April 26, 2011
German city honors Jews who fled
David Meyerhof makes his living as a teacher, but when he travels to Heidelberg in mid-May, it will be as a student. Meyerhof, grandson of Nobel laureate Otto Meyerhof, is eager to learn all he can about his family’s history in the German university town.
“It’s a trip to honor my family,” he said.
Meyerhof, 60, will be there as a guest of Heidelberg, along with dozens of former Jewish residents who fled during the Holocaust.
Since 1996, the town has extended invitations to its former Jewish residents for a weeklong reunion. Held every five years, the reunions draw people from the United States, Israel, Brazil, France and Switzerland; the event often marks the first time survivors have returned to Heidelberg since World War II.
Heidelberg will host its fourth Jewish reunion May 17-23, and David Meyerhof will be there representing his grandfather and his father, Stanford physicist Walter Meyerhof.
Today, the town is home to a fledging Jewish community of more than 800 people, a synagogue, a community center and the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg — an important institution in German Jewish life that opened its doors in 1979 and moved to a new campus in 2009. Activities during the weeklong community reunion include a reception at Heidelberg’s city hall, tours of the community and a Shabbat celebration at the College of Jewish Studies.
In addition to the reunions, Heidelberg dedicated the Synagogenplatz in 2001, a memorial marking a synagogue destroyed during Kristallnacht, and helps maintain a memorial at the Gurs concentration camp in France, where nearly 300 of the town’s Jews were deported during the war.
University of Heidelberg, one of the first universities in Germany to accept Jews as students in the 18th century, became a center of anti-Semitic agitation in the early 20th century. In 1933, The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was put into effect to remove Jewish civil servants, including academics. Among them was Otto Meyerhof, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research at Heidelberg, who won the 1922 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the relationship between the consumption of oxygen and the metabolism of lactic acid in the muscle.
Meyerhof and his family fled the Nazi regime for Paris in 1938. Two years later, when the Nazis invaded France, Varian Fry helped the Meyerhofs reach Spain and then the United States, where Otto Meyerhof joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Walter Meyerhof, Otto’s son, helped establish nuclear physics research at Stanford University and became a vocal critic of scientists who claimed to have achieved cold fusion in the late 1980s. After his retirement, Walter Meyerhof directed the Varian Fry Foundation and produced the 1997 Fry documentary “Assignment: Rescue.”
In April 2001, David Meyerhof accompanied his father, Walter, and other family members to the opening ceremony of the Otto Meyerhof Centre for Outpatient Care and Clinical Research in Heidelberg.
Otto Meyerhof was among the first scientists to re-establish contact with the University of Heidelberg after the Nazi era, and in 1949, two years before he died, the university reappointed him an honorary professor as a token of restitution.
During the 2001 center opening, university vice rector Jochen Tröger said that Otto Meyerhof’s outreach “was an important factor in putting Heidelberg University’s reputation back on a firm footing.”
David Meyerhof is still in awe that a German university would dedicate a medical center to a Jewish scientist.
“It’s profound that this university [made] amends for the hatred that was so prevalent in Germany,” said David, who teaches math and science to sixth-grade honor students at Florence Nightingale Middle School in Los Angeles.
Eager to add new stories and learn insights about his family, David Meyerhof says he is looking forward to the upcoming Jewish reunion.
“The last trip I didn’t have time to really see the personal sites,” he said.
In addition to the reunion itinerary, Meyerhof says his schedule is filling up with plans to visit his father’s childhood home, tour the university and labs where his grandfather worked and meet with scientists, including a chemistry professor who penned a biography about his grandfather.
And if time allows, David hopes to squeeze in a visit to another part of town named after his grandfather — a brief stroll along Meyerhof Street.