“If I meet and get to know someone, then I lose my fear.”
These writers use the power of narrative to help people understand the struggles of others
Gabriele Hannah believes in the power of a well-told story—the kind of story where you really get to know someone and understand their joys, their struggles, and their motivations.
Hannah, along with her brother and his wife, Hans-Dieter and Martina Graf, has made a specialty of telling this kind of story. Among them they have published three books, edited others, and written dozens of articles in newspapers and magazines, all examining the lives of Jews in the Rhine-Hesse region in interesting and compelling depth.
There are two important reasons to tell these stories, Hannah says, and those reasons are likely why they have resonated so well with readers. One is to remember the past, not only what happened during the Nazi era but also the hundreds of years of vibrant Jewish culture that preceded it.
A second is to use the power of narrative to fight bigotry and fear in current times. Bringing the characters of the past to life in a way that seems full and real creates understanding—of people and culture. “I’m afraid of something I don’t know. If I meet and get to know someone, then I lose my fear,” Hannah says. “You can have a picture of a person, but if you get to know this person through his stories and you find out what he did, then you’re no longer afraid; you’re open. And if somebody’s different, it doesn’t scare you…you do not develop hate.”
The first story that captured the trio’s imagination was that of Abraham David, who in 1862 emigrated to the United States at age 17. He came from Hannah’s home town of Gimbsheim in the Rhine-Hesse region of Rhineland-Palatinate and landed as the American Civil War raged. He planned to stay with relatives, but they lived in the south, beyond the battle lines. Hannah and the Grafs discovered that a building with David’s name on it still exists in downtown Wilmington, N.C. When the war ended and he finally did settle in the South, he built a store and became an acclaimed men’s clothing retailer—among other things, introducing Levi Strauss jeans to the region.
They found his life so fascinating that they decided to research and write a book about him, From the Rhine to the Cape Fear River (Vom Rhein an den Cape Fear River), published in 2013. That biography turned out to be just the beginning of the Graf family’s deep scholarship and investigation of the Jewish legacy in Rhine-Hesse.
“With Abraham David we stepped into the Jewish past, and the doors just opened wide,” Hannah says. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, there must be much more.’ So we started to research the Jewish families and were overwhelmed with what we found.”
The group proceeded to visit archives in Germany and Belgium and did painstaking research at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Ga. Based on primary documents, photographs, genealogy database research, and the extensive correspondence they initiated with Jewish descendants, they compiled a vast trove of information about the lives of some 1,700 individuals in 600 Jewish families that once inhabited the region. “Even if there was just one name [mentioned] in our documented history, we needed to find out who they were,” Hannah recalls.
Seven years later, in May 2018, their work culminated in the publication of an epic 556-page book, The Jews From Old Rhine (Die Juden vom Altrhein), which provides an exhaustive account of the region’s Jewish history and family stories, incorporating descendants from Sweden, Switzerland, Britain, Israel, Brazil, the United States, and elsewhere. The Grafs and Hannah interviewed Jewish and German families alike, relying on local eyewitness accounts from some of the last living individuals of the wartime era.
“If we talk about Jewish history in Germany,” Hannah says, “what comes to mind are those 12 years of [the Nazi era] and we forget about the almost 1,000 years before that, and the time that came after. We owe the dead people the truth and we owe them remembrance. But our book is dedicated to the living descendants on both sides. We wanted to show that life changed for them, too, and that the Nazis did not succeed in extinguishing the Jewish families from Altrhein.”
Beyond the sheer scope and size of the work—the book weighs 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms)—it is their artful storytelling style and gift of narration that makes it truly unique. Motivated to explain the past through writing, Hannah and the Grafs bring an array of skills and experience to their craft: Gabriele holds a master’s degree in German studies and American studies and has lived in America, London, and Moscow; Hans-Dieter has worked in university research and public relations; and Martina has been an author for the Brockhaus Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Yearbook.
In addition to writing The Jews From Old Rhine, the group has published many articles in the regional press as well as on their website, www.erichgraf.de. They have led descendants on walking tours through the towns of Gimbsheim, Hamm, Eich, and Worms and to visit their families’ graves in the regional Jewish cemeteries of Mainz, Alsheim, and Osthofen. They have also published a children’s book, Moppi and Peter, which tells the true story of two dogs and their Jewish owners during the Nazi period, creating a powerful allegory for younger audiences. “Young people can identify with the fate of Moppi and Peter. They can sympathize, and then they will ask the right questions. This is how you can introduce them to this very difficult topic,” Hannah says.
Their work has gained support from the regional Protestant and Catholic churches as well as from elected officials. At the same time, the group has also faced some opposition. “There are always people opposed to the subject, who tried to hinder us and put obstacles in our way to discourage us,” Hannah says, “but we used the stones, so to speak, that they put in our way as stepping stones to get to the next level.”
“Gabriele Hannah, Hans-Dieter Graf, and Martina Graf not only represent the spirit of reconciliation and friendship but also dedicate themselves in practice to the realization of these ideals. They have perpetuated the memories of the victims of the Holocaust and bestowed honor on their descendants,” says Joe Schwarz of Ramat HaSharon, Israel, whose intimate experience with the group inspired him to write his own book, Stepping Forward Into the Past (Ein Schritt vorwӓrts in die Vergangenheit), which Martina Graf later translated from English into German.
Now, Hannah says, she and the Grafs hope their own book raises enough awareness so that local people, working with the descendants of Altrhein’s Jewish families, can preserve the decaying 1891 synagogue in Eich, one of the few remaining country synagogues. The building, which was sold in 1936 and later used as an animal stable and shed, is listed as a cultural heritage site and still retains the classic markings of a synagogue, with two tablets on its roof. But nothing has been done to restore it and Hannah fears “it’s only a matter of time before it all decays and vanishes.” Like the fate of the synagogue, restoring memory to Rhine-Hesse is a race against time.
“It is our duty, it is up to us, to tell their stories, to give them back to the younger generation so they have stories to tell, and to not forget what happened,” Hannah says. “It was very important for us to preserve this history of the Jews from Altrhein. The trust and confidence of [the descendants] touched us deeply, and showed us that through personal encounters, remembrance work can actually happen, which liberates and lightens the burden of the past. And when this happens, there is hope of reconciliation.”