Holocaust Education in Germany Has Come Far, but Still Faces Hurdles

The taxi driver shot a questioning glance over her shoulder. “What’s going on?” she asked, noting the flocks of guests arriving at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation building in central Berlin.

“It’s a Holocaust Remembrance Day program,” she was told.

“Ach, ja,” she said. And then: “I have to tell you: I have had it up to here with that subject. It feels like . . . well, like a kind of blackmail from the Israeli government.”

Such sentiments are all too common here.

A December 2002 study by the American Jewish Committee showed that 52 percent of Germans believe “Jews use Holocaust remembrance to their own advantage.”

Another survey, released last November by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence in Bielefeld, Germany, found that 22 percent agreed without reservation — and up to 80 percent more or less agreed — that “Many Jews try to take advantage today of the history of the Third Reich, and the Germans pay for this.”

These views are a troubling sign that not all is right with Holocaust education in Germany, according to historian Matthias Heyl, head of educational services at the Ravensbruck concentration camp memorial.

“I hear students say they have had enough, and there seems to be a connection between lack of knowledge and that statement,” Heyl said. “It sounds like a playback of what their grandmother and grandfather said back in the early postwar years.”

“This attitude has been encouraged by certain intellectuals in Germany, and it is spreading,” said Beate Kosmala, a senior historian at Berlin’s Center for Research on Anti-Semitism.

“A really good education on the Holocaust would make the dimensions of the crimes so clear that one could no longer make such arguments,” Kosmala said.

But “it is not easy to teach this era of history to young Germans,” said Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, which has commissioned a pilot study of the impact of Holocaust education on German high school students.

“It is a very grim chapter, for which young people today bear no guilt or responsibility,” Berger said. “Nevertheless, it is a part of the history of this nation which cannot be forgotten or overlooked.”

German educators have had many hurdles to overcome, and a timeline of schoolbooks tells the tale: from postwar avoidance to displacement of responsibility onto a few high-level Nazis to the confrontation with local and family history — and, finally, to the clash between East and West German interpretations of the past.

Since unification in 1990, much has been done to knock down the former East Germany’s view of itself as guilt-free and of West Germany as the repository of Nazi evil.

“There definitely has been a change in the last few years, with a lot of new curricula, including new historical information,” Kosmala said. “And in Berlin and other big cities, there are many survivors who are invited to the schools. In my experience, these people are often very surprised by the interest among students.”

In 1996, the establishment of a Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany by then-President Roman Herzog provided a rallying point for long-term educational programs.

This was evident at the recent “Remembrance Day on the Internet” program sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, in which students from across Germany won awards.

In contrast to the game-show atmosphere at the prize ceremony, the student projects were serious and thoughtful. They included interviews with Holocaust survivors and with their own grandparents, as well as with youths who recently left Germany’s right-wing extremist scene.

“We wanted to put our thoughts together so others would profit from it,” Juliane Ziegler, 16, a student at the Luckau Gymnasium, told JTA.

She and her fellow classmates created a Web site about their visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial and their meetings with Polish students.

Such commitment and interest appear to be rare, according to Philip Graf von Hardenberg, managing director of Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in Berlin.

Speaking at a Jan. 27 discussion on “Remembrance in an Entertainment Culture,” Hardenberg said it is “embarrassing” how few schools had participated in the foundation’s first competition on Holocaust-related topics, which was held in 2001.

And of 120,000 schools contacted, only 130 wanted to purchase the Shoah Foundation’s CD-Rom, which features interviews with German Jewish Holocaust survivors, he said.

Some believe a poor Holocaust education has dangerous results.

Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, recently said “deficiencies in the educational system” are partly to blame for anti-Semitism in Germany.

But Heyl doubts Holocaust education can inoculate Germany against today’s societal problems, and he prefers not to link the two.

Today’s Holocaust education, in Germany and elsewhere, focuses increasingly on “confronting the perspective and individual choices of bystanders, perpetrators and rescuers,” and not only of victims, Heyl said.

A pitfall of Holocaust education is that persecuted groups often are seen only as victims.

“We do not work enough on Jewish history and culture in Germany,” Heyl said.

That is where Arthur Obermayer, an American Jewish businessman with roots in Germany, comes in.

Three years ago he created the German Jewish History Award to honor non-Jewish Germans from all walks of life who are trying to ensure that the Jewish history in their hometowns isn’t forgotten.

This year’s winners helped save synagogues and Jewish cemeteries from oblivion, reached out to Jews who once lived in their towns and created archives for future researchers. Their projects are described at www.obermayer.us/award.

Without the work of such people, “all the speeches” given on Holocaust Remembrance Day “would be hot air,” Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told honorees and guests at the recent award ceremony.

“You are the bridge builders in the fullest sense of the word.”

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