Volker Keller’s research emphasizes the importance of compassion in a diverse society

by Shelley A. Sackett

2021 Obermayer Award winner Volker Keller with Holocaust survivor Daniel Barnea, during Mr. Barnea’s return to Mannheim in 2014.

Volker Keller grew up in a postwar Mannheim marked by a culture of forgetting. On October 22, 1940, over 2,000 Jewish residents of Mannheim were deported from the city to concentration camps in France. Only a few survived Auschwitz and other extermination camps, their next and final stop.

Yet, he was born in 1954 into a household that never discussed “wartime.” When others brought up the topic, he saw how his parents seemed to change somehow, as if they were uncomfortable. Jews were an unusual theme at this time, and whenever documentaries about the war aired on television, his parents sent him out of the room.

Although he was only a little boy, Keller knew he didn’t share his parents’ feelings of discomfort around this topic. On the contrary, he felt a spark of curiosity. The flames from that spark would ignite Keller’s passion and shape his calling for the rest of his life.

Throughout his school years, Keller paid careful attention on the rare occasions when people voiced opinions about the Nazi era. “Some said what happened was terrible, while others spoke almost lovingly about Hitler,” he says. “My interest in history came from wondering how such an injustice could have happened. But when I asked about the “Shoah”, I received evasive answers.”

He started college with a determination to learn about the Nazi era on his own. He concentrated in German studies and took courses in Yiddish language and culture and the history of Mannheim. When he began working as a journalist, he covered local historical themes. That was when he realized there was very little to read about Mannheim’s synagogues. “There were two buildings, but no one knew anything about them,” Keller says.

He decided to fill that void himself. He researched the topic and published the first of many articles in 1982, paving the road of what would become his mission and legacy — volunteering his time to single handedly create a Jewish remembrance culture in Mannheim.

From his college days to his recent retirement from his jobs as teacher and school principal (rector) , Keller has been documenting the life, rich culture and history of Mannheim Jews from its early days to its brutal end. Throughout these many decades of research and commemoration, he placed special emphasis on the relationships he developed with “Shoah” survivors and the families of the victims.

In 1986, when Mannheim first extended an invitation to native Jewish families to visit the city, Keller made sure he was able to meet them. Among the visitors were Asher and Ester Goldman Ariav, who travelled from Israel. Later, they helped him in his research for his first books, sharing photos, memories and insights. “My late parents were extremely impressed by Volker’s deep commitment and extensive efforts to commemorate the former Jewish community in Mannheim,” says their daughter, Edith Ariav-Chazan. After her parents’ deaths, she kept in touch with Keller. “I am similarly impressed by his important commemorative work, all in addition to his busy schedule as a teacher and later principal of an elementary school,” she says. The two families remain close; Keller has visited Ariav in Israel and he arranged a tour of Mannheim for her and her family in 2014.

Over more than 40 years, Keller personally met with scores of survivors and families to learn firsthand of their experience and preserve their testimony. He published five books and countless articles with the goal of documenting the Jewish community’s rich history and significant contribution. “I don’t want Judaism to be associated with the “Shoah” alone. It is a fascinating religion and culture. The general history of Mannheim cannot be separated from the history of its Jewish community,” Keller explains.

One of Keller’s first projects was to create a comprehensive record of the Jewish victims of the “Shoah” and their fate. He organized and led a youth group in the 1990s called “Searching for Traces” that scoured archives and documents for clues on Mannheim’s deportees. They painstakingly contacted survivors and family members. In 1995, the group’s findings were published in a document titled, “Suddenly They Were Gone,” and shared with the city, survivors and families of the victims.

Mannheim, Germany. November 14th, 2009. Two people walking at night by the Mahnmal Memorial. Commemorative sculpture for the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust in Mannheim “Planken” shopping street.

The document had a powerful and far-reaching effect. Not only did the list permanently commemorate the victims in Mannheim by name, it also inspired and triggered the creation of the Memorial to the Jewish Victims of National Socialism in Mannheim, a stunning memorial built by the city and unveiled in 2003. Designed as a glass cube, it has over 2,000 names the Searching for Traces team discovered eternally etched in its walls.

“The Talmud says, ‘A person is only forgotten when his name is forgotten,’”  Keller says. “I believe that commemoration work is extremely important. The awareness of historical and cultural issues is what makes us human. Preserving the memory of the victims of the Nazi era is critical to prevent history from being repeated.”

In the course of his extensive research, Keller came across documents that confirmed the existence of several “Jewish Houses” in Mannheim where Jews were forced to relocate in the 1930s. Essentially mini ghettos, the largest, on Grosse Merzelstrausse 7, had housed 76 residents until their deportation in 1940. Keller contacted survivors who were former residents for details and testimony and in 2003, he published an article that described the history of the house and included personal testimony by several surviving residents.

Among those Keller contacted was the Barnea (ne¢ Heilbronner) family from Israel. Uri Barnea and his late brother Daniel were born and raised in the house, and in 2012, when Keller suggested they help construct a memorial for its Jewish residents, the brothers embraced the idea.  Keller led and managed the effort; he drafted the text for the memorial, negotiated with the city, and oversaw the design and construction of the memorial stele. It stands at BismarkPlatz in Mannheim, some 50 meters from where the Jewish House once stood. The stele has two glass panels, one telling the story of the house and its tenants, the other listing its 76 residents.

The inauguration ceremony in March 2014 was attended by over 100 community members and 30 members of the Barnea family, including then 85-year-old Daniel. His son, Nir Barnea, credits Keller’s efforts with helping the family transition away from avoidance of painful memories. For years, his father did not want to talk about the “Shoah” and refused to visit Mannheim. The pain was too great. “I internalized his pain and also shunned Germany. It was Keller’s compassionate approach and genuine interest in my father and uncle Uri’s experience that helped my father change his mind,” he says. Nir, too, changed his mind, and he joined the other family members who travelled to Mannheim.

In a message shared at the unveiling, he said, “The best answer we can give to the terrible years of the Nazi regime and the “Shoah” is to stand together with members of the community, in front of this memorial with a message of tolerance, peace and compassion.”

After the unveiling ceremony, Keller coordinated with the Karl Friedrich Gymnasium in Mannheim and he and Daniel Barnea gave a presentation about Daniel and Uri’s life during the Nazi era. For almost all of the teachers and students who participated, it was the first time they had met a Holocaust survivor from Mannheim.

Keller’s insatiable appetite for research next led him to another Jewish house which served as a Jewish senior home. Furnished with a Mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and a synagogue, the house at B 7,3 boarded its elderly residents from 1939 until 1942, when they were deported to death in Auschwitz. Keller described the house, still standing and in use today, in an article, and spearheaded forming a team to devise a memorial plaque best suited to the building. He authored emotionally moving text for the plaque that included testimony of one of the residents, who took her own life rather than face deportation.

In November, 2015, Keller and Deacon Manfred Froese, a tireless advocate for tolerance and human rights who has collaborated with Keller for over two decades, unveiled the memorial in a ceremony attended by 70 people. “Volker Keller is one of the most profound experts in the field of research into the history of the Jewish community in this area. What distinguishes him is that in addition to his careful historical work, he places a clear emphasis on maintaining contact with people of the Jewish faith,” Froese says.

Schoschnana Maitek-Drzevitzky, Chairperson of the Jewish Community of Mannheim from 2011 to 2016, couldn’t agree more. “Volker Keller has become a friend to the Mannheim Jewish Community, and is close to our heart. He touches on topics few dare to deal with. His work has put the former Jewish history back into the middle of everyday life in the city,” she says.

His books, articles, tours and workshops have also left indispensable trails for future generations to follow, particularly his publications on the three hundredth anniversary of the Mannheim Klaus Synagogue (The World of Mannheim Klaus) and the Jewish Cemetery (Bet Olam- The Jewish Cemetery in Mannheim). Keller’s “Pictures of Jewish Life” and “Jewish Life in Mannheim” caught the eye of Dr. Norbert Giovannini, author and 2020 Obermayer awardee, as he started his work on Heidlelberg’s Jewish history. “The visual material that Keller has collected and saved is extraordinary. I know that such treasures can only be attained if there is a deep relationship of trust between the researchers and the people they come into contact with,” he says.

Keller’s extensive work to research and commemorate the Jewish community in Mannheim was strictly voluntary. He regularly integrated students from his elementary school (Grundschule) into his history work and involved interested community members in his remembrance projects.

“I hope my students, readers, and community learn how fragile our democratic gains are. Everything we take for granted today, human rights, freedom, protection of minorities, tolerance of others, and taking dissenters seriously, must be fought for every day,” he says.

Keller is cautiously optimistic that his work to uncover and preserve Jewish history, culture and contributions in Mannheim has affected the city’s residents. “I don’t want to get my hopes up. But I think even small contributions can have an impact on people, even if it takes a lot of time. The interest of many people is there, but you have to awaken and motivate it. Especially young people are very responsive to topics that concern the past, but also explain their situation today,” he says.

Keller offers this advice to young people today asking themselves how to best make a difference and help end prejudice and intolerance. “ I would first ask, prejudice and intolerance toward whom? Tolerance of enemies of democracy is problematic. But any racist, ideological, sexist or religious intolerance must be fought. There are so many examples of functioning plurality in past and present times. Emphasizing and reminding people of these positive role models is the task of democratic education.”

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