"No Jews here. . . never have been"   

by  Shifra Paikin  on  10/04/2014 
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As a child in Germany, Antje Naujoks was curious about the “black hole” in her country’s history. Today she lives in Jerusalem, where she helps Holocaust survivors and does research on the pre-war German Jewish community.

“April 13, 2003 was probably the happiest moment of my life!” says Antje Naujoks“That was when I walked out of the Ministry of the Interior with a teudat zehut,” she explains, using the Hebrew word for identity card. 

It’s a long way from Jever, Germany to Jerusalem and the cultural distance is immeasurably greater. For Antje, whose father served in the Nazi army, it was a quantum leap from the small, provincial town in northwestern Germany where she grew up, to Jerusalem where she has lived for almost past quarter of a century - dedicating her life to helping Holocaust survivors and doing research on the on the history of Jewish communities in Germany. Antje has worked at Yad Vashem and for the Hebrew University’s Department of Contemporary Jewry doing research about destroyed Jewish communities in Germany. She was actively involved with planning of the museum and exhibition at the Bergen Belsen Memorial. She has voluntarily helped countless Holocaust survivors find information on everything ranging from finding relatives and tracking down property to filling in forms required to obtain reparations, serving as a bridge between languages and cultures. She has twice accompanied survivors to Bergen Belsen on the anniversary of the liberation and serves as a local guide and interpreter for visiting German delegations. She has met hundreds of survivors and has contacts with all the institutions that deal with the Shoah in Israel. 

Antje’s odyssey began as a curious child. From her father, who had been drafted into the German army at age 16 and lost a leg on the front, she learned about the cruelty of war. But she had no idea what caused the war in which he was forced to fight, and was conscious of “a black hole in German history, which jumped from the Weimar Republic to the West German Republic.” at age 12 she stumbled across The Diary of Anne Frank at the local library. “It was puzzling,” she says. “It was the same war in which my father had lost his leg - but a totally different story. When I asked my father about it he said, ‘I can’t tell you what I don’t know. Ask your teachers.’ ” 

 

Investigating the past

She began to pester her teachers for information. Finally, when she was 13, her civics teacher agreed to work on a project with her and five other youngsters. He took them to the archives, so they could read the local newspapers.   

They began investigating the Nazis’ rise to power. “What we found was shocking,” attests Antje. “I read about a neighbor I called ‘uncle,’ who would give me candy when I was a child, who was mentioned in connection with kristallnacht, when they burned down the synagogue a few streets away from where I grew up. The names of many other people who were prominent in public life were also mentioned.    

“We finally figured out there had been a prosperous, bustling Jewish community in our town. We read reports of how Jewish shops had been shut down. One day we went to the street where the synagogue had stood and asked passersby, ‘Did you know there was once a synagogue here?’ They refused to answer. There had been a community of 180 Jews and it was as if it had never existed!”   

Under their teacher’s guidance, the youngsters began to research the history of the Jewish community. They found archival material dating back to 1698 – letters, certificates, articles from local newspapers, ads for Jewish businesses and for kosher food, an item on Hitler’s visit to the town in 1931, immigration documents. They found the names of people who were transported to Auschwitz, a list of children on the kindertransport. 

The students decided to hold an exhibition - “Banned Citizens:  the Jews of Jever.” But the school, under whose aegis the project was being held, refused to host the event. Eventually, the local Lutheran church agreed to let them hold it there, in November 1982, in commemoration of Kristallnacht.   

“As we worked on the exhibition, it slowly dawned on us that many of the kids who were smuggled out to England or left for Palestine or the US were 14 or 15 – just our age, ”recalls Antje. “We realized there was a good chance that many of them were still alive.”   

After learning that Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and other cities had invited survivors to visit, they approached the municipality to do the same thing. “They of course acquiesced but nothing happened; they figured we’d finish school in two or three years and would disappear.” 

Undeterred, Antje and her friends began to do detective work. They contacted the Jewish community and the Jewish-Christian Council of nearby Oldenburg, as well as the archives in Hamburg, where there were a lot of Jewish community records. Their efforts led to Kate, a resident of Holland, who had spent the war years in a closet in Groningen. Kate led them to other survivors, and they found over 20 people still alive!  

They wrote to all of the survivors, who were spread out all over the world - Holland, England, Canada, the US, Argentina, and Israel - and invited them for a weeklong visit back to their hometown. Twenty-two people and their spouses immediately accepted.  

To finance the flights, hotels, and other costs, the teenagers recruited their friends to help. The school band gave concerts, one class had a cake sale, etc. They also went from house to house collecting money – “many people slammed the door in our face,” Antje recalls.

Nor did they hesitate to use moral pressure. Irritated by bank fees on the accounts in which they deposited the money they raised, they told the story to a sympathetic journalist. After his article appeared, one bank rescinded the fee and even gave a donation. Others followed suit. The six youngsters then approached large organizations and eventually got donations from insurance companies, a local brewery, the historical society, the women’s league of the church, even the municipality. Two weeks before the event they had more money than they needed.  

The visit took place in April 1984. “The only way to describe it was that it changed my life,” states Antje. “There we were – six teenagers and two teachers (another teacher had joined the project) with a group of 35 survivors and spouses. It was a week without sleep, seven days filled with tears - but also with laughter.”

Historic visit of 35 Holocaust survivors who returned to Jever at the invitation of Antje and a group of concerned high school students.

 

The survivors and their hosts spent a lot of time just sitting and talking. The youngsters had also organized walking tours of the town and tours of the general area as well as a trip to the local Jewish cemetery. They held meetings with fellow students and arranged a public symposium in the community hall of the church; to monitor participation and ensure that no troublemakers came, advance reservations were required. They presented each guest with a book they had made based on the exhibition materials.

Book containing materials displayed in a special exhibition organized by Antje and her high school friends, entitled “Banned Citizens: the Jews of Jever”.

 

Noting that, “so many years have passed without Kiddush,” the local pastor offered to host Kabbalat Shabbat services at his home. The rabbi from Hanover, who had tended to the kashrut arrangements for the visit, organized candlesticks, prayer books, etc. It was probably the first Kabbalat Shabbat service since 1941 – when the last member of the community was deported - and everybody was crying.     

Kabalat Shabbat held for the visiting Holocaust survivors at the home of the local pastor.

Kabalat Shabbat held for the visiting Holocaust survivors at the home of the local pastor.

“The visit enabled us to find out in detail things you couldn’t read anywhere,” says Antje. “History suddenly became alive and personal – and not only the bad parts. It turned out that Kate used to visit my grandmother to see the Christmas tree and my grandmother would go to her house to see the menorah. By the end of the week, Kate had made me her honorary granddaughter!”   

There had been great anxiety before the visit.  “I had sleepless nights,” Antje recalls. “What if someone has a breakdown?  What if the survivors meet someone who had been cruel to them?  How would they react in general? But they were so warmhearted and behaved so different from many of the local residents.   They said they came because of one reason – we were young, curious people who were not guilty of anything.  They came to answer our questions.” 

On the other hand, the response of the local community was split. Many people who had been in Hitler Youth came over to the survivors and expressed their shame and regret for what had happened.  Some people said that they wanted to work for reconciliation. 

 No Jews here . . . never have been 

But the reaction of the majority of the community ranged from indifference to hostility.

The young organizers of the visit received threats. Police cars were parked outside their homes. A woman came into Antje’s parents’ shop and said, “It’s a pity there are no labor camps because that’s where your daughter belongs.”    

“There was so much hostility in the community that years later there were people who crossed over to the other side of the street when they saw me,” Antje notes.  

Her own parents supported her efforts – albeit without great enthusiasm. “If you feel you have to do it, do it,” they told her. But, as the project progressed, her mother began to remember things that had happened, which she had never questioned. She recalled a fire in November 1938, when she was six. She remembered how her own mother came back from a flee market with what she now realized were confiscated Jewish items. It never occurred to her to ask questions.  

The reunion was life-changing for Antje. She had planned to remain in Jever after graduation, and to go into her parents’ business, but it became clear that “I couldn’t stay in that small town with people who claimed, “There are no Jews here; there never have been.”    

She went to the Free University of Berlin to study political science. Anticipating an intellectual, open atmosphere, in contrast to the narrowness of her hometown, she was shocked by the anti-Semitism, parading as anti-Zionism, she encountered at the leftist faculty. “We can’t be anti-Semites because we’re leftists,” they would protest. But the frothing-at-the-mouth reaction to the first Lebanon War (1985-86) revealed their true colors: “You couldn’t even mention Israel’s right to exist.” She and another woman became known as “the Israel faction.” 

“In my small hometown, I understood they were narrow minded bigots, early supporters of Nazis. But here the anti-Semitism was on an intellectual level. It was hard for me to comprehend what was going on.”

In 1986, Antje and her fellow students received an award from the Theodor Heuss Foundation for outstanding social initiatives for their project, including the exhibition, book, and visit. There was a big ceremony in Stuttgart, in which many high-ranking politicians (including Mayor Rommel, the son of the infamous field marshal) participated. “For them it was a kind of rehabilitation,” she says. “But we didn’t care about it any more. Our real rehabilitation was with the survivors.”

With the award money, Antje went to Israel. She had been in constant contact with the survivors from her hometown, including those from Israel who hadn’t been able to come on the visit for various reasons. One, Eva and her husband, opened their home in Beit Nekofa near Jerusalem to the young woman. (Later, Eva went to Jever, where she stayed with Antje’s parents - and discovered that she and her mother had gone to first grade together. They subsequently became fast friends). 

A JNF certificate stating that�trees were planted in the Jerusalem Peace Forest in honor

A JNF certificate stating that 4 trees were planted in the Jerusalem Peace Forest in honor of Antje and her friends.The gift was made by Holocaust survivors. 

During her trip, Antje met Max, another survivor from Jever, who had vowed never to set foot on German soil again. “It was a difficult encounter for both of us. He was full of hatred but he opened up. He could throw anything at me – it was easier to talk to me than anyone else. It was the first time I felt that as a German I have a certain role to play. Maybe part of my function is that if a survivor wants to talk, I have to listen; I take it as an honor. I’m here to listen. 

“Slowly, over the course of several meetings, he was able to remember good things. The second or third time we met, he asked me, ‘Antje is that wonderful big tree next to the castle still there?’ I knew exactly which tree he meant. I was glad he was able to remember some good things too. For him, I was a bridge that enabled him to vent his anger.”

For the first time in her life, Antje felt that everything was falling into place. “I was no longer the crazy youngster asking all kinds of questions. ‘Israel is home,’ I thought. ‘I’m coming back.’” But first she had to complete university.  

Back at the political science faculty at the Free University, Antje once again felt totally out of place. She was singled out: “This time, it wasn’t even connected to what I did - but was directed at what I believed in.” She decided to do her internship - required as a prerequisite for an MA - in Israel . 

She left Berlin in 1987 in order to do research at Yad Vashem, among other places. After one and a half years she was certain she wanted to stay in Israel. She began studying at the political science department at the Hebrew University, and received her MA degree with honors. She wrote her thesis on Jewish communities in Germany after 1945 and the role Zionism played in influencing survivors in Germany to immigrate to Israel.   

Almost 25 years after her own immigration to Israel, Antje makes no effort to contain her delight at being here. “I’m so happy and satisfied and grateful to be in Israel,” she says. “My life has become so rich. Work with survivors is not, as one might think, a burden, but an honor. I have no guilt, but an obligation that nothing similar will ever happen again.”

 

Antje also works as a translator for Keren Hayesod. “I’m so lucky with my work, supporting something I believe in. For me its not simply any translation job but work for  something I believe in – Israel, aliyah, coexistence. I consider that a great privilege.”   

 

 
 

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