The Rolf Hofmann Story

All in the family

For genealogist Rolf Hofmann, the key to recreating the past lies in friendly collaboration.

Imagine a cemetery full of tombstones – a jumble of marble, granite, sandstone and slate, jutting from the earth like a mouthful of crooked teeth. You approach one of these stones to read the inscription, only to find that the slate has been wiped clean. History, time and the elements have taken their toll, forever erasing the truth about what lies beneath.

Since the mid 1990s, as part of his Harburg Project, Rolf Hofmann has cleaned, photographed and documented hundreds of headstone inscriptions from the Jewish cemeteries of Harburg, Moenchsdeggingen and Wallerstein, as well as cemeteries in New York and New Orleans. Throughout the world, many such markers are succumbing to the ravages of time, and it is only through the work of individuals like Rolf Hofmann that the history of those buried beneath can be preserved.

Hofmann’s work has been invaluable to many Jewish genealogists exploring their own family trees, including the members of the Jewish Genealogy in Bavarian Swabia group. He has spent countless hours at the archives of Harburg Castle, hand–copying tax lists, birth records, marriage records, death records and other historical documents. He freely shares the bulk of this work through his Harburg Project website and through other collaborative initiatives, such as the JGBS database.

Hofmann’s transcriptions – thousands of birth, marriage and death records from Ederheim, Hainsfarth, Kleinerdlingen, Moenchsdeggingen, Steinhart and Wallerstein – constitute a large part of the material available on the JGBS website. As of September 2006, over 5000 of Rolf Hofmann’s records can be found online in the JGBS database. These records have been adapted to database format by JGBS members.

In a recent e–mail interview, Hofmann emphasized the importance of friendly cooperation between archivists and genealogists. "Access to archives is sometimes difficult," he says, "especially when you have to order items at special times and sometimes have to wait for hours (or even a whole day) until you get what you ordered, only to find out that the items you ordered don’t contain what you are looking for. "Friendly communication with archivists can change [the research process] a lot, and that’s what happened to me in several cases. Free access to holdings brings better and faster research results. The key to maximizing research results is help by friendly archivists, with trust on both sides."

He advises Jewish genealogists conducting research in Germany to try to track down local researchers – often retired teachers or ministers. These amateur historians, he says, are generally not well–known outside of their own regions. "Jewish ancestral research can be frustrating in Germany," Hofmann explains, "because often not even officials know where to start. Sometimes they even send you to Christian church records."

Since beginning his genealogical research, Hofmann has not only accumulated a wealth of raw data from the Jewish records of Southern Germany, he has managed to piece together these bits and bobs to reconstruct the stories of entire communities, recreating the lives of many Jewish individuals and following their family paths to other parts of the world. All of this information and more is posted on the Harburg Project website. He admits, however, that the research process can be complicated by locality and era. "For the 18th century, tax lists are a really good source of information, often indicating personal backgrounds," he explains. "For the 19th century, vital records (which didn’t exist before) are very helpful, especially the family sheets which were typical for the kingdom of Wuerttemberg, where you can see three generations at once. In Swabian Bavaria it was different, and so you have to work yourself through birth, marriage and death records."

That, of course, is currently the mission of JGBS: the collection, coordination, and presentation of data relating to the Jews who lived in Bavarian Swabia. With time, hopefully our members can take a page from Rolf Hofmann’s Harburg Project, and help to turn raw data into rich, interwoven stories that will be preserved for future generations.

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