At the beginning of the 1996 school year, the city of Gotha initiated a student research project entitled "Jewish Citizens in Gotha." The purpose was to motivate students to conduct local research on Jewish life in Gotha during the first half of the century. About 100 students formed project groups on varying topics and presented their work in the cultural center on the annual "Remembrance Day for the Victims of the Nazis."
At the beginning of the 1996-1997 school year, the city government of Gotha initiated a student research project entitled "Jüdische Mitbürger in Gotha" ["Jewish Citizens in Gotha"]. Students were called upon to research the lives of Jews before and mainly during the Nazi period. The results were to be shown as an exhibition.
The city government had a number of goals in mind. In the exhibition, students would deal with the problem of Nazi persecution of Jews on the local level in their own hometowns. The exhibition would provide the framework for a "commemorative event for Nazi victims" on January 27, 1997 (the day of the liberation of Auschwitz), and then it would later be shown at the Gotha Cultural Center. Each event would help to promote public discussion [see Documents].
After some initial difficulties, teachers and students from eight schools (one academic high school, one Förderschule [i.e., a school for pupils with special needs], and six comprehensive schools) volunteered to participate in the project.
In order to achieve the desired goals in a comprehensive manner, an employee of the city government worked out the research agenda. This provided only broad guidelines. The city government also assisted the student groups in obtaining information. Teachers at the individual schools directed the projects based on the age levels of the students.
Following an introduction to the subject, students in grades six through ten studied Jewish history in project groups. The success of this research increased the students' enthusiasm for working on their projects. The groups sometimes went beyond their project scopes and subjects, making selection for the exhibition more difficult.
Here is a summary of the topics researched:
· Gotha Synagogue: From construction to destruction
Research on this topic focused on extensive newspaper articles, interviews with older citizens, and visits to the former site of the synagogue, now a memorial. Old photographs served as visual resources from which art classes could make drawings of the synagogue.
· The Jewish cemetery
A list was made of all existing tombstones, and drawings were made of some of them. A concise history of the Jewish cemetery was completed.
· The Conitzer Department Store, now "Kaufhaus Joh"
The student work group: contacted the current owners of the store; interviewed former employees who remained in contact with the former Jewish owners, the Israelski family; and collected extensive material from newspapers.
· Nazi laws and decrees against Jews
An extensive study of the literature about the Nazi era and of Gotha newspaper clippings from 1933 to 1945 provided information about laws and decrees.
· Houses where Jews had once lived and the fate of Gotha's Jews
This section of the project focused on the fate of Gotha's Jews. As part of the project, students entered the addresses of Jews on a city map.
· Interviews with citizens of Gotha
Students circulated questionnaires among the older inhabitants of the city. The questions were aimed at clarifying the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Gotha before and mainly during the Nazi period.
The students of the twelfth grade at the Arnoldi High School worked independently. They merely received advice about selecting their research topics. These students assembled extensive material about:
· the chapel at the Jewish cemetery;
· the general history of Jewish cemeteries;
· symbols on tombstones;
· Jewish houses in Gotha;
· Jews in Gotha.
The Arnoldi twelfth-graders also completed a historical survey concerning the fate of Alfreda Zeidler, a former teacher at the Arnoldi School.
Approximately 100 students and eight teachers worked intensely on the project, "Jews in Gotha". In their work, they consulted the following sources: Gotha newspapers, especially from 1933 to 1945; literature on Gotha city history; correspondence from former Jewish residents of Gotha who emigrated; and survivor interviews.
Almost all the project groups are continuing, as they awakened substantial interest among the students. Drawing Jewish homes and the synagogue and visiting the Jewish cemetery proved to be appropriate educational approaches, especially for the younger students in grades six through eight.
The results show that the project has succeeded in elucidating the terrible events of the Nazi era, especially to children and youths, and in making them familiar with the lives and activities of our Jewish former neighbors. Many current and former residents of Gotha visited the student exhibition and were thereby inspired to contribute additional historical material. Teachers also enjoyed the exhibition and used it to facilitate lessons on general and local history.