Students from Neunkirchen took a trip to Struthof, the concentration camp located just across the French border. Before going, the students studied the camp's history and spoke with an eyewitness. Their experiences found expression in creative writing. During Saarbrücken's "Month of Jewish Culture," the students presented their poetry to the public.
Encounter with Struthof
The driver has to shift into second gear. The bus moves only with effort up this steeply climbing road with its many curves. On the curves, we see the lush green valleys and thick forests of the central Vosges' rising mountain cliffs. There is barely any traffic coming at us; few cars want to get around or pass us. It is a weekday. The tourists come on weekends and during vacations, to recuperate at the 1,110 meter (ca. 3,400 ft.) plateau known as the "Champs du Feu" ["Plain of Fire"]. We are in the middle of an internationally renowned ski area. But before vacationers can go skiing or climb Princess-Emma rocks, they have to pass by a large white monument, which silently and accusingly intrudes on this Vosges landscape. From there, you can see barbed wire and watchtowers encircling the former Struthof concentration camp. It is well hidden in this thickly wooded area, surrounded by Vosges Mountain cliffs. Even today, few people know of its sad existence.
Our bus slowly follows the well-built road. I reach for the bus microphone as we drive through another curve, where we see on the slope below us the inoperative railway tracks of a marshalling yard with a freight car overgrown with grass, parked there long ago, its sliding doors closed. I begin to describe what took place here almost fifty years ago. The Night and Fog trains, which stopped here and surrendered male prisoners (from Germany, Lorraine, and Luxembourg) to SS guards, and the exhausting walk through the forest to the camp, were death sentences for most prisoners. The road we are now traveling did not exist then. It was built by concentration camp prisoners in silent cooperation with the residents of Natzweiler. Natzweiler was and is a pretty village with half-timbered houses and window flower boxes. We just went through it.
The students in my advanced German course are all between seventeen and eighteen years old. There are also tenth-grade students that I tutor. They listen very intently and ask questions about what I have read about Struthof, a former concentration camp located in Alsace near the border. They are making this trip for the first time, but know from classroom instruction what awaits them.
How do youngsters react when confronted with their grim national past? And how do adults with knowledge about this past respond to these youngsters? I am speaking of today, of fifty years later, of the present, that again already condones shoulder shrugging, bored inattention to standard history lessons, and the attitude, "I can't listen to this anymore." Admonitory finger-pointing pedagogy cannot provide adequate answers for the unasked questions of young people about the lies of a generation that claims to have known nothing at all.
Hilde Schäfer, 75 years old, discredits this lie, when she relates how she was deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. I had invited her to our class as a survivor. The film "Schindler's List" was then showing in the movies and provoked student reflections and discussions about the perpetually repeated question of why this had had to occur.
Hilde Schäfer told during two classroom hours about humiliations and beatings, cold and hunger, about solidarity and cooperation among the female prisoners and her postwar life, about reunion with her parents who thought she had been killed, and a life that no longer allows normality. She had had pulmonary problems since the war, her back was shattered, and she could only evade the nightmares by using sleeping pills. Why had she accepted the strain of visiting the schools? She explained that she wanted to tell youngsters the truth, so that the Holocaust could not happen again. For me, these German classes were also the most depressing hours that I had ever experienced. For two hours, the past was brought closer to us in a sensitive manner. The students remained silent while Hilde Schäfer departed; they nodded solemnly to her, a few spontaneously but shyly shook hands with her. I was happy that they did not ask me questions. We had actually never discussed this experience and I believed that it would be irresponsible subsequently to ask the students for their comments or written responses.
The bus stops. The large white monument, the symbol of Struthof concentration camp, is directly in front of us. The students had spontaneously agreed with my suggestion that we examine a concentration camp located nearby. They know that they can react to what intellectually and emotionally affects them. I requested in advance that they write at an unusual place. They brought their writing materials with them. They know that writing is not mandatory, but voluntary, and that they are free to pick the theme, form, and language. Dialect is also permitted.
Trip to KZ-Struthof
Now we have arrived.
I remember that we all tried to shove all of us through the wooden entrance gate reinforced with barbed wire, until I found the courage to walk ahead. The group stayed together closely during the tour and silently heard our guide's comments. The tension dissolved somewhat only when we reached the museum barrack and eventually a few of us again left.
Afterwards it was very quiet in the bus. Some completed writing what they had started on location. Others only began writing on the bus, their writing pads on their knees. Only a few conversed in hushed voices. And others again looked out of the window and didn't want to talk or be disturbed. Almost everyone wanted to read their texts at home that evening and hand them in afterwards.
In the Class
The texts were read, discussed, and completed the next morning in German class. There was a workshop atmosphere, where I was a listener. The students worked independently and found their own organization.
I thought the resulting texts and poems were solid and sincere [see Documents]. I knew they had understood, when I later accompanied the students to the "Jewish Cultural Month" at Saarbrücken castle and listened to them, bravely and seriously reading their texts in public [see Video].
I recently had the chance of talking to my former students again. Most of them are at the university, others are already working. Almost four years have passed since our visit to Struthof. How do they deal with their memories of this today? All of them considered this way of dealing with contemporary history to be correct and necessary. They would like to see projects of this kind mandatory in all schools. History books could not have given them this experience.
Simone Keller, student in primary school education:
"The encounter with Struthof is still with me, but in a different way, since then I was simply speechless. Since then, I observe people more closely, listen more sensitively, because I subliminally fear that this type of violence could happen again. And it seems that my fears are not unfounded. I am now completing student teaching in an eighth-grade class. The number of foreign students is relatively high in this school, as is unemployment. Verbal aggression against foreign children is routine and I recently observed a young girl drawing swastikas on her notebook.
I spoke to her and realized that her thoughtlessness and ignorance, also parental influence, caused her behavior. This made me afraid. School must provide answers otherwise Struthof is only a part of past history. I will take my future students to Struthof, since hatred actually grows from unenlightened fear."
Jürgen Metzger, law student:
"I think back to Struthof without feeling oppressed. For me, this was necessary for reflection. Schools must offer such possibilities as compulsory. I felt then that I was taken seriously for the first time.
Struthof has become more important to me because of the suspect role of the law in Nazi times. I am curious if this subject will be discussed in my studies. It is necessary."