German-Jewish Reconciliation Flourishes

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From left: Gabriele Hannah, brother Hans-Dieter Graf and sister-in-law Martina Graf with their book Jews of the Old Rhine. They were honored by the Obermayer Foundation in Berlin on Jan. 21. (Photos provided)
Former synagogue in Eich, Germany

If you happen to be a Baby Boomer who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, you may remember a certain attitude your parents had about Germany and German products.

“Don’t buy a Volkswagen, Mercedes or BMW; they’re German,” was heard in many households. “Why would anyone Jewish want to buy anything German after what happened and what the Germans did?”

That period, of course, was right after World War II, and Jewish communities around the world, even after the establishment of Israel in 1948, still harbored hostility toward Germans and divided Germany.

“I can remember that. There was a lot of resentment in our house toward Germany when I was growing up,” said Elkins Park resident Jack Myers, a member of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. He has been chronicling his Jewish ancestors from Germany, several of whom emigrated to the United States in the 1860s while others remained in the German Rhineland-Palatinate, since the 1970s.

For that generation of Germans, there were challenges as well.

“My father told me stories, about how his teacher he loved was replaced, and the Nazi curriculum put in schools,” said Gabriele Hannah, a resident of Mainz, Germany, who has become Myers’ gateway into his German ancestry. “Then he was a prisoner of war for four years.

“It was not easy for either side, for different reasons,” Hannah said of Germany’s civilian population. “My parents told me the occupation was a tough time. It took a generation to get over that.”

Hannah said there are two reasons why she, brother Hans-Dieter Graf and sister-in-law Martina Graf are working with Myers and others.

“One is to remember the past, not only what happened during the Nazi era, but also the hundreds of years of vibrant Jewish culture that preceded it. A second is to use the power of narrative to fight bigotry and fear in current times. If you get to know a person through his or her stories, and you find out what they did, you are no longer afraid. And if somebody’s different, it doesn’t matter and you do not develop hate.”

Hannah, her brother and sister-in-law were honored by the Obermayer Foundation, which was founded by Philadelphia native Arthur S. Obermayer, in Berlin on Jan. 21. They received German Jewish History Awards as part of the 19th annual awards ceremony.

“My father founded both the Obermayer Foundation and the Obermayer German Jewish History Awards to recognize the work of people like Gabriele,” said Joel Obermayer, the foundation director. “We have more interest in both Germany and the Jewish diaspora than ever.”

So what led Myers to nominate Hannah, her brother and sister-in-law for such an award? It all began in 2014.

Jack Myers at the grave of his great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Schott, at a Jewish cemetery in Ostofen

Myers had been trying to find information about his family and began using the website Ancestry.com. Hannah, meanwhile, had been using the same site as part of her research and saw Myers’ family tree. The two connected and, as Myers tells it, a whole world opened up.

“It was a fascinating experience,” Myers said. “As our relationship grew, Hannah started posting hundreds of details on my Ancestry.com online family tree about them. She found my paternal great-great-grandparents, Heinrich Schott and Nannette Guthmann-Schott, relatives who lived in the towns of Eich, Hamm and Ostofen. It was amazing. Her research was unbelievably thorough.

“These were not large Jewish communities, as they were in the cities. There may have been 100 people or less. Some were in agriculture.”

Many of Myers’ ancestors left Germany in the 19th century and other marriages between families naturally occurred. Hannah discovered a branch of the Myers’ family that perished in the Holocaust and a third cousin, Thomas Doerr, who lives in Germany today.

“We want to honor the dead, but we also want to talk about the living,” Hannah said. “In Germany today, we are proud of our country’s Jewish heritage and want all to know about contributions past, present and future.”

All the information Hannah provided helped Myers contribute to a book — authored by her and the Grafs — that is an extensive history titled The Jews of the Old Rhine (Die Juden Vom Altherhein). It weighs more than five pounds and was published in May.

The relationship’s crowning event came in June, when Myers and his wife, Laurie, visited Hannah, who, with her brother and sister-in-law, took them on a tour of where their descendants lived.

“My wife and I had never been to Europe,” Myers said. “Gabriele’s research [which included work at the Leo Baeck Institute and New York and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta] was to the stage where she was pointing out homes where my relatives lived in these towns.

“We visited five Jewish cemeteries in that general area, and, thanks to Gabriele’s work, I recognized a lot of the names. She showed us a synagogue in Eich, which is not in great shape, but the hope is it will be rebuilt. To see all this after all the research was something.”

Hannah and her brother and sister-in-law were nominated for the Obermayer Jewish History Award by Myers, Sanford Jacoby of Los Angeles and Joe Schwarz of Ramat Hasharon, Israel.

“Really,we can’t believe what has happened to us,” Hannah said. “It is our duty, it is up to us, to tell stories like Jack’s family and give them back to the younger generation so they have stories to tell. It was very important for us to preserve the history of the Jews from this region. With the trust and confidence the families showed us, remembrance work can bring reconciliation.”

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