Locals nominate Germans for Jewish history awards

by Eric Fingerhut - Staff Writer

Hans-George Hirsch remembers a German exchange student nicknamed "Ane" who played in the Whitman High School band with his 15-year-old daughter, Deborah, back in 1967.

But Ane went back to Germany, and the Hirschs lost contact with her.

Fast-forward 32 years: Hirsch's youngest daughter, Naomi, is giving a cantorial concert in Salzberg, Germany, when a woman asks if she knows a Deborah Hirsch back in the United States.

"That's my sister," Naomi Hirsch tells Christiane "Ane" Walesch-Schneller.

After that chance meeting, Deborah Hirsch rekindled her friendship with Walesch-Schneller, and the 87-year-old Hans-George Hirsch also began to communicate with the 53-year-old German, who had become active in efforts to preserve Jewish culture and history in Germany.

To honor those efforts, Walesch-Schneller is one of six German citizens who received the Obermayer German Jewish History Award on Tuesday in Berlin for their efforts to preserve Jewish history in their cities and towns. The date of the ceremony coincides with German Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Walesch-Schneller isn't the only honoree to be nominated by a Washington-area resident. Bethesda's Sallyann Amdur Sack, 67, was one of three people who urged that the Obermayer jury recognize Jurgen Sielemann, 59, a Hamburg archivist who has devoted great time and effort to tracking Jewish emigration from that area of Germany.

As for Walesch-Schneller, Hirsch said, she always has been "intrigued by and interested [in] Jewish people and Jewish things," and as a young child growing up in Germany, she had a Jewish friend.

"She was very imbued by the idea of having to make restitution for all the tragedies that happened [to the Jews] in Germany," Hirsch said.

Walesch-Schneller's biggest project was founding the Society for the Promotion of the Former Jewish Community Center in Breisach, which saved that building from demolition a few years ago.

The restored facility, known as the Blaue Haus, has become once again a center for Jewish life in the town, hosting Shabbat services and serving as a place for research, education and culture. The society, with 240 members, organizes visits for Jews originally from Breisach and offers lectures, exhibitions and concerts.

Hirsch was born in Germany before coming to the United States as a young adult in 1938, while his parents stayed behind and perished in the Holocaust. His father, Otto, was the executive director of the Representative Organization of German Jewry; Walesch-Schneller invited Hirsch back to Germany to speak about his father's work to the Breisach society a few years ago.

The founder of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington, Sack met Sielemann two decades ago when she was working to organize the first International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Jerusalem.

Sielemann called and asked "if a gentile could come." Not only did he attend, Sack noted, but he "presented a great deal of research" on Jewish movement through the port of Hamburg.

"He's spent a huge amount of time working on this issue," said Sack, a clinical psychologist who works on genealogy as a hobby. "Part of his interest is helping Jews reconnect" with their roots after the "massive catastrophe" of the Holocaust.

In his job as an archivist for the city and state of Hamburg for close to 40 years, Sielemann began to realize the significant contributions the Jewish community had made to his country.

Sielemann founded the Hamburg Society for Jewish Genealogy in 1996, the only Jewish genealogy society in Germany. His most recent project involves posting on the Web the complete list of 5 million emigrants, many of them Jews, who came through the port of Hamburg.

Sack, editor of the Jewish genealogy journal Avotaynu, said that when she heard about the Obermayer award, "it didn't dawn on me" to nominate Sielemann at first because she does not even think of Sielemann as a German, but as "one of us."

"He's devoted his career to doing what he could do in a personal way," said Sack. This story was published in the Washington Jewish Week on 01/29/2004.


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