The nitty gritty of preserving the past | German-Jewish cultural heritage in Israel | DW | 29.11.2012
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The nitty gritty of preserving the past

Even the smallest documents are important to research on German-Jewish cultural heritage, says the Moses Mendelsohn Center in Potsdam. It sends young academics around the world in search of German-Jewish traces.

A young woman is accompanied by a good-looking young man. Wrapped in warm coats, they smile into the camera. It is November 7, 1938 - two days before the so-called Night of Broken Glass, a nationwide pogrom during which the National Socialists systematically destroyed synagogues, Jewish businesses, apartments and cemeteries across Germany.

A drawing of Adelheid Struck from the 1930s Private collection of Dr. Michael Naveh. Photo: DW/Aya Bach Date: August 2012

A drawing of Adelheid Struck, Naveh's mother, from the 1930s

For the young woman in the photograph, a part of what she had worked hard for ended on November 7 when the National Socialist dictatorship banned the Jewish Culture Association of Rhineland-Ruhr.

"Fräulein Adelheid Struck," it said in the report that she later received, was in charge of the "leadership of our nine cities including the members register," she worked "with great conscientiousness" and was "always a well-respected work colleague."

The photographs which she had stuck into her album are a testament to that. Adelheid Struck lived in artistic circles and collected photos from premieres and celebrations. She also documented the "day of the dissolution of the culture association," as she wrote beneath the photograph.

Letters from Theresienstadt

The album now lies on a large table in the apartment of her son, Michael Naveh, in Tel Aviv. It is part of the inheritance from his parents who fled from National Socialist Germany to Palestine, where they met.

Naveh has spread out letters, certificates, photographs and books, including a flimsy drawing of his mother showing her fine features and a melancholy gaze. Program brochures of the Jewish Cultural Association and casting lists from theater productions are also on the table.

There are the immigration papers of Naveh's father signed by the Commissioner for Palestine, then part of the British Mandate. There's also a letter from his father's parents sent to their son in Palestine from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, stamped by the Red Cross and state censors in Palestine. The letter arrived, but the grandparents were "lost" in Theresienstadt, as Naveh puts it.

A letter sent from Naveh's parents in Theresienstadt concentration camp Private collection of Dr. Michael Naveh. Photo: DW/Aya Bach Date: August 2012

A letter sent from Naveh's parents in Theresienstadt concentration camp

"It makes me shiver when I see an original document like this," says Felicitas Grützmann from the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam (MMZ), shifting through the documents with Michael Naveh. She works on the research project aimed at the preservation of German-Jewish cultural heritage.

Naveh learned about the project through an article in the German-Hebrew newspaper MB Yakinton and contacted Grützmann. He wants to give his inheritance a meaningful purpose: "It can't go into an archive where cobwebs will grow over it."

Naveh, a trained veterinarian who now works in the pharmaceutical industry, hopes that it will be used as part of the research project.

Cultural treasures in suitcases

Despite her emotional engagement, Felicitas Grützmann examines the documents with an academic eye: "The photo album is most interesting for the research, it's a treasure trove! It's interesting in itself that the mother took the album and the program brochures of the culture association to Palestine at all, probably in a suitcase which could carry just 10 kilos. I don't want to downplay the significance of documents like the moving letter from Theresienstadt, but I think that such things also exist in other bequests."

Michael Naveh and Felicitas Grützmann examine the cultural tresure trove left behind by his parents Private collection of Dr. Michael Naveh. Photo: DW/Aya Bach Date: August 2012

Michael Naveh and Felicitas Grützmann examine the cultural tresure trove left behind by his parents

Michael Naveh himself has already thought a lot about what the bequest from his parents stands for: "What my parents did in this country I call a 'time capsule.' They took culture from Berlin and Cologne, which at the point when they left Germany was at its peak - and they preserved it. The passage of time has not changed a thing."

Dreaming in German

That's also true of his father who worked as a decorator. "He carried on living like a real 'Jecke,'" as the Jews from Germany were called, explains Naveh.

"With hikes and singing, with culture evenings, concerts and opera houses - and with classical music at home. He read a lot. I think I got that from him. As a child I read two or three books simultaneously. Later, he often came back to Berlin at the request of the Berlin city council. He lived the life of a German Jew in exile. He probably even dreamed in German!"

Biographies like these are what the Moses Mendelssohn Center would like to investigate. "We are trying to retrace the paths of Jewish émigrés and show what happened to the specifically German-Jewish culture abroad," explains Felicitas Grützmann. "Naturally, then, questions of identity are important: How did people define themselves in foreign countries, how did they feel?"

Adelheid Struck's photo-album from the 1930s. Private collection of Dr. Michael Naveh. Photo: DW/Aya Bach Date: August 2012

Adelheid Struck's photo-album from the 1930s provides rich historical information

In order to answer these questions, the MMZ hopes to create a worldwide network of institutions working on similar themes: archives, museums and research centers. The resonance has been positive so far, said the young researcher.

Many have already asked why a project like this has not been undertaken before. "Time is running out for us. The documents are rotting away in cellars, eyewitnesses are dying out. We need to work now," says Grützmann.

Every little bit counts

One of the most important aims of the project is an internationally accessible databank. The way the documents are stored could decisively improve research around the world. But it also makes sense with regards to people like Michael Naveh who have retained family documents and papers and ask themselves what they should do with them.

"If somebody says, I have a correspondence, should I throw it away, then we cry out," says Felicitas Grützmann. "Even the smallest of correspondences is important in order to provide the next generation with a picture of the situation back then."

The project shouldn't be an academic end in itself, but have an effect among the wider public. Many people are still unaware of how close the symbiosis between German and Jewish cultures was, before anti-Semitic National Socialist ideology wiped it out.

A book of Grimm's fairytales which Naveh inherited from his parents Private collection of Dr. Michael Naveh. Photo: DW/Aya Bach Date: August 2012

Naveh inherited a book of Grimm's fairytales from his parents

After Felicitas Grützmann and Michael Naveh have examined the documents for a few hours and discussed the biography of his parents, the first overview is complete.

"I am really thankful that she calls it a treasure trove, a valuable cultural artifact," says Naveh. "With that, my knowledge has become deeper." And she has also advised him which institutions he can donate his documents to in order to improve research and the world at large.

"The German people lost a lot in World War Two," Naveh says. "Not only materially speaking, but culturally too. The Jews did something for German culture. We need to confront the past. It is an illness that we need to manage so that we can move forward and not fall back into the same situation."

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