Too Much Holocaust Education?

  • April 28, 2012
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Dan Fleshler

Huffington Post, March 7, 2012

On a bitterly cold day during a recent visit to Berlin, I stood in front of a modest, unfinished, yellow brick wall on the grounds of the Löcknitz-Grundschule, a primary school in the city’s “Bayerische Viertel” (Bavarian Quarter). Children were shouting and scampering around on a nearby playground. Next to me, even though she had visited this wall many times, Gudrun Blankenburg had tears in her eyes.

On each brick, an 11- or 12-year-old had inscribed in black script “Ich denken,” (I remember) and then summed up — in German — a few lines about the beginning and terrible end of a former Jewish resident of the neighborhood, as in “I remember Saul Hochdorf, father of our former pupil, D Warsaw ghetto, 1941.” The wall, near the site of a former synagogue, has been gradually constructed by successive sixth grade classes since 1994. In a few months, it will have a thousand bricks.

Ms. Blankenburg is a local resident who has written a history of the Jews in the neighborhood, once known as the “Jewish Switzerland” because of its nice houses and affluent residents. In the early 1930s, more than 16,000 Jews lived there. By 1945, they were all gone.

As we walked away from the wall, she nodded towards the kids on the playground and announced emphatically, “They will never move to the right!”

The project with the wall is part of a more comprehensive approach to the Holocaust and German Jewish history at the school. Students there have reconstructed the former synagogue with paper mache and wood, created a photo exhibition of neighborhood homes where Jews once lived, pored over old written chronicles of the school to find references to Jews and Nazis. But there is more.

Scattered throughout the neighborhood are 88 signs, each with artwork on one side and actual ordinances from the Nazis on the other, some of them presenting a vocabulary of cruel bureaucratic lunacy, i.e., “Jews are no longer allowed to have household pets. February 14, 1942.” In front of some residences are “stolpersteine,” the “stumbling stones” — now found throughout Germany — that mark the abodes where Jews once lived.

I think the German people deserve much credit for their efforts to ensure that the Nazis’ barbarities are not forgotten and will not recur, and for their commitment to squelching neo-Nazism and racism. But, while mostly inspiring, the approach to remembrance taken by the school and neighborhood — and much of Berlin, where reminders of the Nazi era dot the landscape — also provoked a nagging question: is there a point at which repetition about the Nazi era becomes counter-productive?

67 percent of German surveyed by researchers from Bielefeld University in 2008 found it “annoying that Germans are still held responsible for crimes against the Jews.” In an e-mail, Gert Krell, a retired professor of political science at the University of Frankfurt, told me that he had “a number of good friends who have tried to cope with and work through our German guilt, and whose children have revolted openly or secretly against their parents” for the way they deal with the past. He mentioned a woman in her early thirties, very close to his family, who “openly talked last year about what she called `our obsession’ with the Nazis and the Jews… On the one hand, she admires us for our commitment… On the other hand, she feels almost physically `invaded’ (her word) by the topics which she said had `dominated’ our lives.”

How much remembrance is too much? For that matter, just how much effort should Americans make to commemorate slavery and the extermination of native Americans? Tough questions. But given the difficult challenge of confronting unspeakable horrors once inflicted on the world by their country, one has to admire the tenacity of Germans like Ms. Niclasen and Ms. Blankenberg. It would be easy to opt out of the responsibility to remember. They and others in their neighborhood embrace it. If they are going to err, they would rather err on the side of too much knowledge, because they understand that “never again” must not be an empty pledge.

Some good solid research would be needed in order to gauge the impact of these educational efforts on the school’s alumni. They often return and check out the progress of that poignant memorial wall, says Christa Niclasen, the school’s principal and creator of the wall project.

Earlier this year, in a ceremony at the Berlin Parliament house, Ms. Niclasen accepted on behalf of her students one of five Obermayer German Jewish History Awards. These annual awards, sponsored by retired Boston-area entrepreneur Arthur Obermayer, are given to non-Jewish Germans who work to preserve and commemorate the history and culture of Jews who once lived in Germany.

Like the other Obermayer awardees, she, her school colleagues and neighbors have found an apparently effective way to wrestle with the daunting challenge of German memory: they make a conscious effort in the school and neighborhood to treat Jews who once lived nearby as more than abstract victims. Not far away at a local Rathaus is an exhibit on 142 former Jewish residents of Schöneberg. Children learn to celebrate and honor the Jews who lived there, to develop personal connections with long-dead neighbors as well as survivors who come to visit. And that makes what the Nazis did accessible to them, gives them a visceral sense of the impact of state-sanctioned racism and murder, and to feel personally offended.

Ms. Niclasen told me about a young boy who had researched a Jewish man who once lived in his house, and said, angrily, “it is hard to believe they took away a man who ate lunch on my balcony, my balcony!”

Should there be a statute of limitations on the obligation to remember national crimes? I don’t know. But I live in a country where many people insist on flying and celebrating the Confederate flag, where Michael Savage and other talk radio hosts openly bash gay people and immigrants and spout conspiracy theories about the dire threat of Obama-style “socialism,” where one out of three Americans think Muslims are more sympathetic to terrorists than other Americans. So I think Americans can take a lesson from the Germans I have met who are facing up to their nation’s dark past, and insisting that children learn the right lessons from it.

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