“You have to defend democracy, which gives you the right to be different.”
For Benigna Schönhagen, reviving a region’s jewish heritage isn’t only about history; it’s connecting people to an important truth about society.
When Benigna Schönhagen was hired in 2001 as the director of the Jewish Cultural Museum of Augsburg-Swabia (Jüdisches Kulturmuseum Augsburg Schwaben), she was surprised to discover that while the museum showcased Jewish ritual objects, it ignored the story of the vibrant Jewish community that once lived there. “It didn’t deal with local Jewish history and the history of actual Jewish citizens, and I thought, ‘I need to change that,’” Schönhagen recalls.
Under her leadership, the museum launched an array of ambitious projects aimed at bringing that history to life. “For me it was very important to show Jewish people the history of the city, but also to show the people of Augsburg how important the Jewish part of their history was—and to give them back the idea that it is a part of their own history,” she says.
The museum opened a permanent exhibit in 2006 documenting the Jews of Augsburg from the early 13th century to today. The exhibit includes the fascinating history of the surrounding Jewish villages (Judenorte), where Jews settled and Jewish culture thrived during their expulsion from Augsburg—a period that began in the Middle Ages and didn’t officially end until 1861.
“We tried to show the relationship between the city and the rural Jewish communities, and to connect all these remembrance sites in the surrounding area,” Schönhagen says. Her research helped document an extraordinary network of rural synagogues, cemeteries, ritual baths, and former Jewish homes, weaving a literal path through the region’s Jewish history.
This was just one element of Schönhagen’s impassioned, yearslong commitment to reviving Augsburg’s Jewish heritage. Between 2001 and 2016 she directed the Lifelines (Lebenslinien) program, which annually invited one former Jewish resident to Augsburg during commemorations of Kristallnacht. The visitors shared their family histories with the community in an intimate theater setting and led weeklong discussions and workshops with high school students that were recorded and turned into DVDs. Schönhagen even secured funding to produce a series of books about each visitor’s family story. Each book required in-depth interviews and research that Schönhagen singlehandedly carried out ahead of the annual gathering.
“The idea was that they not only spoke about their experience of persecution but also told the story of their family to show that there were Jews before 1933 and how they had lived, and what life was like after having emigrated,” she says. One of the program’s participants, Liese Fischer (née Einstein, no relation to the scientist), from Silver Spring, Md., came from the Kriegshaber neighborhood of Augsburg, and her father had been one of six brothers who were all cattle dealers. “You can’t imagine how many people in Augsburg came to meet Fischer because [the Einstein family] was not forgotten,” Schönhagen says.
The Lifelines visits were rewarding for the families, she says. “Getting to know the young people who were interested in their story, who wanted to hear the story—that was the most important thing for the invitees. Each of them wanted to give a mission to the young people, to say ‘Be careful, be open.’”
Another major achievement for Schönhagen was establishing memory posts (Erinnerungsbänder) outside homes where Jews in the Augsburg region once lived. “At first we wanted to install stumbling stones (Stolpersteine), but then we said, ‘Stones in the pavement are not enough; we want the people of Augsburg to [know the] biographies of those people who were persecuted during the Nazi time,’” she says.
In 2004, Schönhagen produced a publication of the remembrance sites, and in 2010 she helped install information plaques at the entrance to local Jewish cemeteries that had no former acknowledgment. In 2013, she created a website and exhibition about synagogues in the region, which has traveled to Munich, Bamberg, and Würzburg and which in 2018 made its 17th stop in Stuttgart. “We tried to show that the synagogue is also a historical document and that you can learn a lot about the history of Jews when you look at the architecture of the synagogues,” she says.
Schönhagen also helped the city organize a ceremony with Augsburg’s Jewish community to honor the 100th anniversary of the town synagogue in 2017. The event included 99 former
Augsburg Jews and their descendants, and the so-named Augsburg Reunion became the first gathering in which second-, third-, and even fourth-generation relatives of Augsburg’s Jews came together from around the world. New family members introduced themselves to one another as they made tours to local cemeteries and the homes where their ancestors had lived. “You cannot imagine how moving it was,” Schönhagen says.
As a child growing up in Koblenz on the Rhine in the 1950s and ’60s, Schönhagen didn’t know any Jewish people. Raised by observant Protestant parents, she knew “only Jews from the Bible.” One of her grandfathers was a pastor, and her family openly discussed the Nazi era and the history of Jews in Koblenz. Still, she says, “it was something abstract for me.…Then I studied history and there were no Jews in my whole study at the university—no lesson or seminar dealing with Jewish history.”
She wrote her PhD thesis at the University of Stuttgart about the history of Tübingen during the Nazi time. It involved tracking down descendants of former Tübingen Jews. “I was blown away by these encounters. I got to know people who spoke such wonderful German, with such a wide horizon of thinking, so open-minded, and I got interested in their culture and history.”
Rather than becoming a teacher as she had originally planned, Schönhagen began to work as a curator, creating historical exhibitions. She dealt with World War II and Jewish history while curating in Stuttgart, then took a job in 1993 in the small Baden-Württemberg town of Laupheim, which had the state’s largest Jewish community in the 19th century. The town sought a new concept for its regional museum, but a Jewish theme wasn’t being considered. “For me it was an aim to show them that Jewish history was a part of their own history,” Schönhagen recalls.
“When I came to Laupheim, I always had the feeling that a part of the city was missing. They resisted, even the mayor resisted, [because] families that were part of the Nazi past were still living there. But I thought it was important to show why, and under which conditions, the coexistence was good.” Eventually her idea was accepted and Schönhagen created what became the Museum of the History of Jews and Christians (Museum zur Geschichte von Christen und Juden), a large institution run with full city support.
Later, when she became director of the Jewish Cultural Museum of Augsburg-Swabia, Schönhagen was able to focus on the ancient Jewish presence in the town and its surroundings, where Jews had led in textile development in the 19th century and where the Jewish population reached about 1,000 prior to World War II.
It is the human contact Schönhagen has cultivated with survivors and their descendants that made her such an important figure in the culture of Jewish remembrance. With a goal of building tolerance and mutual understanding, she has worked with Augsburg’s Christian community and the Society of German Jewish Cooperation (Gesellschaft für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit) to organize events like the Teaching House (Lehrhaus), which brought Jews and Christians together to discuss religion and the biographies of the prophets. “You can show so many common ideas, but only when you also clearly describe the differences, and it’s important to do it openly,” says Schönhagen, who additionally helped a young cantor start a choir in which Jews and Christians today sing synagogal music side by side.
For Schönhagen, “It is the stories behind the story—the individual biographies behind the disaster—that fascinate me. We see growing anti-Semitism in Germany today, and I think it’s very important with these museums to give people the possibility to see, through biographies, what it meant as Jews who were part of the society [were] pulled out and expelled. You have to defend democracy, which gives you the right to be different. It’s really important to work on it, to show what happened.”