Given increased xenophobia and right-wing violence, youth associations in Lower Saxony have been looking for new ways to motivate youngsters to confront and come to terms with National Socialism. Between 1992 and 1997, young people from ten countries excavated the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In these international work camps, the young people also conducted archival research and met eyewitnesses.
Because of increasing xenophobia and right-wing violence in Germany, especially amidst the sweeping worldwide political upheaval of the early 1990s, the youth associations in Lower Saxony searched for new methods to motivate young people to come to terms with National Socialism. "Spuren suchen - Spuren sichern" ["Seeking and Securing Traces of History"] is not only an historical project, but also an approach for youth work. This project takes a personal approach to the individual youngster. Ist intention is to help project participants forge links to history and German fascism in order to come to terms with this era and its people - both victims and perpetrators - and to examine the era's consequences for the present and future.
The basic idea of the project is called "Taking a Hands-On Approach to History," meaning that project participants have the chance to understand history through both theoretical and practical experiences. The primary focus is the uncovering and preservation of sections of the former concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in order to foster a place of warning and remembrance. This work is not limited to learning from textbooks, but is also distinguished by the wide variety of other forms it takes. Opportunities exist for physical work through hands-on archeology, as well as for assessing testimony by eyewitnesses, for archival research, and for conversations with concentration camp survivors. There are also intensive group dialogues among the school classes, the youth association and especially youngsters from other countries and cultures about what they have learned and experienced.
This project has been replicated more than 40 times with school classes, groups from youth clubs or associations, and youth participants in project weeks and work camps. More than 1,000 youngsters from ten countries have participated. They came from the German federal states of Lower Saxony, Bremen, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saxony-Anhalt, as well as from other countries, including the United States of America, Australia, Japan, Costa Rica, Israel, Belarus (White Russia), Poland, Slovakia, and the Netherlands.
The project participants uncovered six "stone witnesses" in their digs: the cistern in the large women's camp, the sink in kitchen B, the foundations of barracks 9 and 10, the delousing station, and segments of the former main camp street. These sites were thus made accessible to visitors for the first time.
The entire camp area was surveyed and mapped by vocational school students. Paths were widened, including those in the so-called peripheral section of the memorial, and given landmark protection. Today, visitors' groups, especially school classes, have the opportunity to see these "stone witnesses" while taking the circular path connecting the mass graves.
The archeology teams and the archival research teams worked together during project weeks and work camps. Frequently, interviews with survivors were essential to provide data about the exteriors and interiors of buildings. The objects and artifacts uncovered in the digs were treated and documented.
The documentation team often took over the task of recording all the camp experiences in, for example, work-camp newspapers and exhibitions. Project diaries recorded the impressions of the young people. These daily logs, as well as many speeches and contributions to discussions, clearly showed that participants were moved and affected by their experiences. The diaries reveal the senses of dismay, speechlessness and helplessness resulting from the students' encounters with mass death in Bergen-Belsen. Speeches and discussions held during projects also make it clear that the youngsters are prepared to learn from history and to commit themselves to a future based on the values of tolerance and compassion. In this way, the youngsters' encounters, both with each other and with history, have left their marks on them.
The annual memorial day commemorating the liberation of Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945 marks a special high point of their work. Since 1995, which was the 50th anniversary of liberation, the memorial observance has been significantly influenced by the youngsters' participation in the work camps under the auspices of the Bergen-Belsen project group of the Landesjugendring of Lower Saxony" [umbrella organization of all youth associations in Lower Saxony]. The young people themselves choose what is to be emphasized at the memorial observance. In 1995, they chose to read the names of victims; in 1996, the impressive song of mourning by a young Israeli was featured; in 1997, "From Number to Name" was staged; and in 1998, an interfaith memorial service was held. This type of participatory commemoration "from below" has wider resonance and has decisively changed the nature of memorial work at Bergen-Belsen.
The work would not have been possible without the strong commitment of the Landesjugendring Bergen-Belsen project group. In more than 70 meetings since 1992, volunteer and full-time staff from the member organizations affiliated with the Landesjugendring of Lower Saxony have developed the project and coordinated the work assignments. The following organizations have assisted in the projects:
· the Association of German Catholic Youth [Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend, BDKJ];
· the Hanover chapter of the Young People's Christian Association [Christlicher Verein Junger Menschen, CVJM];
· the youth section of the German Trade Unions [Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB-Jugend];
· Hanover Protestant Vocational School Division of the State Chaplain's Office for Youth [Evangelische Berufsschularbeit im Landesjugendpfarramt Hannover];
· Protestant Youth of Oldenburg [Evangelische Jugend Oldenburg];
· the Adult Education Program of Hustedt [Heimvolkshochschule Hustedt];
· the youth section of the German employees union [DAG-Jugend] Lower Saxony and Bremen;
· Catholic Students Group of Hanover [Katholische Studierende Jugend Hannover, KSJ];
· Landesjugendring of Lower Saxony [Landesjugendring Niedersachsen e.V.];
· the Association of Christian Boy and Girl Scouts [Verband Christlicher Pfadfinderinnen und Pfadfinder, VCP].
This project has not only succeeded in establishing educational memorial work projects and become a symbol of youth politics, but it has also converted the oft-exhorted network of youth organizations into an actual, practicing sphere of action. This action applies to the cooperation between the youth organizations themselves, teamwork between volunteers and full-time staff, and to collaborative projects between youth associations and schools. Finally, the youth associations have also developed many international contacts that have deepened through the years.
This project was successfully concluded on June 8, 1997 with the transfer of artifacts for care and conservation to the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Museum, the opening of the exhibition "Seeking and Securing Traces of History: Youth Project Weeks and Work Camps at Bergen-Belsen," and the publication of a book with the same title, "Spuren suchen - Spuren sichern. Projektwochen und Workcamps mit Jugendlichen in Bergen-Belsen." But the archaeological and memorial work of these youth associations continues in ongoing projects about other related topics through international work camps and work with school classes and youth groups.