Growing up, Mark W. Gordon thought the Holocaust “happened to other people.” While his close family members were all safe in the United States, unknown to him was the fact that some of his second cousins had perished.
Much has changed for Gordon, a Maplewood resident and a principal of Urbana Consulting, LLC, as he learned about those relatives, and also about the family of his wife, Robin. Now a committed amateur genealogist, he has gone on visits to Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and engaged in countless hours of long-distance research to fill out their respective family trees, which include both victims and survivors of the Nazi genocide.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Jan. 27, in a ceremony in Berlin, he took part in honoring the man who has helped the Gordons and dozens of other Jews trace their lost European family members.
Hans-Peter Klein, a 62-year-old history teacher from Melsungen, Germany, was one of five people selected to receive the 14th annual Obermayer Award for their voluntary work helping to preserve the history and culture of vanished Jewish communities. The Obermayer Foundation, based in Newton, Mass., has now given the awards to 77 people, all non-Jewish residents of Germany, selected from hundreds who have been nominated.
Klein was nominated by Gordon and his wife’s cousin Dennis Aron of Skokie, Ill. — Klein has helped Aron identify around 800 victims who were his relatives — with support from other cousins, Sandy Speier Klein and Sam Klein (no relation to Hans-Peter) of New Rochelle, NY.
“He’s such a good fit for the award,” Gordon said. “He hasn’t just done one project; for over 25 years now he has helped so many people.” In addition to assisting Jews from abroad trace their lost relatives, Klein has led an effort to restore the synagogue in Gudensberg and has taken dozens of school groups to Auschwitz for week-long study visits. He has visited Israel too, taking his son with him.
The ceremony was held — ironically, as Gordon pointed out — in the Berlin Parliament, within close walking distance of a number of buildings where the Nazis once ruled. “Jewish lives were being remembered in what was ground zero for the administration of Nazi Germany,” Gordon said. The president of the German Parliament, Ralf Wieland, participated in the ceremony.
‘Key to forgiveness’
For Gordon, tracing the winding branches of his and Robin’s family trees has become “like finding the missing pieces to a puzzle,” he said.
It all started for him in the mid-1970s when a woman from Ecuador made contact with his mother, trying to find out whether they came from the same family, based in what are now Latvia and Lithuania. Gordon established that they were. In 1981, soon after he met Robin, he got intrigued by questions her family had about their roots in Germany.
Going to Central and Eastern Europe, including the former Soviet Union, to hunt down clues proved problematic in the early years because Gordon worked for the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Senate in Washington. “I had top secret clearance for my work, so it didn’t seem like such a good idea to go to poking into official archives, trying to dig up information,” he said. But in 2003, after he completed a 12-year stint as New Jersey Transit’s real estate director, as he put it, “it was finally time for him to visit our ancestral lands.”
He first met Klein that year. “He has the patience of a saint,” said Gordon, speaking after his return from the ceremony in Berlin. On two earlier visits to Germany, Klein took him to explore eight cemeteries and 11 ancestral towns, tracing Robin’s relatives. That was in addition to countless long-distance communications and face-to-face visits in the United States. Klein has stayed with the Gordons three times.
Robin’s father, Bert Heilbrunn, and his brothers left Sontra, Germany, for Chicago in December 1933, fearing rising anti-Semitism, but many members of their extended family were killed in the war.
Robin, though less involved with Mark’s detective work, welcomed learning about her family. “Hans-Peter is so passionate about his mission to share history,” she said. “He impacts people personally by shedding light on generations of ancestors and stories of dark days for us to reflect upon and be enriched. My family has been touched by our friendship with him and his family.”
Klein himself, in a statement about the award, said, “Memory is the key to forgiveness. Jewish people in other countries are very thankful to know that their history, their life, is not forgotten in Germany.” As a high school teacher, Klein said, it was important for him to go beyond “the classroom with the book — it’s better to show people the places where the history took place, and to have a chance to speak with people.”
Arthur Obermayer, the Boston-based philanthropist who instituted the awards in 2000, said at the Jan. 27 ceremony, “Every year, we are surprised to learn about many new individuals who have done exceptional work and who had never come to our attention before. To foreigners like myself, I am amazed at the German determination to recognize, understand, and deal with its past.”
In addition to Klein, the other award recipients this year were Johannes Grotecke of Bad Wildungen, Dr. Gil Huttenmesiter of Stuttgart, Dr. Silvester Lechner of Elchingen, and Steffen Pross of Ludwigsburg. This year for the first time, an additional award for distinguished service was given to a Jewish recipient, Charlotte Knobloch.