of tonight's awardees are provided in the booklet that each of you received. Each of them has done remarkable things. You will see and hear from them shortly. Because most awardees will not accept payment for their work, this event provides nominators and others throughout the world with the opportunity to recognize the outstanding contributions made by the winners and say thank you. We have with us here today seventeen nominators and their families specifically to honor the recipients: nine from the U.S., five from Israel, two from France, and one from Germany. As I call their names, I would like them to stand up. Please hold your applause until the end.

  • Nicole and Claude Ghenassia
  • Carol and Ronald Gold
  • Herbert and Nancy Kaufmann
  • Karen Komar and her sister, Renate Miller
  • Elizabeth Levy
  • Lisa Levy
  • Riva and Yehuda Oron
  • Rabbi David and Debbie Shapiro
  • Kimberly and Thomas Wolf
  • Christl Wenzl

These awards are intended to do three things: first, to honor individuals here in Germany's capital and in their own communities; second, to make other Germans aware of the outstanding work that is being done by these dedicated people; and third, to make the rest of the world, especially Jews, aware of the thousands of highly motivated volunteers who have felt that the preservation of local Jewish history is their way of making up for Germany's horrible past.

When we started ten years ago, I was not sure how long these awards would continue. I am gratified and humbled with the importance they have taken on and the recognition they have provided.