Rural German Jewish museum hustles for funding here

Although Jews no longer live in Gröbzig, one could easily mistake the town in the backwoods of eastern Germany for a Jewish hub since its local synagogue-turned-museum is coursing with events.

In the past two years, the museum has hosted Passover seders, klezmer concerts, lectures on Judaism and Jewish theater performances. The Jewish school inside has regular classes.

But Gröbzig's Jews are long gone. The last ones were shipped off to concentration camps and executed in 1940. Marion Mendez, the museum's director, has been advocating for the museum as a way for the town to deal with its role in the murders.

"No one knew anything about Jewish culture and the Jewish history of the town," said Mendez, who was in San Francisco last month to spread the word about the museum. "It's important to have a memorial here to have some impression of Jewish life."

Saratoga resident Fred Hilsenrath, who was born in the adjacent town of Halle, which is about 100 miles southeast of Berlin, wants to help the fledgling museum secure funding.

Nearly 60 years ago, no one seemed to want to help Hilsenrath. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Hilsenrath was addressed only as "Jew" in schools and received daily beatings from classmates.

After war broke out, Hilsenrath fled to Ukraine and eventually made his way to the United States. "I never wanted to set foot in Germany again," he said.

Two years ago, however, he returned. Gröbzig invited him to visit, along with other Jewish former residents. The city of 3,000 wanted to celebrate Jewish culture with him in attendance.

Gröbzig's synagogue, built in 1780, was turned over to the public in 1934 to house the town museum. Although Stars of David adorned the building, as public property it was spared from destruction by the Nazis.

In 1988, however, Jewish culture started making a comeback. After six years of reconstruction, the building was turned into a Jewish museum and served as the only national museum in then-East Germany showing Jewish artifacts.

Mendez, 41, who grew up in Halle and attended the same school as Hilsenrath, was hired two years ago to make the building hum again.

"I had studied the Holocaust before and I wanted a chance to do something better as a German," she said.

The museum now holds regular exhibits on Jewish history and culture. The coming year will include a performance of the opera "Rothschild's Violin," by Russian Jewish composer Benjamin Fleischmann, as part of the museum's series featuring "music in Jewish context," said Mendez.

The events consistently draw a high-brow crowd from Berlin who are generally hip to Jewish culture. The locals, however, watched Mendez cautiously at first.

But as the lights stayed on night after night and the music grew louder, the townspeople eventually popped in, Mendez said.

In general, visitors are of a generation born after the Holocaust. Most are of the same mind as Mendez, who said she's motivated to build the museum because "you can't undo history, but you can do another thing."

Since the German government only funds basic maintenance of the site, Mendez is searching for monetary help. She's contacted Jewish museums in New York and the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley to potentially share exhibits.

The museum won't last long if it doesn't receive outside funding. But should Jews be responsible for building a museum to honor them in a country that tried to annihilate all Jews?

Hilsenrath said that when he first returned to Germany, he kept his fists clenched. "The first person to say anything I didn't like would get a fist in his face."

He never got the chance to swing. Everyone he met was extremely polite and accepting, he said. That convinced Hilsenrath it's time to move on.

"It's an extremely difficult situation — can you be angry a lifetime? If you can't forgive, at least you can communicate and try to understand what happened," he said.

"We need to do whatever we can do to keep the concept alive that a terrible wrong has been done. And that Jews in Germany contributed to the culture, industry and science of the country. A museum is only a token but all these tokens have to be supported."

Mendez, who stayed with Hilsenrath's family during her visit to the Bay Area, hopes that her work will convince everyone — Jews and non-Jews — that Germany still needs a lively Jewish culture.

"It's my life. I have nothing more; I do only this," she said.