At a school in Schorndorf, Baden Württemberg, students studied the consequences of an ideology based on ideas of racial superiority and disdain for human life. Focusing on the destiny of a local Sinti family, the Guttenbergers, the students created art works, thought about forms of remembrance and reflected on local history. As a result of their work, the students decided to take care of a cemetery for forced laborers.
The topic of Nazi racial ideology takes on particular meaning in light of the current recurrence of hate crimes against foreigners in Germany. The conventional commentary about the "victims of National Socialist rule" (see the phrasing of many commemorative addresses) remains superficial if it is not illuminated by concrete examples. Unfortunately, every town has those who were personally affected by Nazi terror and who can therefore serve as those examples. The more personal perspective provided by the reconstruction of individual fates presents an opportunity for significant insight and emotional understanding that helps students overcome irrational fears and prejudices about "others."
On October 15, 1988, by invitation of the town of Schorndorf in Baden-.Württemberg, Albert Guttenberger and some of his relatives attended a reception in Germany at the city hall in Schorndorf with municipal officials and a delegation from the Central Council of Sinti and Roma. Albert Guttenberger and his relatives are the surviving members of the Guttenberger family, former residents of Schorndorf who were a respected, congenial, and religious family.
Nazi ideologues had classified the Guttenbergers as "gypsy-half breeds," considered inferior to "Aryans." Systematic persecution based on genealogical and anthropological examinations meant to determine the "racial-biological" background of Gypsies began in 1938. By October 1939, Heinrich Himmler issued a decree prohibiting changes of residence for all "full and part Gypsies not already interned in camps." Under this decree, the Guttenbergers had to remain in the city and they were prohibited from changing their residence without police permission, known as the Festschreibungserlaß. Everyone had to sign a disclosure statement, known as the Eröffnungsbescheinigung, that stated:
"I have today been notified that I may not leave my current place of residence without permission. Violation of item one of this decree of the Reich Security Office of October 17, 1939 will result in my being remanded to a concentration camp."
The first deportations of Gypsies in Germany began in 1940, and the systematic genocide of German Gypsies began with Heinrich Himmler's decree in December 1942.
According to the still extant transport records from the Schorndorf police department, the Guttenberger family was deported from Schorndorf to Stuttgart on March 15, 1943 [see Documents]. Their final destination was Auschwitz. That year, the father, Anton Guttenberger, his wife Johanna, and their children Maria, Berta, Elisabeth, and Karl, were all murdered in Auschwitz. Their other son, Johannes, died in Buchenwald in 1944. All assets belonging to Anton Guttenberger, "11.69 RM (Reich marks) together with wallet" as well as the duplex in the Römmelgasse, were confiscated by the Schorndorf Revenue Office in May 1943.
Creating the Memorial
The mayor of Schorndorf invited the surviving members of the Guttenberger family to a reception at which the mayor and citizens of Schorndorf acknowledged events that had occurred during the war but had been previously suppressed. Important documents relating to the Guttenberger family were shown to both the family and the Central Council of Sinti and Roma in Germany. Albert Guttenberger spoke for the survivors [see Documents]. It was not easy for his family to return to their former hometown, even for only a few hours. After Guttenberger's speech, the local cultural forum announced a contest for the design of a memorial. A design for a steel sculpture submitted by Reinhard Scherer was selected from eight designs entered in the contest.
The following example can easily be applied. Cooperation with local archives is essential when initiating this type of school project. Contact with survivors must be handled with great restraint and sensitivity.
Through press reports with pictures of the Guttenbergers and excerpts of the speeches at the reception, the tenth grade Realschule class learned that the effects of Auschwitz extended to Schorndorf. A visit to the former Guttenberger family home in Römmelstrasse further advanced the search for clues. Older neighbors still remembered the Guttenberger family; and students noted the insecurity, even awkwardness with which neighbors spoke of the "Gypsy family."
In response to their letter of inquiry to the city archives, the class received a copy of the deportation notice for the Guttenberger family, containing the names of the deported family members. The students were especially shocked that Maria Guttenberger was deported the day before her confirmation and that she was taken directly from class and deported to Auschwitz. "Why did the teachers not defend her?" the students asked. "The priest must have known that Maria was to be confirmed the next day!" "Did her classmates not care?" "Did they know that Maria was murdered in a concentration camp?"
The students followed the competition for the memorial with great interest. Each design and textual explanation was published in the local press. The students discussed what Reinhard Scherer explained were visual symbols for "sorrow" and "warning" in his sculpture. The bizarre, severe appearance of the sculpture did not appeal to many of the students, who rejected the design. The students wanted a more harmonious solution, "which readily represented the meaning, such as a figure of a person in mourning."
The students designed suggestions for the memorial site in class. They were allowed to use any medium: visuals, sculpture, and/or text. The designs were assembled and presented as a small exhibition. The student designs showed that they tended toward more traditional ways of illustrating sorrow.
The design competition for the memorial and its coverage in the local press brought attention to Nazi crimes against the Guttenberger family. This material is now regularly incorporated into classroom instruction. In connection with the subject of "Nazi persecution and extermination," students learn macro-history -- the murder of Gypsies in Nazi Germany, as well as micro-history -- the specific experiences of Sinti in Schorndorf. Bringing the historical events closer to home illustrates how the wrongs committed reached into every community.
In 1993, the students wrote to a surviving member of the family, asking her to come speak to them. Their request was refused because the widow felt that her memories of the terrible injustices were too traumatic for her to discuss. Even this refusal and statement that this history was too terrible to discuss, provided a learning experience for the students.
Students in tenth grade visited the old cemetery to see the memorial. It has been placed opposite the "official" monument to German soldiers who had been killed. The students compared and contrasted the bombastic style of the war memorial with the other memorial.
The students also examined the history of forced labor in Schorndorf. As part of this lesson they visited the graves of about twenty Polish and Russian forced laborers located near the memorial site. In the context of a local historical project, the students cared for and photographed the graves. They also compiled information on the deceased and exhibited their findings in a small exhibition in their school.