Jerry Klinger is my hero. Let’s just start with that and get it out of the way.
A graduate of the University of Maryland and a former senior vice president, he is also the son of Buchenwald survivors.
But that alone is not why he is my hero.
Klinger, the founder and CEO of Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, is a man “drunk” on history. He can’t get enough of it and he wants to remind you why it is important.
He has personally established memorials, markers and plaques commemorating Jewish (and African-American) history in 37 states, throughout Europe and Israel. Most recently he dedicated plaques in memory of those Americans who fought in Israel’s War of Independence and another marker in memory of those Jews who were expelled from Arab lands from 1947 to 1958.
He has also placed a marker in memory of those American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald.
Jerry is an “amateur” historian in the best use of that word. “Amateur” is a Latin word indicating “a lover of history.”
I first met Jerry many years ago when he approached me to assist getting the official State of Georgia marker at the Leo Frank lynching site.
In the 1990s I was approached by a Marietta native who helped me identify the Frank lynching site. When I affixed the original memorial plaque in 1995, on the yahrzeit, the 80th anniversary of the lynching, it was the first time that a yizkor service for Frank had ever been held in Atlanta.
I returned to the lynching site again in 2005 to observe the 90th anniversary for Frank.
Not long after that, things went sideways with the Frank memorial plaques. The Georgia Department of Transportation announced that they would build a highway over the Frank site. It would now be obscured and the plaques taken down.
I was fresh out of ideas when Klinger approached me and offered his assistance and the assistance of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. Jerry negotiated with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Historical Society to place a historical marker directly across the street from the lynching site. (Roswell Road and Frey’s Gin Mill, across from a Waffle House).
This new site on Roswell Road leaves enough space to bring students to see and learn about this terrible crime.
What is new this year is that Jerry added another memorial alongside the Frank marker commemorating the over 500 African Americans who were also lynched. Even for those of us concerned about the Frank case, there can be an acknowledgement that the Black community suffered disproportionally from the “lynch law.” It reads:
In respectful memory of the thousands across America, denied justice by lynching: Victims of hatred, prejudice and ignorance. Between 1880-1946 ~570 Georgians were lynched.
(Signed: ADL, Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation and Rabbi Steven Lebow, Temple Kol Emeth)
There is a memorial to lynching victims planned for Fulton County later this year, but this memorial was the first anti-lynching memorial in all of Georgia.
This month I will return to the Frank site to recite the kaddish. This year, because of the foresight of Jerry Klinger, I will also be able to memorialize the African Americans who were also brutalized by this horror.
Because of this, and so much more, Jerry Klinger is my hero.
Rabbi Steven Lebow is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Emeth in East Cobb.