History, connections propel German genealogists

Rolf Hofmann, 61, a retired Stuttgart architect, never set out to become a genealogist or a specialist in Germany’s Jewish history, and he will not accept payment for his services. Born in 1943, he was the son of a banker who was traumatized by his World War II experiences.

“Most fathers didn’t talk about Adolf Hitler,” Hofmann said over lunch at a Greek restaurant in Stuttgart. “They had their dreams and their nightmares. They didn’t talk.”

Hofmann, who was raised Lutheran but calls himself an atheist, emphasizes that his own mission isn’t to atone for the sins of the fathers, but he does use the word “mitzvah” to describe his work.

Friedrich Wollmershäuser, a Catholic from southern Wurttemberg, does not use the word “mitzvah.” Yet he emphasizes that his rewards as a professional genealogist are not of a material nature.

Hofmann stumbled onto his avocation by accident. In 1986, while living in the Bavarian countryside, he was in the castle town of Harburg, where he “found an interesting building with Gothic windows. It was the former synagogue.” The empty structure had been an office building. He bought it. “I got it cheap. I wanted to run it as a cultural center.”

He was later given access to the Jewish archives stored at Harburg Castle, and began forging connections with the descendants of southern German Jews who journeyed in the 19th century to North America, a journey he made himself. The story of his involvement, which became

the Harburg Project, is at www.alemannia-judaica.de/harburgproject.htm.

All of Hofmann’s research and hands-on labor is done without compensation. A decade ago, he cleaned the headstones at the Jewish cemeteries in the area, photographing them and mounting exhibits.

For Wollmershäuser, trained as a physicist and science historian, genealogy began as a hobby. He started researching his own ancestry at the age of 14, poring through Catholic parish records. He now works full time as a genealogist, and two-thirds of his correspondence comes from English-speaking clients. Jews make up 20 percent of his clients, and he has seen an increase in his Jewish clientele in the last 10 to 15 years.

Wollmershäuser has pointers in German and English on his Web site,

www.wollmershaeuser.de. He only charges clients when he comes up with results — about one in three — “which pays for the labor with the other cases.” The rewards are primarily “not in a material way but in a human manner and a scientific way.”


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Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].