S.F. lawyer spearheads grave-restoration effort in southwest German cemeteries

Jay Wiener went to Germany simply to visit the homes of his ancestors.

But when he stumbled upon the crumbling gravestones, overgrown lawns and neo-Nazi graffiti plaguing many of Germany's Jewish burial sites, he "knew [he] wouldn't be happy until those cemeteries were cleaned."

To Wiener's credit, one cemetery in the southwestern city of Lustadt is now immaculate, and he calls this a beginning.

Wiener, 40, a San Francisco lawyer, embarked on his crusade last February while visiting small villages in southwest Germany, searching for shreds of his Jewish heritage.

While touring seven small towns, he stumbled upon wild trees uprooting gravestones in Affaltrach. In Lustadt, spray-painted swastikas and "Heil Hitler" slogans covered the crumbling Jewish burial markers.

The situation caused him to look beyond his own relatives and his personal quest to connect the roots and branches of his family tree. Wiener feared for the fate of the memory of his larger, extended Jewish family.

But as an American in a foreign land, Wiener was unsure how to proceed. So he did nothing.

Eight months later, unable to erase the neglected Jewish gravesites from his mind, Wiener drafted a letter chronicling the shocking conditions, sending copies to the governor of the state of Rheinpfalz (where Lustadt is located), Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the German ambassador in Washington, D.C., the U.S. ambassador in Bonn, the head of the Central Jewish Council in Germany and the Jewish Council in Rheinpfalz.

Wiener said most of the responses to his memo could be described as perfunctory at best. However, after apologizing for a lengthy delay in responding, Lustadt Mayor Uli Lothringen attempted to explain the conditions of the Jewish cemetery in his town.

The mayor said the anti-Semitic slogans had not been removed from the tombstones for fear of damaging the delicate markers. He also enclosed a series of articles from his local newspaper about protest marches against neo-Nazi activity organized after the cemetery desecration, as well as an invitation to Wiener to stay with him and his wife, Juliana, while working to help remedy the cemetery situation.

Wiener accepted.

"This started as a personal response to a specific situation," Wiener said. "But now I have a vision for what these places [Jewish cemeteries in Germany] could be.

"As Jews, we need to reclaim our historical places in Germany…We need to create the right environment for concerted cooperation between Germans and those of Jewish descent, and take the model we create all over Europe to preserve our Jewish history."

Originally Wiener planned to help local schoolchildren scour the stones of the Lustadt Jewish cemetery. But rather than risking harming the graves with harsh solvents and unskilled labor, the town hired professionals to clean the delicate tombstones with high-pressure water instead.

Freed from scrubbing tasks, Wiener turned his attentions to other matters — visiting nearby cities to inspect their cemeteries and synagogues.

He implored gatekeepers to document each grave and translate the Hebrew and German inscriptions on each stone. Municipal record-keeping wasn't mandated in Germany until 1870, so tombstones marked prior to that year remain as the only record of existence.

Wiener also tried to convince Lothringen to build a gate around the Lustadt lot.

While he was unsuccessful in his attempts to have a gate erected — Lothringen insists the cemetery must remain open to the public — Wiener found some government leaders who supported his wishes to chronicle the histories of community Jews.

Not everyone is entirely pleased with his efforts, though.

In Stuttgart, where the Jewish cemetery suffers from falling tombstones and uprooted trees rather than hate messages, the city's head rabbi insists the burial ground be left in its natural state.

But Wiener argues that "as long as my photographs of these places exist, we will know what has occurred. There is no reason to leave the conditions `as is' as a testimonial."

Much of Wiener's family is still so angered by the Holocaust that they have yet to offer total support for his restoration efforts — even after he found the tombstones of Elias and Reihel Wiener, his great-great-great-grandparents, among the 1,137 graves in the town of Hensheim.

"I have relatives who would never step back to Germany. Yet I found this unacceptable situation there and had it remedied," he said.

"Being there [In Germany] and showing interest has an effect. They may not put a gate up at Lustadt, but they're going to pay more attention to that cemetery. I'm sure of it."