Hesse's Institute for In-Service Training has an on-going program, "Traces of Jewish Life," in which teachers and students meet survivors who have been invited to visit their old hometown. Since 1980, some 450 sessions have led to approximately 10,000 encounters between former and current citizens of Frankfurt. Insights from the program are set forth in "Guidelines for Conversations with Survivors in Schools."
In 1980, a project group affiliated with the state program for continuing teaching education began researching the lives of Jewish citizens in Frankfurt. City tours, walking tours, and visits to Jewish cemeteries led to the places of former and current Jewish life in Frankfurt. These sites provided clues about Jews who once lived in Frankfurt. In 1985, the work group began interviewing Jewish citizens of the city who had emigrated during the Nazi period. This work resulted in the text "...daß wir nicht erwünscht waren. Novemberprogrom 1938 in Frankfurt am Main. Berichte und Dokumente" ["We Were Not Welcomed, The 1938 November Pogrom in Frankfurt. Reports and Documents"], films such as Dorothy Baer's "Meine Eltern haben mir den Abschied sehr leicht gemacht" ["My Parents Made Leaving Very Easy for Me"], and materials on Martha and Erwin Hirsch. Documentation, classroom lessons, and video.materials are available. They allow for the transmission of biographical materials to colleagues.
In 1989, the work group began to organize meetings among teachers, students, and surviving eyewitnesses. This has now become the most important part of the program for the city of Frankfurt. Every year since 1980, the city has invited its former Jewish citizens and survivors to visit for fourteen days.
A letter of invitation explains the purpose of the project. In responding, invitees have an opportunity to contact the schools or city areas where they had once lived or to attempt to correspond with residents of their parents' and grandparents' birthplaces. Half of those invited have accepted the invitation.
A formal reception in Frankfurt provides the opportunity to meet and to arrange school visits or other activities. This is the first contact with survivors of the Nazi period for many teachers, and these meetings help to resolve any feelings of discomfort.
Positive results of witnesses speaking at schools depend greatly on teacher involvement. Teachers must be realistic about their own expectations and fears of handling the student responses. With the assistance of numerous organizations, the Arbeitskreis Zeitzeugenprojekte [Group for Survivor Projects] was established in 1993 in order to assist teachers in facilitating such visits. It provides education for teachers and creates a forum in which previous experiences may be exchanged and new project ideas presented. In this manner, a network of individuals, groups, and organizations, all concerned with the topic of National Socialism and the biographies of the people affected, has been created during the past several years. This network is an important basis for work. The activities of the project group have enabled 10,000 people to contact former Frankfurt residents. This project has facilitated about 450 encounters at schools and in teacher continuing education programs for teachers. There have also been additional contacts with history "initiatives," workshops, archives, and local history researchers.
Meeting Witnesses of the Nazi Era in a Classroom Setting
It was not easy for Max and Ruth Sommer to come to Germany. For many years, they avoided contact with their former home: "I did not want to know anything about Germany anymore." However, Ruth Sommer returned to the country she had fled mainly to speak to young people. She has subsequently expressed in her letters what the.visit meant to her and her husband:
"This visit was very valuable for us, especially for my husband who lost his parents. He can now say that things are different. This is very important for him. …Visiting a school was the most important part of the trip for me. It provided the evidence to enable us to say that we now see a different Germany than we experienced before. I know now that the words 'Never Again' are taken as seriously in Germany as they are for us here. This is the only hope for the future." (Letter from May 30, 1989)
This visit also left a strong impression on the students. One wrote:
"Dear Mrs. Sommer:
I was very moved and impressed with your visit. I do not believe that I would have the courage to return to Germany after so many years to speak openly about my past with students. It would probably take so long for me to make a decision that I would no longer be alive. I would probably be too scared that I would be greeted with disinterest and hostility…"
Witnesses of the period and the memories of emigrants and survivors can provide a bridge between the past and the present. The heart of such meetings is not only the life story of the survivor but also the dialogue about the past, the present, and the future. The importance of this dialogue between generations, between Israelis, emigrants, survivors, their children, and Germans has been expressed by Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer:
"Germans are needed to deal with the Holocaust. We need to know that there is an overwhelming majority of people in Germany who will not allow something like this to occur again. It is psychologically important for Israeli Jews, as well as for Jews everywhere, to know that the people, especially the youth of Germany, are normal people. This is not a given. ...
You need us also. You can not deny your history, because if you do you will glide into the trauma in the same way we will. The survivors are dying now. But you can speak with the heirs of the victims.... This is not meant to recreate misery but rather to allow the building of a normal social life based on historical understanding." (Yehuda Bauer in "Frankfurter Rundschau," January 18, 1994)
There are many good reasons to facilitate more conversations with eyewitnesses in.schools and training programs. Yet there are also reasons to be cautious. Often, these conversations are weighted down by overly high expectations. The witnesses are functionalized and seen only as "artifacts of living history." Their subjectivity is criticized rather than appreciated. Occasionally, such visits end in disappointment.
It is for this reason that outside materials have been created to provide recommendations for the preparation and organization of visits to schools and interviews. These materials are presented here in excerpted form.
A Guide for Interviews and Conversations at Schools
Conversations with witnesses, and in particular with survivors and emigrants, are generally one-time opportunities to share the life stories of these individuals. Our conversation partners and their biographical reports must be in the foreground. They tell us of their personal memories, their stories [see Documents]. It is important for us to be open to this information, to be sensitive and to remember the particular situation surrounding their meeting with us. The preparations, format, and organization of these discussions have a tremendous impact on the comfort level of these meetings.
Preliminary Talks with the Survivors
The first contact will determine further meetings. There is always an emotional growth process, during which feelings of doubt, insecurity, and shyness are slowly reduced.
Before the interview or discussion, formalities of the process should be clarified. It is important to inform the speaker of the anticipated audience, the questions they might ask, the goals guiding the group, and for what purposes the interview will be used. It is moreover important to discuss the form of the interview, discussion material, and length. Clarity creates trust!
A list of themes put together by the group Jüdisches Leben in Frankfurt AG [Jewish Life in Frankfurt] has been helpful in preparing for the meetings. This list was created as an open and neutral framework, and covers a broad spectrum of possible topics. The discussion partners receive this outline a few days before the meeting. This provides the speaker with a certain amount of security. The interviewer and speaker can use the lists to determine whether all aspects of interest will be covered in the meeting.
Before these visits, students should be informed and prepared. Voluntary participation is vital! The meeting should become a learning process for the students. It is also important to stress the meaning and framework of the meeting to the students.
It is important to make the students aware of the sensitivity required for this type of meeting. Preliminary fears, expectations and reservations should be addressed at this point. While these meetings may present a high point in the learning process, caution against unrealistic expectations is warranted.
Content-related information is an important basis for understanding historical events. The students should be provided with the biographical outline of the speaker's life before the actual meeting. This helps them have an appreciation for the main topic of the meeting. Students will be able to develop specific questions. These questions serve as preparation and orientation for the meeting. During the presentation, students are often unable to react spontaneously. Previously formulated questions may help them get over any inhibitions they may develop. It is not suggested that they simply go through a list of questions. From previous experience, the first question after the presentation of the material is generally the most difficult. The teacher or a previously selected student may wish to begin the discussion.
The students must be made aware that they are dealing with an individual, not a "walking history book." A witness can only speak about his/her own particular experiences and events as they relate to the individual. They cannot cover all facets of the Nazi era. Those who emigrated in 1933 can not describe the November 1938 pogrom ("Crystal Night") from personal experience. Thus, the chronological placement of the speakers' life should be placed in an historical framework as part of the classroom preparation.
These survivors are not only links to the past. They also provide the opportunity for questions relating to how they deal with their past, and which wounds are still with them. These subjective perspectives are the strong point of such conversations. The survivors are seen as human beings, not merely as the objects of our search for knowledge. The importance of these visits is in the interaction between people and their individual biographies, as well as the dialogue created between them and us.
Organization of the Meeting
The reasons mentioned above make it obvious that it is important to think about the framework of the meeting.
A two-period class meeting is the most appropriate length for this type of discussion. Conversations in smaller groups are more intimate and intense. The most productive meetings are those held with only one class or with two smaller groups of students. The psychological and physical limitations of the survivors must also be considered when planning these meetings.
During the interview, survivors should initially have the opportunity to tell us about their lives without any interruptions. In this way, they can establish their own historical focus. This phase generally lasts about one hour. Only after the complete narration should questions begin. Questions should be precise and short. The speakers should also be given the opportunity to ask the students questions and to engage in a dialogue with the students.
To give the visit additional weight, it might be possible to hold the presentation in a special meeting room. The incorporation of the administrative personnel working at the school gives the event more importance. Local media may also be invited to the event. If this is done, it requires approval by all parties involved, particularly the survivor/speaker.
Follow up Discussion
The first discussion after the event should underscore the emotional effect of the talk for the students. The following questions may be used in this context:
· What was important and remarkable?
· What was surprising or irritating?
· Which questions remained unanswered?
The following discussion should again place the biographical narrative into a historical context. Information on events mentioned in the presentation should be clarified and/or researched in the library and archives. Articles in school newspapers, local media and/or exhibitions facilitate media coverage of the event. Letters to the speakers may provide an opportunity for personal reflection and further attempts to come to terms with the topic, thereby also providing the speaker with important feedback from those involved.
Kurt Schäfer wrote the following to the school:
"I was very pleased to receive your letter with students' comments. It is not obvious that such dialogues have resonance. And please be assured that I had a wonderful time. At no point did I feel that I was in a classroom, but rather I felt it was a conversation among mutually curious people."