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.

These days, 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.

Looking back 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.

Today, there 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.

Recently, my 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 more.

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 visits.

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 orphanage’s 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. Gisela’s 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.

Since returning 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 better understanding.

Another stop 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.

After reading 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.