Germans remember the holocaust and the Jewish life

by Toby Axelrod, JTA
Printed in the newspaper and newsletter “Martyrdom & Resistance”, September/October 2009 issue,
 page 7. Published by the American Society for Yad Vashem, headquartered in New York City.

Holocaust remembrance in Germany has many faces. In the former East German city of Erfurt, illegal squatters hide from the camera but show visitors where the ovens of Auschwitz were designed and made. In Hameln, in what was West Germany, Bernhard Gelderblom has worked for decades "in the darkness” to return an identity to his town's lost Jews. And in Euskirchen, Hans-Dieter Arntz has been bringing the light of day to a local history buried out of shame and guilt.

Such efforts contribute to a depth of remembrance in Germany at which official commemorations can only hint. To really find out, one has to visit towns and cities across Germany and seek out the local, sometimes unofficial, historians.

Some grassroots groups "are very creative," said Walter Momper, president of Berlin's House of Representatives, who spent this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day hosting the ninth annual Obermayer German Jewish History Awards. "They force society to ask what was there ... and they confront people with what happened just next door."

This is just what the group of young squatters has been doing in Erfurt. Since moving into abandoned buildings of the former Topf und Söhne oven manufacturers some 10 years ago, they have been giving informal walking tours of the now decrepit site where the company designed and built the Auschwitz crematorium, as well as air-tight gas chamber doors and ventilation systems. The youth have run cultural programs at the site, and teens are asked to remove any Palestinian scarves when they enter.

"lt is a symbol of anti-Semitism......- I see it that way," said one of the squatters, who gave his name as Timo. "Anti-Semitism did not end in 1945."

The squatters complemented the work of a local association dedicated to unearthing the site's history,” said association member Rüdiger Bender, chair for intercultural communications at the University of Erfurt.

It is important to actually work on a very local level" and then compare results "with a birds' eye perspective" to see how it fits with the bigger picture, Bender said.

Over the years, awareness of the site's history has grown. Now its new owner, Helmut Golla - though insisting the squatters leave - has agreed to establish an infor­mation center and museum in the former administration building using materials developed by historians from the nearby Buchenwaldmemorial.

The previous mayor "had no great appetite" to see a museum there, explained Wolfgang Nossen, president of the Jewish Community of Thuringia. "I was told to think about the image of the city. I answered, 'One should have said that 70 years ago.'"
Topf und Söhne was an old family firm, he said, that "designed these ovens themselves to make practical use of energy." Human bodies were the fuel. "It was absolutely perfidious."

For decades, no one in Erfurttalked about this past. The same pattern was repeated in towns and cities across Germany. Few chose to recall what happened to the 500,000 Jews who lived in Germany before 1933. Nearly half fled, though many would later be deported from other occupied countries. Only a few thousand German Jews survived here in hiding.

Even so, long after the end of World War II, there is still much history to uncover, said Arthur Obermayer, the Boston-based businessman and philanthropist who created the Obermayer Award after exploring his own family's roots in Creglingen. The award honors Germans who have tried to find out about local Jewish history and to establish contacts with Jews around the world.

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