Non-Jewish Germans committed to uncovering lost Jewish history

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berlin | Lars Menk calls himself “meshuggah,” though he’s not Jewish.

Instead of taking a lucrative job in advertising, the Berlin resident became a letter carrier so he’d have more time to pursue his passion of researching German Jewish names.

Menk recently published an 800-page volume with the etymology and geographical origins of 13,000 such names that he collected on adventures across Germany.

“I loved it,” Menk said of his cross-country tour. “I took pictures, I collected documents.”

Menk, 45, was one of five people to receive this year’s Obermayer German Jewish History Awards in a ceremony at the Berlin Parliament House. The Obermayer Awards highlight the richness of prewar Jewish life.

The award was created seven years ago by American Jewish businessman Arthur Obermayer, who was inspired by his contacts with historians in his family’s ancestral town of Creglingen in southwestern Germany. Obermayer later created a Jewish museum in the town.

His competition has recognized the work of some 40 Germans, all non-Jews. The awards include small financial stipends aimed at furthering recipients’ work.

Honorees have spent years building living memorials to German Jewish heritage, and many have established strong ties with survivors, their children and grandchildren.

The awards are co-sponsored by the German Jewish Community History Council, the Office of the President of the Berlin Parliament, and the German Jewish Special Interest Group of JewishGen, an international Jewish genealogy organization on the Internet.

Menk began his labor of love when, delving into his ancestry, he discovered a Jewish great-grandmother. He began studying the genealogy not only of his family, but of other Jews’ .”I was fascinated,” he said.

Though their projects varied, the Obermayer honorees shared the qualities of modesty and volunteer spirit.

“I have a lot of helpers,” said Ernst Schaell, 79, who for 20 years has been painstakingly restoring tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Laupheim. Most of the Jews in that southwestern town were deported and never returned. Schaell, who had a stroke a few years ago, said he is “a bit handicapped” and relies on the help of other volunteers.

Former schoolteacher Johannes Bruno, who immigrated to Germany 50 years ago from Italy and has lived in the town of Speyer for 40 years, has devoted his retirement to researching the rich Jewish history of the Rhine River towns. Speyer once was renowned for its Jewish learning and culture. He’s neither German by birth nor Jewish, so Bruno asks the inevitable question himself: “Why?

The answer is simple. “Too little information available.”

Florence Covinsky of Scottsdale, Ariz., nominated Bruno. They met after Covinsky visited Speyer in 2000 with her mother, Hannah Hirsch, then 90. Covinsky and Hirsch had searched the Jewish cemetery in vain for family tombstones.”I always heard the saying that when you go to a cemetery, someone in heaven smiles,” Covinsky said.

After returning to the United States, her mother wrote to the town of Speyer and asked for help. “Johannes wrote back and gave her the inscription” for the tombstone, Covinsky said. “And I kept on writing to him. He started telling me more about what he was doing” — guided tours, articles, books, tours of the mikvah, lectures — “and I realized, ‘Wow.'”

Franken, a co-founder of the One-by-One contact group for children of survivors and perpetrators, saw an elderly man staring at the building in the former East Berlin where One-by-One regularly meets.

“He said it had been a Jewish children’s home,” she recalled.

Amazed, Franken sought and found survivors in Israel who had lived in the home. “I was able to rescue their life stories,” she said.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.