When Karen Levi took a trip to Germany in 1973, just after she graduated from college, she held a very negative view of Germans. Levi, a Potomac resident, grew up hearing horrible stories about life in Germany during the Nazi regime, as she was the immediate descendant of several Holocaust survivors and victims, including both of her parents, with her father being forced to leave his home in Germany at the age of 16.
It took a second visit in 2014 for Levi to truly wipe away all the preconceived notions she held against the country and its people. She went to Berlin with her mother, visited her mother’s old apartment, and met with a woman who was looking to start a program in Germany called “Denk Mal am Ort,” (“Memorial on Site”) which encourages German residents to open their doors to the families of Jewish residents who lived there before them and learn the history of what happened to them.
“[When I visited in 1973] I had a very negative view of Germans. But things change, the world changes. So, by 2014, things were completely different. And I was very pleasantly surprised to meet wonderful, honest Germans who I had a lot in common with. I felt accepted, I felt very comfortable with them, because they were kind of on the same wavelength as I was,” Levi said.
Levi visited Germany again in 2019 with her sister as part of the Denk Mal am Ort program, which initially began in Amsterdam, after being invited back to see her mother’s old apartment and meet with the residents. Levi, who had written a memoir about her mother and their family between visits, also gave a presentation to the residents about her family and educated them on who lived in their house almost 100 years earlier.
Now Levi has significant ties to the country and the program and will be attending an awards ceremony in Berlin on Jan. 29 where Marie Rolshoven, the founder of Denk Mal am Ort in Germany, will receive an Obermayer Award, which recognizes Germans who work to keep the memory of Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis alive and combat antisemitism and bigotry in conjunction with international Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“She [Rolshoven] spends her time tirelessly working to find people that are willing to come talk about their family’s past, and she painstakingly works to find Germans who are willing to open up their business or their home to strangers. I mean, it’s all painful, right? She’s working towards the truth and honesty, and that’s exactly what that Obermayer Award is, to award everyday people who are doing extraordinary work,” Levi said.
And the work being done by Rolshoven and her program, combined with the experiences Levi has had in Germany educating people about the legacy of Jews who were persecuted and murdered in the Holocaust, has led Levi to reflect on how that type of education could bring benefits to people back home in America, with the country’s rather imperfect history.
The push for memory preservation in Germany is an initiative sponsored by a group called Widen the Circle, which has administered the Obermayer Awards for over two decades and is currently run by Joel Obermayer, the son of the late Dr. Arthur Obermayer, who created the award in 2000.
“We can learn from the Germans. What’s happening in Germany is not perfect, but it’s the best we have right now. Certainly, better than most places,” Levi said.
Levi cited an example she encountered in Germany, where she spoke with German students from her father’s hometown who were doing an extracurricular project on her family, and she said that it was especially relevant and impactful to the students as they were around the same age as her father when he was forced to flee.
“There are so many things we can learn at the school level [here in the U.S.]. You could be having kids doing projects because that’s what kids do in Germany. They just have hands-on projects,” Levi said.
Levi also said that Widen the Circle is bringing a woman from Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of a terrible racist massacre in 1921, to Germany to see their program in the hopes of being able to adopt something similar in the U.S. and spur efforts to preserve the history of marginalized and historically oppressed groups in the country.
Levi added that there is a perfect example in the DMV community right now that shows why the idea of preserving the memory of these people is so important.
“There’s a church in Bethesda that’s trying to save just a small piece of land for a memorial because the entire Westwood Tower property [which was sold and has development plans] stands on a former cemetery of enslaved people and free Black people. So, this idea of memory culture, Widen the Circle’s purpose, I think, is to be able to bring this to the United States and learn from Germany,” Levi said.