WAYNE "Tears and smiles" was how Eric Mayer summed up his experience in Berlin on Jan. ‘3, where six non-Jewish German citizens received awards for working to preserve Jewish history and culture.
Mayer, a township resident since 1966, spent his childhood in the German city of Worms before the Holocaust decimated his family and caused him to flee to France at age 11. It was in Worms, once a thriving center of Jewish life, that he met honoree Fritz Reuter in the late 1980s.
"A business friend of mine in Germany had a friend who was a friend of Reuter’s, and he said I had to meet him," said the 79-year-old Mayer. "I immediately made it my business to stop at City Hall, where he was working as an archivist. We became fast friends."
A scholar specializing in the study of Martin Luther as well as the history of Jews in the Rhineland and Worms, Reuter is about the same age as Mayer. He almost single-handedly restored much of Jewish Worms, establishing the first post-World War II museum in Germany, repairing one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, and rebuilding a medieval synagogue destroyed by the Nazis.
Mayer and his wife, Edith, and Reuter and his late wife, Paule, got together on both sides of the ocean several times. Reuter’s daughter Ursula stayed with the Mayers here while studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary before returning to Germany to become a professor of Judaic studies at the University of Cologne.
Last year, Mayer learned of the Obermayer German-Jewish History Awards, given annually to individuals who have made outstanding voluntary contributions toward preserving and recording the Jewish history, heritage, culture, and/or remnants of German communities.
He immediately secured the necessary documentation to nominate his old friend. Four other nominators came forward on Reuter’s behalf as well.
"He had already been honored by the U.S. Senate, by Israel, by the grand rabbis of France and Holland, and by the president of Germany; and he had made Tiberius the sister city of Worms," said Mayer. "So there was certainly enough material to accumulate."
At the ceremony at the Berlin Parliament House on International Holocaust Memorial Day, Mayer along with a full roster of dignitaries, nominators, and honorees listened as Arthur Obermayer explained that the idea for the awards arose from a genealogical trip he made to Germany 10 years ago from his native Boston.
"In every community we visited, we found marvelous, caring individuals who had voluntarily devoted significant parts of their lives to uncovering and preserving their local Jewish history," Obermayer said. "I felt that such dedicated individuals deserved appropriate recognition and initiated these awards in the year ‘000."
In addition to his other activities, Reuter once a member of Hitler Youth founded a society that teaches German children about the role Jews played in pre-war society. In his acceptance speech, Reuter said, "That is our way of fighting against the far right, using words and the spirit. We’re trying to awaken the consciousness of Worms citizens, so they realize what the Jews did here."
The other honorees were Johanna Rau, a Protestant pastor who bought and renovated a crumbling synagogue in the German village of Heubach to use as a center to teach about Jewish customs and history; Gerhard Buck, who started a Jewish genealogy database and restored a Jewish-German cemetery; Charlotte Mayenberger, who documented and researched the former Jewish community in Bad Buchau; and Helmut Urbschat and Manfred Kluge, who researched and recorded the history of Jews in the community of Vlotho.
At the ceremony, Mayer met 91-year-old Hans Hirsch, whose father, Otto, was the last chairman of the Reich Representation of German Jews until he was murdered in 1941.
"We believe that he was once at my house in Worms," said Mayer. "His daughter, Naomi Hirsch, is a cantor in Philadelphia, and she sang ‘Ma Tovu’ at the ceremony in the liturgy of the Reform synagogue I attended as a child. My sister, brother, and I sang in the children’s choir of that synagogue."
The day after the award ceremony, visitors got a tour of Jewish Berlin and of Grunewald, where Otto Hirsch lived and where freight cars used to line up en route to concentration camps.
"It was extremely moving," said Mayer. "If the Japanese did one-tenth of what the Germans have done in terms of recognizing what happened during the war, it would be very good. Yes, my parents were killed by the Nazis. But you cannot accuse the children and grandchildren for being responsible."
Among the sites the group visited was Varian Fry Street, a Berlin thoroughfare renamed for the gentile journalist from Ridgewood who was responsible for saving thousands of Jews stranded in Vichy France including the artist Marc Chagall. In ‘006, a street in Ridgewood was dedicated as Varian Fry Way.
"My wife was saved by Quakers out of France in 1941, and it was Fry who asked the Quakers to intervene for these kids," Mayer said.
He is starting a foundation in France similar to Obermayer’s.
"I was saved by gentiles in France, so I feel one has to pay back," said Mayer.