Students at junior secondary level of a Hauptschule with partly xenophobic attitudes meet a Holocaust survivor and experience how discrimination and persecution determine the lives of the victims until the present day. During a class trip to the Auschwitz Memorial, which is accompanied by an eye witness, the students become aware of the crimes committed there and the historical consequences. They realise the importance of human rights and a democratic legal system.
Project Idea and Preparation
In 7th grade, the class started to show xenophobic trends and a tendency to glorify the Nazi regime; this went together with an openness for right-wing youth trends which found their expression mainly in the fascination of the forbidden. "Pole" and "Jew" were common insults among the students. However, it became soon obvious that they did not really understand the meaning of these words. In order to tackle the situation adequately and to reduce provoking incidents, I started to pick up students' questions in order to work on them during special project days.
During these project days and after a joint visit to the Sachsenhausen Memorial in the presence of a contemporary witness, the students repeatedly came up with the request to visit the Auschwitz Memorial. As I was of the opinion that such a visit does only make sense if it lasts for several days, I agreed upon certain conditions for such a study trip with the students, which they understood and accepted. Then I contacted Israel Loewenstein at the Yad Channa Kibbutz in Israel and told him about the idea of the students to visit Oświęcim/Auschwitz in the company of an eye witness. Despite some reservations in the beginning, he agreed to accompany the students and contributed a lot of ideas already in the preparation phase of the trip.
The students had already acquired a basic knowledge of the history of National Socialism and the course of the Second World War during History or Social Science lessons and during special project days; they had dealt thoroughly with the development of concentration camps and the persecution of political opponents. During 9th grade, we had the opportunity to invite a former forced labourer from the Ukraine into our classroom to further elaborate on the topic.
The project described here “On the Road with Israel Loewenstein” is a logical continuation and consolidation of this work. (1. the system of National Socialism, enforced political conformity, elimination of political opponents, setting up of the first concentration camps, 2. Second World War, forced labour, 3. persecution of the Jews and Shoah)
Teaching/ Learning Aims
Besides the transfer of knowledge, the project aimed mainly at creating awareness for political injustice, the violability of human dignity, the treatment of minorities and the importance of a democratic legal system. The learners were to be encouraged to understand their own role in society.
Israel (Jürgen) Loewenstein was born into a Berlin working class family and deported to Auschwitz as a teenager. Therefore his life-story is comprehensible to the students, and they can identify with him emotionally.
Israel Loewenstein was born in Berlin in 1925, he grew up in the Scheunenviertel [Barn Quarter] in Berlin' s middle. From 1939 to 1943, he prepared for emigration to Palestine in Hachshara camps; in the end, he was used as a forced labourer; taken to Auschwitz in March 1943. He survived the death march to the Mauthausen concentration camp and was liberated there in May 1945. He has been living in a Kibbutz in Israel since 1949.
The encounter with a contemporary witness should help the students to understand to what extent history and personal as well as collective experience determine the reality of Israel until today and how they influence German-Israeli relationships.
Carrying Out the Project
The project target group were mainly 9th grade students of a Secondary School (integration class of 15 students). Parents got much stronger involved in the project than anticipated, in particular with respect to the joint events, i.e. the welcome reception, the familiarisation and the farewell ceremony. They were very interested in meeting Israel Loewenstein and talking to him and had an extraordinarily positive attitude towards the project. This was definitely thanks to Mr. Loewenstein's friendly and open-minded attitude and to his integrity. He quickly got into contact with students and parents and was always a much sought-after partner for discussions.
It was possible to involve the entire teaching staff of the Albrecht-Haushofer-Oberschule (35 staff members) in the project through the evenings spent together and the opening of the exhibition; three 10th grade classes (60 students) were also involved through a class discussion with Israel Loewenstein.
During his stay at Berlin, Mr Loewenstein also visited the SOS children's village in the city quarter of Wedding and talked to apprentices in the restaurant sector, their teachers and supervisors (15 persons) in his function as a contemporary witness.
Before the trip to Auschwitz, there was a joint evening with teachers and educators from different institutions (15 participants). Besides Israel Loewenstein's life-story, the topic of this evening focused on problems of educational work and a discussion of recent political events.
Course of the Project
The project was prepared during three project days at the school focusing on the topics Jewry, persecution of the Jews during National Socialism, Second World War, Polish history, and Poland today. The students prepared short presentations in groups to be presented to the plenary. At the end of the project days, the group joined together to cook Polish dishes in the school kitchen.
On 3 June 2004, the group picked up Mr Loewenstein from Berlin-Schönefeld airport and accompanied him to his lodgings at Berlin-Frohnau. On the same evening, there was a welcome reception with parents, students, staff members and the school management. Israel Loewenstein introduced himself and talked about his childhood in Berlin, the persecution of his family and his life in Israel today.
On the following Friday morning, the group went on a tour of the Scheunenviertel, where Israel Loewenstein had spent his childhood. Stumbling Blocks (Stolpersteine) remind of his family at the Almstadtstraße, formerly Grenadierstraße 4a, where he used to live with his parents and his grandmother. His parents were deported to Auschwitz, his grandmother to Theresienstadt, where they all perished; the house was pulled down after the war.
Trip to Poland
The group arrived at the International Youth Encounter Centre at Auschwitz in the afternoon of 6 June 2004. The educational staff then gave them an introduction to the facilities and working programmes of the Memorial.
Three mornings of their stay at Oświęcim, the students spent working on the memorial grounds doing maintenance work.
During the afternoons there were guided tours through the sections I, II and III of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the town of Oświęcim. In the evening, there was always an opportunity for discussions in the group room and for journal writing. Thereafter, the students met with other guests of the International Youth Encounter Centre from Poland and Germany.
The stay was concluded by a commemoration ceremony at Birkenau on the fourth evening, followed by long discussions during a social group evening. The last day of the trip was spent in Krakow with a sightseeing tour and lots of free time.
Evaluation in Berlin
The days after the trip were filled with joint work on the exhibition and many discussions about the impressions the trip had left.
We said good-bye to Mr. Loewenstein during a farewell ceremony with students, parents, teachers and the school management. The students had prepared a Power Point presentation for this occasion to report on their experiences. On the following day, the students accompanied Mr Loewenstein to the airport and bade him a fond farewell, hoping to see him again.
The exhibition was opened with a small ceremony two days before the start of the summer holidays. The very positive feedback from the visitors, among them many parents, the city councillor for youth affairs, the deputy mayor of the district, students from other classes and the entire teaching staff of the Albrecht-Haushofer-Oberschule was a great experience for students as well as for teachers.
The students were very motivated to go on with their work and prepare an exhibition on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January 2005, even after their class was divided and distributed between other classes. For this occasion, the exhibition was shown again, completed by more documentation results (CD-ROM, booklet) and to an extended public.
Support and Experiences
The co-operation with Mr. Loewenstein was of particular importance for the success of the project. His modest, friendly and open ways enabled him to get into contact with all those involved in the project very quickly. Everybody was deeply moved by his story, and the students showed a lot of empathy and gratefulness in their encounter with Mr. Loewenstein.
The co-operation with the educational staff at the Memorial was also very positive. The guided tour of two days through the Memorial was successful and became an unforgettable experience thanks to the flexible, competent and empathic way our guide approached the students. The staff of the Youth Encounter Centre supported us in our preparations and during our stay through practical assistance.
The project would not have been possible, however, without external support. The staff of the EVZ Foundation were always ready to help and very patient in their co-operation. Thanks to support from the Bob-Foundation we were able to publish the results of our work.
At the occasion of the opening of the exhibition, a detailed article appeared in the local newspaper, the “Nordberliner” (see Document 2). The exhibition was shown again on 27 January 2005, at the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the press was invited to this event.
Results and Sustainability
In general, the project by far exceeded all expectations. Reservations with respect to the attitudes of the group of junior secondary school students, which had been expressed from many sides, were not confirmed. Even those students coming from a right-wing background took the matter very seriously after they had found a trustworthy witness of the events in Mr Loewenstein. These particular students always put in very interested questions and soon gave up their attempts to prove that there were inaccuracies or exaggerations. After the trip, many students confirmed that their attitudes towards Jews had changed. Most of them had never knowingly met a Jewish person or someone from Israel. They kept asking Mr Loewenstein questions about information they had acquired during the preparation of the project, often asking him for reconfirmation or for further information on Judaism and Israel.
Many discussions revolved around the question how such terrible things could have happened, why so many people collaborated and so few put up resistance. The young people were especially shaken by the mechanisms that took away peoples' dignity and deprived them of their rights step by step. While history and social science lessons often struggle hard to create awareness of the importance of a democratic system with clearly stipulated human rights, the issue gained a new dimension in these discussions with the students.
All adults involved see the project as successful from an educational point of view. The religion teacher, who visited the Auschwitz Memorial for the first time, was deeply touched by the seriousness, the enthusiasm and the thoughtfulness of the students and happy to have been able to make this experience at the end of his period of service.
The seriousness of the students did not only show in their long discussions, but especially in their attitudes towards Mr Loewenstein and during the trip in their maintenance works for the Memorial, in their behaviour during the guided tours, which demanded a high degree of concentration and a lot of energy and also during their leisure time at the IJBS Oświęcim/Auschwitz where they behaved in an exemplary way. Due to the fact that they came from a Hauptschule, a bad reputation had preceded them, but some people at the Centre did not want to believe that they were from such a school. There were no alcohol problems, and the teachers could always count on the group which turned up for the appointments reliably and on time.
Mr Loewenstein said he was convinced that projects like this were very important for young people and a great contribution towards the understanding among human beings and between nations and also towards a better understanding of the past and the present.
Unfortunately, class H9.1 had to be divided and distributed between two other classes at the beginning of the new school year for administrative reasons. Nevertheless, the students, supported by two teachers, kept meeting each Thursday to work on the documentation and to prepare another event with a renewed exhibition in January 2005. Following the students wish, they started to work on a video film and a computer presentation. First results of the film were shown to students and parents in January 2005.
The educators accompanying the project were delighted by the enthusiasm of the students and happy about the growing interest in historical and political topics. Some students borrowed books about the topic from the library and read them over the holidays, others have started to watch TV-documentaries and feature films about National Socialism and participate very actively in history and social science lessons.
It remains to be hoped that the participants in this trip will be able to keep up their openness, interest and engagement and become active citizens who work against anti-democratic trends in our society. Some have already made their first experiences when they returned to their right-wing friendship circles with new experiences and knowledge and had to realise, that all of a sudden previously shared slogans had gained a different meaning for them.
Maybe our joint effort encourages others to meet the educational goal of counteracting anti-democratic trends through similar or totally different projects. The students, teachers and parents who had the privilege of meeting Israel Loewenstein in Berlin or at the Auschwitz Memorial have definitely been enabled and encouraged to take up this challenge.
translated by Margrit Mueller