BERNHARD GELDERBLOM
Hameln, Lower Saxony
Nominated by Steven Altman, Johnston, IA; Barbara Andrusz, Cumbria, UK; Susanna Aronson, Tel Aviv, Israel; Veronica Forwood, London, UK; Ruth and Benjamin Grossmann, Ramat-Efal, Israel; Nancy and Thomas High, Boston, MA; Irina Pirogova, Hameln, Germany; Ute Siegeler, Borken, Germany; Felicitas Tesch, Berlin, Germany; and Ruth Torode, Dublin, Ireland

2009

In 1985, gymnasium school teacher Bernhard Gelderblom made a life-changing discovery when he stepped into the Jewish cemetery in his hometown, Hameln. “It was a big place and an absolutely forgotten place, overcrowded with green,” he recalls. “It fascinated me. That was the entrance for me.”

Soon after, he got to work researching and documenting literally dozens of other Jewish cemeteries in the towns southwest of Hannover, in Lower Saxony, and recovering stories about former Jewish life that people there had never heard. “I gave lectures in the villages and sometimes people came who had never talked about what happened in the Third Reich with the Jews,” he says. “Now they started to talk about it, about their fathers and grandfathers. That was very important to me: to confront small communities with their history.”

It is something that Gelderblom, who is married with three children, never got to do within his own family. Born in 1943 on the Weichsel River town of Schwetz in present-day Poland, he was the son of a Nazi soldier whose task was to “Germanize” the Polish region. “It was never possible to speak with my father about the Third Reich and what he did, not even when he was elderly and dying,” Gelderblom says.

The youngest of three siblings, Gelderblom and his mother fed to Magdeburg as Russian forces entered, and after several family moves, grew up in the small Westphalian city of Herford. He studied theology between 1964 and 1970 in Münster, Vienna, Bonn and Göttingen, where he earned a Protestant priest’s diploma. But he left the religious fold in favor of history and politics, which he has taught since 1976 in Hameln.

Besides publishing numerous newspaper articles in that time, Gelderblom has penned eight books, notably “The Hameln Jewish Cemetery” (“Der jüdische Friedhof Hameln”) (1988) and “They Were Citizens of the City: The History of Jewish Residents in Hameln during the Third Reich” (“Sie waren Bürger der Stadt: Die Geschichte der jüdischen Einwohner Hamelns im Dritten Reich”) (1997), which he took a one-year sabbatical to complete.

Indeed, in the 20 years since he frst encountered his town’s Jewish cemetery, teaching about the truths of the Nazi era has become a moral priority.

“It is necessary to speak about those things which happened in Hameln, not only in Berlin and so on,” he says.

“In German schools students say, ‘We have to deal with this subject too often,’ and sometimes I’m afraid they are right. We mustn’t do it so often,” he adds, “but when we do it we must do it well. My principle was to confront students with real people’s stories, real historic places so they could imagine [what it was like]. It’s not necessary to know a number, six million, because you cannot imagine it. To confront them with one family and the history of that family—this was my aim.”

Gelderblom, who retired in 2006 after 30 years in the classroom, faced a distinct denial of the past in his town—a place most famous as the site of the Brothers Grimm legend about a rat catcher who abducts the town’s children. There was an attitude of “ignorance and indifference,” he recalls. “People believed, ’we have this story and we don’t need to bother about our [true] history.’”

But as Gelderblom taught, so did he travel and speak and organize, spreading his curiosity and insights about local Jewish history across Lower Saxony. The town of Duingen, population 3,000, “had a [Jewish] cemetery that was absolutely destroyed,” he says. “It was a terrible place. They had hit the gravestones with axes and hammers, and I succeeded in fnding a group in the village to help restore the cemetery.” The people provided their labor and their money to build a new wall and to restore the tombstones, he says, and in October 2008 they celebrated its opening.

“For me it was one of my greatest successes: to make it possible for a small village community to do this work themselves.” A former member and secretary for 14 years of the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation in Hameln, he also helped assemble the memorial book of all deported German Jews at the Federal Archive in Berlin.

And in what is maybe his most visible achievement, Gelderblom was responsible for installing fve large, bronze memorial plaques at the site of Hameln’s former synagogue, which burned down on Kristallnacht, inscribed with the names and deportation dates of the town’s 101 Jews deported in the war.

Gelderblom further awakened the collective memory of the region with the Anne Frank exhibit he oversaw there in the early 1990s—and for which he received threatening letters, phone calls and even a bomb warning from a radical rightwing group that rejected his work.

Many more people, however, have supported Gelderblom’s efforts. And through his two websites—www.juedische-geschichte-hameln.de and gelderblom-hameln.de—he continues to make his decades of research and activism available to a global audience.

Barbara Andrusz of England praises Gelderblom’s “determination to keep alive the memory of people who were once an integral part of Hamelin society, but who would surely be forgotten were it not for his efforts and dedication,” while Veronica Forwood, a descendent of Hameln Jews, says: “He has carried out the most meticulous archival research to recreate the genealogy of the Jews of Hameln and the neighboring villages… I owe it to Mr. Gelderblom’s painstaking research that I know where my ancestors were buried.”

That sense of the personal touch—whether it was tirelessly investigating archives from Hannover to Israel; erecting a gravestone to the so-called “angel” doctor of Hameln, Siegmund Kratzenstein, who was killed shortly after Kristallnacht; or walking patiently with the descendants of Hameln’s Jews through his town, showing them landmarks, sharing his knowledge and explaining to them their past—may be what Gelderblom has succeeded at best.