Remembering Juergen Sielemann, the German Archivist Who Helped Jews Find Out About Their Lost Ancestors





John Burgess, writing in the Wash Post (Jan. 28, 2004):

Sallyann Sack recalls the rainy day in 2000 that she spent on the Hamburg waterfront, hoping to find clues to the voyage her grandmother had begun there a century earlier. The rooming houses where the 16-year-old Jewish girl might have stayed before traveling alone to America had disappeared; so had most of the administrative buildings of the time.

But then her guide said, "Sally, I cannot show you the boarding house where your grandmother stayed when she was waiting to board the ship, but I can promise you that she walked along this street."

With those words, the Bethesda woman said she felt suddenly and profoundly the presence of her forebear. The gift came courtesy of Juergen Sielemann, a courtly German who at his desk at the Hamburg State Archive has made it his business for more than 30 years to organize and publicize the historical record of Jews in Hamburg. On his own time, he helps people such as Sack who come to conduct searches on a more personal scale.

On Tuesday evening, Sielemann stood before the German Parliament in Berlin and accepted an Obermayer German Jewish History Award for his efforts. Back in Bethesda, Sack was particularly happy to hear the news because she was one of several people who had nominated him for the honor. The award is presented each year to five non-Jewish Germans who have made outstanding contributions to the reassembling of the German Jewish record, shattered more than half a century ago.

"I have been personally touched" by the history of Hamburg's Jews, Sielemann said Tuesday in an interview, explaining his dedication to a community that was all but wiped out by Nazi deportations. "It upsets me. I feel I have to do something, and I feel I'm not doing enough."

His thick glasses and calm manner fit the image of a profession based on the love of documents, and he seemed both amused by and uneasy with the attention his work has generated.

But Sielemann is something of a star in the world of Jewish genealogy. A regular at conferences in the United States, Britain and Israel, he is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge -- he knows the street numbers of those lost boarding houses, for example. He founded Germany's only Jewish genealogical society. And he has helped put Hamburg's emigration records online so that people worldwide can search for information about forebears who might have set out from the North German port en route to the United States.

"He's one of those Germans who's devoted their professional lives to making sure that Jewish heritage and history isn't lost," Sack said. "He obviously feels as a German the burden of the Holocaust."

Frank Bajohr, a historian at the Research Institute for Contemporary History in Hamburg who has conducted research with Sielemann, said the man has remarkable energy. "He's highly engaged," said Bajohr, a specialist in Nazi confiscation of Jewish property.

The awards were given on the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, which Germany has adopted as an official day of remembrance of the victims of Nazism. In Parliament on Tuesday morning, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, his cabinet and legislators listened reverently to an address by Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor who became president of the European Parliament.

Through such events, Germans learn their country's history. Some prefer to forget it, others invest their own time and money in making sure that no one will. Tuesday's recipients of the prize, which is administered by the Massachusetts-based Obermayer Foundation, also included a doctor who has restored a Jewish cemetery, recovering old headstones that had been used for steps in nearby houses, and another doctor who helped save a former Jewish community center from demolition.

As Sielemann tells it, he pretty much stumbled into his life work. He was born in 1944, just south of Hamburg, and so has no personal memories of the prewar community or the war. As a 20-year-old with a general interest in history, he was hired by the Hamburg State Archive in 1966 and three years later took over the Jewish files.

There were quite a few. Hamburg's Jews had agreed in the 19th century to deposit their documents with the government for safekeeping, and many of those papers survived the Allied bombs -- birth, marriage and death certificates from local synagogues were there to examine. So were passenger lists from the ships that took immigrants from all over Central and Eastern Europe across the Atlantic.

As he made his way through the stacks of papers, Sielemann said, he became fascinated with the centuries-long Jewish presence in Hamburg. In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler took power, there were about 24,000 people in the city observing three strands of Judaism.

But for years, he felt as if he were laboring alone on an island. In Germany until the late 1970s, he said, "there was really no interest, there was no discussion, there was nothing on the subject of the Holocaust and Jewish history. Silence. . . . So that meant that the younger generation had to learn not from the elder generation but by themselves."

Gradually he began to make contacts with survivors from abroad, with relatives of the dead and with a small but reconstituting Jewish community in Hamburg itself.

Sack, a clinical psychologist who is active in genealogical groups, first came into contact with Sielemann in 1984, when he wrote to ask her if a gentile would be welcome at a conference the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington was organizing in Jerusalem. She recalls laughing and responding: Of course, as long as you pay the fee.

A string of initiatives followed from her friend in Hamburg: in 1996 the German Jewish genealogical society, in 1999 the online directory. Last year, he was the driving force behind an invitation that the Hamburg city government extended to the descendants of the one millionth immigrant who embarked at Hamburg.

On Wednesday, Sielemann planned to head back to his office in Hamburg. For her part, Sack said she felt embarrassed that she didn't nominate her friend for the prize earlier. The reason, she said, was that "he seems so much like one of us, even though he's not Jewish."


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