On the morning of October 4, 2007, Steffen Pross was shocked to find the Jewish cemetery of Freudental, a village close to Stuttgart, vandalized by neo-Nazis who had overturned and painted swastikas on dozens of the tombstones. “It was horrible, really horrible,” says Pross, a journalist who for years had contemplated writing a book about German-Jewish history—and who in that instant knew “this was the moment I had to do it.”
While working as a reporter and editor for the nearby newspaper, Ludwigsburger Kreiszeitung, Pross dedicated himself to studying what happened to the 50 or so Jews from Freudental who had left and moved to larger cities by 1933, and to learning the fates of their relatives and descendants. He also sought to preserve and revitalize the memories of Freudental Jews who had died in concentration camps, by telling the stories of “ordinary Jewish people in a biographical style—finding out about their lives, their letters, whatever I could find—so that even a cattle dealer earned as much respect as a famous person.”
Pross’s research efforts took him to Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Auschwitz, Yad Vashem in Israel, and the Dutch database Joods Monument. “I never thought before that I could be so long in the archives,” says Pross, whose biographies of individuals stretched literally across the world, from Haifa to Detroit, Buenos Aires to San Francisco, Paris to Auckland. He produced three books about Freudental’s Jewish past: a chronicle centering around Kristallnacht, called “Freudental ‘38,” and a two volume, 550-page house-by-house “Address Book” filled with personal, painstaking details about the former Jewish families of this Baden-Württemberg village.
Now, says Pross, “When you walk through Freudental and stand in front of the houses, you can read the history of those who lived there.” Through his genealogical map of the village, Pross presented Freudental—whose inhabitants perished in Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Treblinka, Sobibor, Dachau and Buchenwald, among other places— as a microcosm of what happened to Jews in countryside villages across Germany.
“It was important for me to tell it, to discuss the most important [chapter] in the story of this country. It’s a question of the moral quality of our democracy that we talk about our history, not only in phrases and in a ritual way, but very concretely—that we face what happened and see clearly what was going on,” says Pross. “Everything that happened [with] the persecution of the Jews in Germany happened in Freudental. If you know the history of the people who lived there and if you look at what happened to them, you can tell everything about the atrocities commited against the Jews in Germany up to the moment they were deported.”
Born in 1957, Pross grew up in a tiny village in the Black Forest. His grandparents enjoyed a deep friendship with a Jewish family, the Friedmans, whom they helped to survive the war—and who, in turn, economically aided Pross’s grandfather in the post-War years after immigrating to the United States. At 16, Pross traveled to New York and stayed with the Friedman family for four weeks, living in their German-Jewish neighborhood of Washington Heights, where “I became aware that I was a German,” he recalls, and “that I had to deal with this history which I recognized was not an ordinary history.”
Pross visited his friend Alan Friedman in London the next year, which became the basis for future guided tours that Pross would lead, focusing on German-Jewish émigré history in the English capital. It was also the foundation for Pross’s first published book, in 2000, called “We’ll Meet Again In London.”
After studying literature and history in Heidelberg and Berlin, Pross worked as a radio journalist in Bremen before moving to Stuttgart. Living now with his wife and his 13- year-old son in the baroque castle town of Ludwigsburg, Pross says he is grateful to the descendants of Freudental’s Jews living abroad, who supported him in his research by sending family letters, photo albums, passports and documents. “Literally everybody who could help really helped, making it possible to get the inside perspective of the families— not only the perspective from the public archives.”
Judith Mayer, who met Pross in New York in 2002, says that “as a master at story telling, he brings family trees to life.” In the words of Sara Spatz from Los Angeles, California, Pross “probes deeper than any other scholar into the multi-layered, multifarious and vibrant experience of the German Jew… he is, in fact, a living and breathing purveyor and guarantor of the continuity of the German-Jewish narrative.”
Pross has worked extensively as a volunteer researcher and teacher with the Educational Cultural Center (PKC) at the former Freudental Synagogue—a building that was slated for destruction until the early 1980s, when locals mobilized a campaign to buy the dilapidated synagogue and turn it into a foundation. The PKC has since enabled tens of thousands of people to explore the region’s Jewish past through studies, tours and lectures—many of them led and prepared by Pross, who has played a central role helping navigate people through the Center’s archives and Internet databases, while also connecting students from Baden Wurttemberg with educational opportunities in Israel, London and New York.
“It is important for everyone who wants to understand Germany” to learn about the country’s Jewish past, says Pross, “and I think young Germans should try and understand because this is important for understanding themselves.”
Nominated by: Yona Chen, Rehovot, Israel; Patrick Levi,
Neuilly sur Seine, France; Helen Levy, Kenilworth, IL, USA;
Judith Mayer, San Francisco, CA, USA; David Rubin, Raleigh