Arthur Obermayer, US philanthropist who preserved German-Jewish history

by | Jan 22, 2016 | Obituaries

Arthur Obermayer, a Boston-based Jewish philanthropist who honored Germans for preserving local Jewish history, has died.

Obermayer died Sunday, Jan. 10 in Dedham, Mass., at 84. The cause of death was cancer, the family confirmed.

A longtime activist in political and Jewish genealogical causes, Obermayer was a co-founder of Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel) and a leader in the Germany section of the JewishGen research platform. Professionally, he was an entrepreneur in the fields of chemistry and biotechnology.

In 2000, he co-founded the Obermayer German-Jewish History Awards with JewishGen and the New York-based Leo Baeck Institute. The award recognizes non-Jewish Germans who have often struggled against bureaucratic or societal impediments in order to document their town’s Jewish past.

This year’s honorees included Peter Franz, a Protestant pastor who faced aggressive resistance from local neo-Nazis, who in 2010 left two pig heads outside a remembrance site he created in Apolda, in the former East Germany.

Franz and six others will be honored at the Berlin parliament on Jan. 25, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Members of the Obermayer family will be present.

Especially important to Obermayer, according to a spokesman for his foundation, was that his honorees reach out to Jews anywhere in the world with roots in their towns. The majority of nominators— from the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere—had lost family in the Holocaust and never thought they would have a connection with Germany again.

At the 2004 award ceremony in Berlin, Obermayer explained what had moved him to create the prize.

“These people are doing this with a great deal of dedication, and not for an honorarium,” he said. “They do their work because they feel they ought to, because they want to.”

In 2007, Obermayer received Germany’s highest honor, the Cross of the Order of Merit, for creating his award.

A Philadelphia native, Obermayer had roots in Creglingen, a small town in southern Germany. He developed contacts with local historians, ultimately co-founding a museum of Jewish history there.

He and his wife of 52 years, Judith, were involved in numerous political, scientific, Jewish and entrepreneurial causes. In June, they were inducted into the White House’s Small Business Innovation Research Hall of Fame.

In addition to his wife, Obermayer is survived by three children and five grandchildren. (JTA)