Student Projects in the Memorial Majdanek


place/state: North Rhine-Westphalia
Friedrich-von-Bodelschwingh-Schulen Bethel
Beate Stollberg-Wolschendorf
age group: 16 years and older
subject: History

learning activities
Creating an exhibition
Interpreting eyewitness reports
Learning by research at memorial sites
Working with archives

Concentration camps
Generalplan Ost

additional links

12th-grade students have traveled to Poland since 1996 in order to complete a work experience in the Majdanek memorial in Lublin as part of their history study course. While in Poland, the students study the history of national socialist occupation politics in Poland and the history of the concentration camp. In addition to the compilation and presentation of exhibitions on various related subjects, the student groups also regularly invite guest speakers from Poland. Money gathered in a fund-raising campaign initiated by the student groups will go towards supporting the conservation of Polish memorials, for example by the conservation of archive material and the publication of materials.

From Concept to Implementation: Preliminary Decisions

The students of the "Leistungskurs" (advanced level course) in history had never heard of the town named Lublin before. A few of them recognized the name Majdanek and knew that there had been a concentration camp there. Nevertheless, they did not know where to find this town. Therefore, it may seem surprising that our history course decided to travel to Lublin to complete the internship usual in 12th grade at the Majdanek memorial. As National Socialism is a subject of 12th grade history class, the suggestion arose to complete the work experience at a concentration camp memorial. Incidentally, all course participants automatically thought of a concentration camp memorial outside of Germany. Aside from factual interest, this wish surely originated from a certain hunger for tourist adventures.

But for the group who did the internship in Lublin in 1996, the decision process was still very difficult, especially for me as a teacher. Just before the final decision had to be made, some students began once more to ask themselves if they were emotionally capable of working at a KZ memorial site. The thought of living and working in, say, Auschwitz for two weeks was scary. Since the first time they heard the name, it has symbolized a place of horror. At that time, the group decided to send a small delegation, made up of one female student, one male student and myself, on a reconnaissance trip. It was an ideal opportunity, since a music group from our school was also headed for a concert in Krakow. Our report on the memorial sites at Auschwitz and Majdanek convinced the students; yes, they could imagine working at a memorial site. It is an impressive, but also challenging place. In the end, the group chose Majdanek, because:

  • there was a competent educational expert in the person of Wieslaw Wysok with whom they could discuss concrete aspects of the project,
  • Majdanek is not as overrun with visitors as Auschwitz,
  • the group found lodging in Lublin's historic city center, some distance from the Memorial Site,
  • the group would provide a certain support during the project,
  • the students would get to see a part of Poland that not many tourists visit.

During the long and detailed decision process, I kept in the background and tried not to push the students in any direction, either in the basic question of whether to do an internship project at a concentration camp memorial site, or in choosing the site for the project. I was excited by the opportunity for such a project. Of course, the group noticed that. But for me it was important that the students make the decision. I do not believe a school should make students even visit, let alone work at concentration camp memorial site against their will. If studying this chapter of history is to be a learning process, each individual must be willing to take on the task, meaning that students must make the decision for themselves. This is especially important because a place like Majdanek evokes strong emotions of grief, confusion and shock, and openly exposes the horror of man's inhumanity in man. The group can only help members deal with the impressions and provide space and time to address individual questions if the students have made the decision to take part in this process together. Incidentally, this also means that students who, for whatever reason, decided not to participate in the work experience in the concentration camp memorial had to be offered alternative work experience opportunities.

On location: organization and contents of the work experience in Majdanek

The academic aim of our course-related work experience is to enable students to have personal experiences with history. This means particularly that they actively and independently deal with a question of history. This can be done through short scientific analyses or through dealing with different possibilities of presenting selected historical events and contexts in exhibitions, museums, through monuments etc. Moreover, it is a question of preservation, restoration and reconstruction of perishable original materials (paper, cloth, buildings etc.). The orientation to practical work also entails some short practical attempts at presenting historical insights. A work experience at Majdanek/Lublin provides good conditions for the realization of these intentions, thanks to the historical location, the work possibilities in the archives and the library, the clarity of the premises and the offer of supervision through the staff of the memorial.

Each internship was developed in detailed discussions with the educational workers at the Memorial Site, and planned so that the students could choose between several work projects [see document] and form teams according to personal interests.

Every internship group had some students who hoped to do practical work on the Memorial Site grounds. Since the school calendar limits our stay in Lublin to March, when simple outdoor work is rarely possible, they have not yet been able to fulfill this dream. Usually the students do not have enough experience for difficult technical work, nor are their language skills strong enough to communicate with Polish experts.

Video and photo projects were in great demand. We found out that a video project requires complicated equipment, since shots from inside the barracks always need additional lighting. Students with simple cameras were often disappointed by the quality of their pictures. We suggest taking along several quality cameras and distributing them among the groups.

Ideas such as the "radio project" and especially the census on what people in Lublin think of the memorial site were only possible because young Polish people were interested in participating, thanks to various private contacts. On the one hand, these were students from our partner school in Krakow, on the other hand students from Lublin, who participated in the work projects in the memorial, some regularly and some sporadically. The Polish participants spoke excellent German, participated mainly in the interviews and helped with translation work on the evaluation of the survey. One problem was that the Polish participants took part in the projects without any previous preparation, while the German students had intensively prepared their stay in the memorial. This was not clear to everyone during the work experience and sometimes led to exaggerated expectations. For future projects, we will try to build stronger co-operation between a German and a Polish student group.

I am happy to see that students who at first doubted whether their projects, such as transcribing barely legible source material or alphabetically cataloguing the German-language library, were really worthwhile, viewed their work as quite rewarding in retrospect. Finding that after some practice they were indeed able to decipher the handwritten documents was an important experience of success. Handling source material lead to discussions on the information it presented about life in the camp. Those who made the alphabetical catalogue did not do it mechanically, but also took a closer look at some of the books. Fellow students soon sought them out as "experts" when they needed information on specific topics.

Classroom instruction prepared the German groups for the internship. One unique aspect of our high school's upper class program is that students who choose a concentration in history (Leistungskurs Geschichte) also take a basic program in social science. The area of concentration and the basic program are thematically related. Besides Nazi ideology, the structure of the dictatorship, the occupation of Poland, the history of the Jews in Poland and the Majdanek Concentration Camp, we thus also discussed questions of remembrance and culture, of political socialization and - in view of Poland - with the problems facing societies in transformation.

During the ten-day project phase in Lublin/Majdanek, students worked weekdays from 9 a.m. to about 3 p.m. at the memorial site (museum grounds, library, archive, etc.). Apart from the core working hours, the programs included a mosaic of additional activities on each subject area. There were excursions to Zamosc and other places (1996), trips to Wlodawa and Sobibor (1999), lectures on various aspects of the internship, interviews with eyewitness Adolf Gorski, and historical walks through the former Jewish Lublin as well as to organizational centers and former munitions depots of the so-called "Operation Reinhardt".

Of course, there was also leisure time, which the students could plan as they wished.
The students also recorded their own impressions of the internship in Lublin/Majdanek at the end of their stay in Poland [see document].

Back in Bielefeld: Evaluating the Internship

After the project phase in Lublin/Majdanek, there is a period of evaluation and consolidation at school. In this phase, students make presentations summarizing their work during the internship. It is helpful to set specific dates for the exhibitions, slide shows, etc., because with time and distance it is not always easy to get as deeply involved in the topics and recall the strong impressions that seemed so fundamental and unforgettable on location in Lublin. The discovery that the impressions gained at the memorial site tend to fade in the students daily lives is an important starting point for discussions on responsible political action.

In the past, various institutions have contacted us after each project, asking internship groups to present their results on various occasions. For example, there were large exhibitions at the Historical Museum in Bielefeld or the Bielefeld County Court Building (Landgericht), where the students' works were among the exhibits. There were requests to plan framework presentations for lectures or contributions to memorial services on November 9th. And finally, there were appointments with the local and regional press. Presenting their results to a broader public helped the students once again realize the seriousness of their projects. This made them more particular about the quality of their presentations, which often involved much more time and energy than they had initially expected. Much of the work was done outside the classroom, with students working hard to finish before the presentation deadline. However, the fact that they were able to put their plans into action and reach a surprising number of people in and around Bielefeld was always an important experience of success for these young adults. The positive feedback they received confirmed that the internship project and their hard work in Lublin/Majdanek had been worth it. [see document].

In 1996, some of the students in the course held a successful charity drive at local churches in Bielefeld [see link]. 1999, Bielefeld Diocese helped them establish a charity account for memorial sites in eastern Poland (Volksbank Bielefeld, BLZ 480 600 36, account number 60 56 40 001, key word "Shoa-Gedenkstätten", account holder: Kirchenkreis Bielefeld).

Without a doubt, our internship projects up to now have been a highly enriching experience for my colleagues and me. No two trips or groups were ever the same. But what struck me and my colleagues most was that learning about the history of the Concentration Camp Majdanek, the "Operation Reinhardt" and the "Generalplan Ost" on location awakened a much greater motivation among the students than I had ever seen in class. Apart from a few exceptions, there was no need to "push" the work along, as I sometimes found necessary with other group projects.

The internship projects would not have been possible without the organizational help of the "Action Reconciliation Service for Peace", or the financial support of the German-Polish Youth Service, the "Foundation for German-Polish Cooperation" and the Youth Educational Service of the Westphalian Protestant Church.

Looking back, I can say that the internship projects in Majdanek have proven greatly valuable in motivating youth to learn about this central aspect of Nazi history. The motivation has grown beyond the classroom, and will hopefully continue even after their current work is complete. I can well imagine doing similar projects again, despite the complicated organization, and would like to encourage other students and teachers to experience history on location in Majdanek.