BERLIN — Ahead of Friday’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, several Germans were honored this week with Obermayer Awards for their work to ensure that local Jewish history and culture, though destroyed by the Nazis, are not forgotten.
The award was initiated 23 years ago by the late businessman and philanthropist Arthur Obermayer, an American Jew of German heritage who was inspired by the remembrance work of volunteers in his family’s ancestral town, Creglingen. Over the years, more than 100 projects have been feted in ceremonies sponsored by the Senate of Berlin.
This year’s winners included projects that teach local children about the Jews who used to live in their towns, introduce new immigrants to German history, and connect today’s citizens with Jews and their families who came from their towns.
Winners receive a stipend of $1,000, but more important is the recognition the award brings, said Joel Obermayer, 55, who took over running the awards program after his father died in 2016.
“You cannot meet these honorees and hear about the sacrifices they made and not be moved,” said Obermayer, whose brother Hank Obermayer is on the jury and sister Marjorie Raven is on the board of the Obermayer Foundation.
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“Arthur would have loved that Joel is passionate about this, that one of his children took it and ran with it because he cared,” said Joel Obermayer’s mother, Judith Obermayer, who is the foundation’s president.
Left to right: Judith Obermayer, Joel Obermayer, President of the Berlin Senate Dennis Buchner, Marlies and Rudolf Walter, and Sara Nachama, president of the Obermayer award jury, at the award ceremony held at the Abgeordnetenhaus of Berlin, home of the state parliament, January 25, 2023. (Courtesy René Arnold)
It does not go without saying. Many American Jews keep an understandable distance from Germany; even if they don’t blame the current generation for the crimes of their grandparents, they want to ensure that those crimes are not forgotten.
Judith Obermayer said that in fact, this is what the award is all about.
“There are many people throughout Germany, in little towns all over the country, who feel that preserving the Jewish history of their town is important, that it is part of their culture,” she said. “Germany at least is trying to deal with [the dark side of its history] in ways that other countries are not and should be.”
In 2019, Joel Obermayer founded a different organization called Widen the Circle. Along with running the awards, it is building a network of activists who use remembrance to fight modern prejudice in Germany. It also connects like-minded Germans with Americans “who deal with the legacy of tough history” in the United States, fighting racism and bigotry, so that they can learn from one another.
2023 Obermayer prizewinner Jörg Friedrich displays his innovative Holocaust education initiative aimed at teens. (Courtesy of Widen the Circle)
This year’s winners include Jörg Friedrich, a former banker who became a teacher and developed an innovative approach to educating teens about local Jewish history and the dangers of prejudice. Projects include a traveling exhibition, an app called “Ways of Remembrance,” hiking days focusing on Jewish history and culture, and teaching materials with components in Braille and audio elements geared to those with learning disabilities.
They also include Marion Welsch, author and manager of Castle Gollwitz, for her work forging healing relationships between Jews and non-Jews — including Holocaust survivors and non-Jewish Germans — and Rudolf and Marlies Walter, who for 30 years have spearheaded efforts to illuminate Jewish history in Bad Kissingen, Bavaria, and the local community’s destruction by the Nazis.
2023 Obermayer prizewinner, author Marion Welsch, honored for her work creating healing relationships between non-Jews and Jews. (Courtesy of Widen the Circle)
The Walters have also helped preserve local sites of Jewish history, played a major role in renaming the high school after a former Jewish pupil — Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Jack Steinberger, and created an online remembrance book with biographies of former Jewish residents.
“I heard an awful lot about Bad Kissingen when I was growing up,” said Elizabeth Steinberger, niece of Jack Steinberger and lead nominator for the Walters.
“[They] really helped to give a bigger picture of the life of the town, the people who lived there, and what it was like when my family was there,” said Steinberger, who came to Germany for the ceremony from her home in North Carolina. “It’s very important work, and it’s beautiful because it is healing something scary.”
2023 Obermayer prizewinners Rudolf and Marlies Walter, honored for working to preserve local Jewish history for 30 years. (Courtesy of Widen the Circle)
This year’s winners said they planned on using the monetary award to further their work. For example, Welsch said she would probably apply the funds to her integration project for women, to help them go to college. Past winner Sabeth Schmidthals, who attended this year’s ceremony, said she used the funds to help her high school students in Berlin go on field trips related to remembrance work.
But Joel Obermayer noted that the prize offers benefits that far surpass the tangible. The senior Obermayer, he said, once received an email from an awardee whose family and colleagues had become estranged from her because of her constant digging into her family’s Nazi past. “Even her own children got tired of it,” Joel Obermayer said.
“All of a sudden, she gets this international award, and her name is in the newspaper, and she is honored in the ceremony — and suddenly her children and grandchildren realize, no, she’s not a crazy, obsessed gadfly, she is a hero. And they celebrated her. That’s what changed her life.”
Toby Axelrod is a journalist based in Berlin. She wrote profiles on this year’s Obermayer awardees for the Obermayer Foundation.
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