Soon after German unification, vocational students and teachers from Bremen read in the newspaper about the sorry condition of the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen and decided to help restore the camp. During several stays at the memorial site, they helped repair the camp's walls as well as windows in remaining buildings. In doing these activities, they learned about the camp's history and commemorated the victims.
For many years, apprentices in the construction trades from the Alwin Lonke Straße School Center in Bremen have participated in project weeks to preserve the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Each year since 1994, the participating vocational students and teachers have created a booklet by writing about their experiences and the progress of the project. The following text is excerpted from the young people's report on their 1996 project trip.
Phase 1: Planning
With mixed feelings, I set out in early summer 1996 to introduce the project "Lernen und Arbeiten im ehemaligen Konzentrationslager Sachsenhausen" ["Learning and Working at the Sachsenhausen Memorial"] to students at several classes.
I wondered if I could make the goals of this project clear by pointing out the connection between National Socialism, right-wing extremism, xenophobia, and violence.
Would I be able to reach the students as in previous years? Would some of them, perhaps, become enthusiastic about this project?
In every class, there were students who looked skeptical or expressed boredom, but there were also those who asked interested questions: "What was it actually like in the concentration camps? Was everyone there gassed?" "My father said that the prisoners must have all done something bad." "My grandpa might feel guilty, but not me, of course."
I tried to organize the history, sort out the chronology and find connections to recent developments. I found that student attention increased when I used visual and textual materials as instructional aids.
My contact with students at different grade levels revealed that they had different levels of knowledge about the Nazi era, as well as various opinions about foreigners. At the end of my visits, 35 students, a number that seemed overwhelming to me, signed up to participate in this project.
The next steps were to convince employers that students be permitted to take time off from their apprenticeships in order to raise financial support, to arrange housing, to discuss what restoration work could be done with the memorial site, and to acquire the requisite tools and materials for this work.
These essential preparations were completed by the beginning of the new school year after summer vacation, four weeks before the annual project week at our school center.
We met for a final preparatory discussion a few days before beginning the project. The students included apprentice bricklayers, tilers, carpenters, varnishers, architectural draftsmen, and two teachers. The days ahead were intended to be more than the usual class trip.
Phase 2: The Project
Toward noon on Sunday, September 8, 1996, we drove with 18 apprentices to the youth educational center of the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund [German Trade Unions Federation] in the town of Flecken Zechlin, 60 km north of Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen.
We met once more that first evening. The division of assignments for daily meals and equipment was established, and we agreed to divide up into groups that would take turns writing up their impressions of the memorial each day. The students viewed the television documentary "Die Blumen des Bösen" ["The Flowers of Evil"] and a film produced by the Soviet Army, which was made after the liberation of Sachsenhausen. These visual aids served to introduce us to the focus of the project and to prepare us for our first day in the former concentration camp. This evening was the last time we had anything resembling traditional classroom work during this project trip.
The weather conditions, so important to our work, were ideal the next morning (and remained so over the days to come), giving us added incentive to begin our work. The mood during the one-and-one-half-hour bus trip to the memorial was tense. What would be expected of us? Could we carry out the work we had planned? What did the camp really look like now?
After our arrival and introductory greetings by Mr. Hoffmann from the memorial's visitors' center, we immediately headed to the places where we would work. This year's projects were to renovate one of the walls in the triangularly-shaped camp and to restore the windows of the former prisoners' kitchen.
Of course, there was hectic activity at first. Everyone was overenthusiastic and wanted to do everything immediately, and some improvisation was required. But in the course of the first few hours, the initial excitement settled down and the apprentices revealed the technical expertise expected of their experience levels. The apprentice carpenters, bricklayers and tilers continued work from the previous year, chiseling out old crumbling mortar and refinishing the wall with fresh mortar. The varnishers and architectural draftsmen and women repaired windowpanes, which was extremely difficult and time-consuming work. Old encrusted paint had to be removed completely by using chemical strippers and caustic substances. Only then could further repairs be implemented, such as filling cracks and sanding.
But we were not there for physical work alone. Even before lunch, the first group of students set out on their own to examine the site of the former concentration camp, see the buildings and equipment that still existed, and learn the history of the camp in the two large exhibition rooms. The students recorded their impressions and findings in a daily journal, which was written by one of the groups each day [see Documents].
Work continued for the next three days. About 100 meters (ca. 300 ft.) of the approximately 700-meter (ca. 2,100 ft.) exterior wall was repaired enough (on only one side at first) to withstand adverse weather. Although the repairs on the seven windows were not completely finished, the wooden window frames were stabilized against further destruction until their repainting is completed next year.
At midday on Thursday, the project work for this year ended, with a tour of Berlin still on our schedule.
On the afternoon of the next-to-last day, Mr. Hoffmann gave us a complete tour of the camp and discussed its history and structure at length. He thanked all the participants for their work, which clearly helped to preserve the memorial.
The next morning, we had our final discussion at the youth educational hostel. The student groups presented their daily journals and discussed their experiences and impressions before each wrote a final summary.