Their parents are too young to remember World War II. Many of their grandparents have died.
But for some students from Halle, Cologne and Hanover, the history of the Nazi era is not so distant, thanks to their own engagement with the past.
On Dec. 6, students from these three cities — one located in the former East Germany, the others in what was West Germany — received awards for their efforts to confront history and build civil society.
The students were among 201 groups who submitted projects in a student competition, “Remembering for the Past and the Future — In Dialogue for Tolerance.”
Winners were chosen by a jury of prominent academics from across Germany, including Peter Brand, professor at the Institute for Modern German and European History, Wolfgang Benz, director of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, and Alexander von Platow, director of the Institute for History and Biography.
The competition is the first of its kind sponsored by film director Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, together with the German publisher Cornelsen and the giant communications firm Bertelsmann. The Shoah foundation has produced a CD-ROM for German schools consisting of interviews with Holocaust survivors and eye-witnesses.
The top three projects received prizes of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000. The winners are required to spend at least half to support the continuation of their work.
The first prize went to students from the Gesamtschule Muehlenberg in Hanover, who put on a performance — together with Jewish and Arab teenagers from Israel — of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play about religious tolerance, “Nathan the Wise.”
“We took Lessing’s ideas about tolerance into the present day,” teacher Reinhard Tegtmeier-Blanck said, “not only to show tolerance, but to experience tolerance itself.”
In the brief documentary shown at the award ceremony, one could see interactions between the Jewish, Arab and German students as they rehearsed and performed together in all three languages. Tegtmeier-Blanck said the prize money will be shared with the Israeli students’ schools.
In second place was the Georg-Buechner-Gymnasium in Cologne, whose students created a Web site about the history of National Socialism in their city by conducting interviews, searching archives and taking photographs.
They also adopted and supported a local Holocaust memorial called “Stumbling Blocks,” which consists of stones engraved with the names of people deported from Cologne during World War II.
Third prize-winners were students from the Suedstadt-Gymnasium in Halle, who since 1994 have worked on a memorial book about the Jews of their city, contacting survivors and their children and also reconstructing biographies of Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Several students have developed ongoing contacts with Jews formerly from Halle, their children and grandchildren.
The tradition of confronting local Nazi-era history in Germany is relatively new, having begun in earnest just 20 years ago in the former West Germany.
In the former eastern states, there were virtually no oral history projects until after the fall of communism.
“Archives were closed until 1989,” said Volkhard Winkelmann, 72, who started the Halle project with students after he retired as a teacher. “The archives started to open up very slowly, and they were very disorganized.”
Many documents had been moved to Moscow, he said. Winkelmann asked students if they would want to work on projects that had not been done in East Germany — topics such as foreigners in Halle, various religious groups and the history of the Nazi period.
“Our Holocaust education was interesting, but it was kind of superficial,” said Christiane Kupfer, 17. “When Mr. Winkelmann introduced his idea, I said I wanted to join.”
So did Eva Tietze and Mandy Beutel, both 17, and Larissa Wiesner and Marianne Irmisch, who are 18.
With help from the local Jewish community, which has a history of more than 300 years, the girls started writing to former Jewish citizens of Halle.
They met regularly with Winkelmann during lunch breaks, after school and during vacations. They also visited the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial in Poland.
“We thought the memorial book would take six weeks of work,” Winkelmann said. “I never thought it would last seven years.”
Today, the two-volume memorial book begins with Aaron Abramowitz, who was born in 1876 and died in Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. It ends with Jacob Sender, whose fate is unknown after he was sent to Poland in 1938. Many photos of individuals and places are included.
Winkelmann, who was 15 at the end of World War II, admitted that as a youth he was carried away by Nazi propaganda about Jews. Later, he got to know a classmate whose father was Jewish.
“I went home with him after school and talked to his father,” he said. “It was the first Jew I had consciously known. And then I knew that he was not different from myself.”
Winkelmann started to become secretly critical of East Germany’s anti-Israel propaganda.
“One could not speak openly about it,” he said. In the 1950s, Winkelmann illegally received a copy of “The Diary of Anne Frank” from West Germany. No East German publisher was able to afford the publishing rights, he said.
“I read it in one night,” he said.
Winkelmann’s own father, Ernst, died in the former Buchenwald concentration camp, in 1948, when it was used as a Soviet prison.
The Halle students say the project changed their lives.
“We did not know exactly what had happened in World War II,” Tietze said, “and when we visited the concentration camp memorial, we knew. We talked to an eye-witness, and he told us how it was in Auschwitz.”
Few students in Halle are aware of their memorial project, Irmisch said.
“Now that something big has happened, because we have won a prize, maybe they will find out,” she said. “I hope more people will become aware of this topic.”
And time, the students realize, may be of the essence.
“In 10 or 15 years we will not be able to ask anyone any more how it was,” Mandy Beutel said. “This is a topic that everyone should deal with.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.