Modern Germany and the Lessons of WWII

I recently spent a fascinating two weeks as part of the Transatlantic Outreach Program’s (TOP) study tour of Germany. Traveling with me were 16 educators from across the United States. We were a very diverse group by age, religion, geography, sexual orientation, and politics. The trip is sponsored by a private/public partnership between the Goethe-Institut, the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, the Robert Bosch Stiftung and Deutsche Bank, whose mission is to “encourage cross-cultural dialogue and to provide educators with a global understanding from an international perspective using modern Germany as the basis for comparison and contrast.”

As an educator and as a Jewish woman whose family was directly impacted by the Holocaust, my goal for the trip was to clarify my perceptions of Germany and to understand the country’s journey from its devastating role in World War II to having become the political, economic, and environmental world leader it is today. This program afforded me the opportunity to do so by providing first-hand experience of German government, education, business, and culture, as well as invaluable one-on-one dialogue with young Germans.

No understanding of the modern world would be complete without a thorough knowledge of World War II and the subsequent changes wrought throughout the world, particularly in Germany. As Head of School at Mary McDowell Friends School (MMFS), a Brooklyn-based Quaker school for students with learning disabilities in grades K-12, I have a particular responsibility to make sure we expose our students to the lessons of the war and its aftermath. Two questions I asked myself many times are how do we educate our students about the Holocaust and other acts of ethnic, racial cleansing, and what should we do about the genocides that are occurring in the world right now?

Before the trip, my perspective on the Holocaust was almost exclusively from the vantage point of the Jewish people, through my own experiences as a Jewish woman and as an educator having participated in two in-depth seminars offered through the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Israel. However, in studying the Holocaust, I grew more and more curious about Germany, a country that must make peace with such a difficult past. How have its people begun to heal? What is Germany like today? I realized I knew very little about German traditions and history and had only a passing knowledge of its liberal social policies and respected environmental record.

My curiosity about Germany was further piqued by hearing Elyse Frishman, the rabbi of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the synagogue to which I belong, give a moving presentation about the recent ordination of the first female rabbi in Germany since 1936, which she attended. This event at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in Berlin last November was so important to the country that their then-president Christian Wolff attended it. And when I told my father Bernard Zlotowitz, a rabbi and scholar of Reform Judaism, about my interest in the TOP study tour, he told me, “Today Germany is a best friend to Israel.” I concluded that this is the Germany I want to experience and to share with my students, faculty, and colleagues here at home.

Germany is a physically beautiful country. The little towns along the Rhine River offer spectacular views of mountains, lakes, farmlands, and rolling hills. The bustling cities have wide streets, grand cathedrals, beautiful palaces, and central plazas filled with people strolling by, listening to musicians, buying from the shops, and eating at the outdoor cafes. Prominent throughout Germany are many Holocaust memorials.

Every public school student is required to take either Catholic or Protestant religion class in every grade. If one is neither Catholic nor Protestant or if a parent doesn’t want his/her child in a religion class, then one takes an ethics class. I found it very interesting that the majority of students in schools in the former West Germany take religion classes, whereas the majority of students in the former East Germany take ethics classes. Holocaust education is mandatory for every student in Germany. A guide told me that Holocaust education is considered the fourth pillar of education, following reading, writing, and math.

We visited public and private schools in Bavaria and Leipzig. I asked about Holocaust education and was informed that it begins in the ninth grade and is taught as part of German history. We learned further that all students visit a concentration camp at least once in their schooling. All of the schools were willing to talk about the Holocaust curriculum in various degrees of detail, although a few were not very comfortable doing so. It is interesting to note that there were no Jewish children in any of the schools I visited, nor have there been since the war. Further, some of the students remarked that they had never met anyone Jewish.

My favorite part of each school visit was the individual time we spent talking with students. During each of my conversations, I discussed the Holocaust. I was impressed with how eloquent and passionate the students were in expressing their thoughts on this uncomfortable topic. They all asked about Americans’ perceptions of Germany and the German people. They reiterated that every year they study the Holocaust “not just a little but all the time.” They also shared their experiences visiting a concentration camp and how torturous it was to be there and learn what happened. The students spoke about the frustrations of trying to talk about the Holocaust with their grandparents and parents and most often being told “it was a very difficult time” and “we don’t want to talk about it.” The students are trying to make sense of these statements and that time period. One young tour guide said that his grandfather was a German prisoner of war and told of others who have approached him saying that their grandparents were Nazis. He said he didn’t know what to say when a young person uttered comments such as “my grandfather was a guard because the Nazis forced him to be one.” He rhetorically asked of our group, “Whose responsibility is it to tell these youngsters that the Nazis didn’t force Germans to be concentration camp guards? Their relatives accepted those assignments.” The students expressed concerns and fears about the neo-Nazis who are vocal today. I listened to German students grapple with and talk about the terrible atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis only 70 years ago. There is hope and wisdom from these young people as they try to understand their past and move forward.

From Berlin, we visited Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp that opened in 1936 for political prisoners. Jews were incarcerated there following Kristallnacht. Tens of thousands of innocent people died from disease, starvation, cold weather, work, torture, and murder. By 1943 all the Jewish prisoners were sent to Auschwitz, and Sachsenhausen continued as a camp for political and homosexual prisoners. After the war, its sad history continued when the Soviets used it as a labor camp. We visited Sachsenhausen on a cold, rainy day, which made the visit even more powerful. It affected all of us profoundly, but the members of our group who were gay were most overwhelmed by this experience. Their personal encounters with discrimination, awareness of widespread discrimination against gay men and lesbians in general, and reading about the persecution of homosexuals in Germany during WWII had not prepared them for the reality of the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by the Nazis at Sachsenhausen.

Throughout Germany and especially in Berlin, it is impossible to walk more than a few blocks without seeing a memorial dedicated to Jews and others killed in the Holocaust. “Tripping stones” are one example. They are small, square, gold plaques (which are slightly raised so that when one walks, one would trip and be sure to notice them) in the sidewalks in front of former Jewish homes and workplaces, memorializing Jews who lived or worked there. Each plaque has a name engraved on it and, if known, the date and place to which the person/family was taken. We saw them in all the cities and in all the small towns we visited. There are also moving memorials in many places, each memorial different and specific to a terrible event that happened: for example, in the square in front of the library at Humboldt University where the first major book burning took place; on the street where a group of Jewish men were rounded up to be deported, after previously avoiding the deportations because they were married to non-Jewish women; and at the train station from which all the Jews were taken to be sent to concentration camps. And then there is the very powerful Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin to remember the six million Jewish victims who perished. As I walked through, it filled me with a haunting, empty, hopeless feeling. The memorials are in the open, talked about, and visited by many.

During the course of the two-week study tour, my fellow travelers and I shared a great deal with each other about our backgrounds and our lives. From the moment of our initial introductions, I was curious about the family stories of the non-Jewish participants of German ancestry. What were they told? What were their families’ involvements? What were they thinking about traveling with me? Slowly, we all opened up.

One participant revealed that her grandmother cleaned houses for Jewish residents, and when she wasn’t allowed to work for them, she lost all her income. Her family often went hungry and didn’t know how they were going to survive. This participant’s mother was a teenager at the time and snuck out to Hitler Youth meetings because they offered lots of food. When her parents found out, they beat her and then locked the doors at night so she couldn’t leave. The participant’s mother soon discovered that her mother was sharing some of the little food they had with one of her former employers who knocked on her door each night at a certain time. The grandparents were terrified that their daughter would inadvertently tell someone. One evening, the Jewish employer asked the grandmother to take her menorah and other holy objects for safekeeping. The grandmother refused because she was so scared. Soon after, the knocks stopped coming, and the family heard that all the Jews in that area had been rounded up and taken away. For the rest of her life, her grandmother expressed remorse that she didn’t take the items. On the last day of the trip, one of the youngest participants who talked about her Oma (grandmother) during the whole trip and how much she loved her finally said to me, “I think my Oma was a Nazi.” The sharing of our stories and coming to terms with them were important moments on this trip.

I left Germany feeling hopeful about this generation of youngsters and eager to share this story of hope with the students of Mary McDowell Friends School. I spoke to many people of all ages and felt a sense that the youth of Germany are trying to understand what happened. They ask questions and want answers as they try to come to terms with a terrible past and move forward. At MMFS, we ask our students to examine the roots of hate, intolerance, and prejudice so that they become empowered to work for change and peace in the world. This helps to fulfill our ethical obligation both as a Quaker school and as human beings.


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