Thanks to a city-to-city partnership with Ashdod, Israel, students from Berlin-Spandau went on a two-week trip to Ashdod, where they lived with Israeli families. Together with the children of these families, the German students traveled throughout the country. The Yad Vashem memorial made a strong impression on all of them. The young people from the two countries became friends and the Israelis returned the visit by coming to Berlin.
In the summer of 1997, the tenth-grade class visited Israel instead of sites in Great Britain that might have included Karl Marx's grave in Highgate, the small, enchanted Cotswold towns that had disappeared, the moors at Exmoor, or birth places of the industrial revolution.
The trip's origins began long ago in October 1993. I visited Israel with the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW) [Union Education and Research] to meet with colleagues from various schools and educational institutions. We experienced the critical optimism generated by the start of the peace process. For the first time, peaceful coexistence seemed possible in the Middle East. Thus, students and parents of the incoming seventh-grade class, which I had just taken.over, began to discuss the possibilities of a class trip to Israel at the end of the tenth grade. Most parents, including one Palestinian father, were interested. But our hopes were rapidly dashed in the hail of stones at Hebron, Nablus, and Ramallah.
In March 1996, I participated in the sixteenth German-Israeli seminar under the auspices of GEW and the Israeli teachers' union, Histadruth Hamorim. In working with colleagues, intense collaboration that extended across the graves of the past allowed me to resume planning for the students' trip.
In August 1996, I asked the mayor of Berlin's Spandau district, in which our school is situated, whether we could link parts of the proposed class trip to the city partnership between Spandau and Ashdod in Israel. The reply from Ashdod was promising, and the youth department responsible for the student exchange suggested that we link the entire trip to the partnership rather than just the four days normal to this program. Our students would be hosted by local Israeli families, and the children of these host families would accompany us on our itinerary through Israel. This was more than I had expected. How else could our students encounter this land and ist people so intensively?
At that time, there were confrontations again at the West Bank and in Jerusalem. Despite 80 deaths on both sides, the status quo was rapidly restored. The meeting at our school between students, parents and the Israeli Deputy Consul was very important. It clarified that Israel and the West Bank were different entities.
During Easter vacation (March 1997), I was in Israel preparing for the class trip. Thus, I could provide parents and students with background information about events on the Jordanian border, including the murder of seven students by a Jordanian soldier on the "Island of Peace" (a small plot of land given back to Jordan after the 1994 treaty), a bomb attack in Tel Aviv and renewed skirmishes at the West Bank. This information helped to allay fears and hesitations.
As preparation for the trip, we read Shoshana Rabinovic's biography, "Dank meiner Mutter" [Thanks to my Mother] in German class; saw the play "Vermummte" [The Masked] by Ilan Hatsor about Israeli-Palestinian conflicts; visited Sachsenhausen and the House of the Wannsee Conference; and heard various papers about different topics. These activities were supplemented by the ninth-grade history curriculum, which included information on National Socialism and the Holocaust. In February, we met with the Bezirksstadtrat für Jugend und Sport [Youth Recreation.Officer] and youth educators from Ashdod who visited Spandau for an international seminar.
Our students also had to be quite brave in preparing for this trip. Many anxious questions arose. Would the Nazi era constantly be held up to us? How would we find being with an Israeli family? Could they accept us, even though we were German? There were Turkish boys in the class as well as Michaela, whose father is a Palestinian with a German passport who frequently visits paternal family in southern Lebanon. Would there be acceptance of these Moslem and Palestinian identities or might they be rejected?
Reception by Host Families
The host families received all students with openness, fantastic warmth and friendliness-- the students were actually embraced upon arrival, thereby rapidly dispelling any apprehensions. They were invited to and participated in various activities such as playing volleyball or basketball, going to the beach and sharing pizza. Somehow, Germans and Israelis were generally conversing with each other even though their grades in English class were not always satisfactory. In their host families, our students learned new ways of getting along. Sadness and happiness were revealed and not suppressed. They discovered a new physical closeness rather than their usual reserve. The adults on the trip noted with delight that the students' demeanor unconsciously changed and they developed a new openness with each other and with us.
The high points of our itinerary were the days in Jerusalem and our trips to the north and south, all while accompanied by the children of our host families [see Documents]. After sunrise in Massada and the obligatory swim in the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi, we participated in a typical Israeli outdoor activity. We hiked through Nahal Arugot, which was a new experience for our students since they didn't have to worry about their clothing getting wet. Children who previously had grumbled during brief walks were suddenly enthusiastic about completing demanding stretches over rocks and water. It was clear that the boundaries between the groups were being reduced as they learned to help each other.
There were no accidents during the hikes. One of the principles of Israeli education is to provide challenges that enable youngsters to grow within the parameters of calculated risks, thus strengthening their sense of community. Activities were planned on these precepts, without giving primary emphasis to concerns about what could go wrong and what parents, employers and courts might have to say.
Certainly, this way of proceeding assumes a strong sense of responsibility and an equally high sense of self-discipline by each member of the group, maxims that are more valued in Israeli education than in German. These successful, initial efforts had a positive impact on relations between the Israelis and our youngsters. The impressions were overwhelming for our students. The openness and friendliness of Israeli youngsters, their common experiences, the unusual landscape, the sun-our students became more relaxed and better able to express their feelings.
During the second week of our trip, we went together with some Ashdod students to Yad Vashem [see Photos]. Two colleagues from Tel Aviv, Tova Perlmutter and Chaya Ostrower, met us in the "Valley of the Communities." I had become acquainted with them the year before at the joint German-Israeli seminar of GEW and Histadruth Hamorim. They had promised to guide us through Yad Vashem.
Tova's parents had survived the concentration camps and had lived in a displaced-persons camp outside Frankfurt, where Tova was born. As she shared her family's story, our students began to understand how the past catches up with us; they gained a very personal and traumatic knowledge of genocide. Tova could not continue speaking; she had not anticipated that it would be so hard to speak to a German group. However, she decided to accompany us through the exhibition.
As we continued, both Tova and I found it ever more difficult to continue translating. I barely wanted to speak in German because of the people in the photographs and the knowledge that the other visitors could be their relatives. As we went through more exhibition segments, I realized that the children were deeply moved and the learned barriers began to dissolve. Tears flowed out of sympathy for the tortured and the murdered, and the youngsters from Ashdod and Berlin met in this mutual sadness. A student later told me, "This moved me more than the curriculum in the 10th grade."
The "Hall of Remembrance" was reserved for us to conduct a joint commemoration. Our students could not read the Brecht texts that they had prepared-- it is not permitted for German to be spoken there. Carine from Ashdod and Peter from Spandau touched the lever of the eternal flame, Lior read a poem and I recited the English translation of the Brecht poem. I talked about how, on that day, we were closing the circle from the House of the Wannsee Conference memorial to Sachsenhausen to Yad Vashem. I also stated our hope that future generations growing up in a democratic school system would be protected from ever becoming.perpetrators or bystanders, and I thanked the Israeli group for staying with us on this day. Together, Ravit from Ashdod and Ilona from Spandau placed a wreath with the inscription, "Makif Gimel and Bertolt-Brecht-Oberschule, Ashdod and Berlin." Ilan, our colleague from Ashdod, said kaddish.
We placed a second wreath at the Janusz Korczak memorial at Yad Vashem.
We emerged from the pavilion erected in memory of so many children, with ist seemingly endless stars and the names of the murdered children coming from a void, and saw hopeful greenery, Jerusalem emerging anew and the future.
I considered it a special symbol of bonding that Carine wore the T-shirt of our school on this special day. She did this deliberately.
In conclusion, we visited Rabin's grave on Mount Herzl. The gravestone is made of black marble from the north and white limestone from the south, symbolizing the entire state of Israel. The Israeli students showed their grief, something that would be barely imaginable for us to do at a German politician's grave. Rabin represented the hopes for peace in this region. We heard later that the students spoke that evening with their host families about Yad Vashem and their experiences. We felt that this joint day of mourning together represented the most important part of our visit. The bonds between both groups were more solid than before.
Connections Do Not Stop
Farewell: At 11 p.m., we slowly arrived at a youth club, where we celebrated until we departed in the early hours of the morning. There were teary eyes and moving good-byes between host families and our children, where close relationships had rapidly developed. The Ashdod children asked, "When can we travel to Berlin?" Since I knew that Ashdod had not planned an exchange visit, I suggested that the children speak with officials in their town to present this idea. The farewells at the airport were filled with tears.
We were greeted with cool, rainy weather in Berlin. The parents were astonished to see their children depart from the chaperoning adults with hugs and kisses, as they had become accustomed to embracing during the past two weeks in Israel. During the trip, the students were not able to abandon the formal, "Sie" form of address because of its convention and custom. The German students left their Israeli friends with something to ponder: although they got along well together, why hadn't the German students addressed their teachers by first names as is the custom in Israel?
One week before school closed, Ilan called me and said, "We will come to Berlin." Within one week, invitations were sent to Ashdod by parents, the school and the mayor, and the school association had approved payment for one-week transportation cards for the students visiting Berlin. Although the class no longer formally existed because most of the students had left school shortly after the class trip to Ashdod, there were no problems with housing or with the program. The Israelis arrived on August 13 and left on August 27. Saying farewell was even harder this time. Contacts have continued on a personal level. Three of my former students visited Ashdod at Christmas and New Year 1997-98.