Bereshit – "In the beginning…" A German-Israeli project about forming images of each other

The author worked at the Hermann-Böse Gymnasium [high school] in Bremen at the time of the project and is now a teacher at the European School in Luxembourg.

By Karina Lajchter

The First Book of Moses describes "the beginning" both simply and poetically: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth." (In the beginning – bereshit in Hebrew.) At the end of world’s first workweek, Adam saw the newly created light and everything seemed clear and unambiguous. Yet the world’s three major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – follow their own interpretations of what happened after Abraham became a patriarch. A trigger of misunderstandings, and also irreconcilability.

5770 years later – in the year 2010 of the Gregorian calendar – 15 high school students from the Hermann-Böse-Gymnasium in Bremen made their way to the Holy Land, and 15 Israeli students from the Reali-School in Haifa came to Bremen. All were 15 to 18 years old. Their main task for the yearlong project was to examine each other’s perspectives on Israel and Germany. Based on newspaper articles and man-on-the-street interviews, the students elaborated the common images of Germany and Israel, whether in media or in the minds of the public. The work focused above all on grappling with one’s own attitudes and prejudices. The idea was to raise one’s own awareness. In the beginning – bereshit…

Three project phases

In the first phase (research in the form of interviews, photo documentations), the young people gathered information in their home countries about popular images of the other country. The Bremen students looked into the media images of Israel (e.g., in newspaper articles and cartoons). Then they asked what people of different ages think about Israel. The survey was recorded on camera and was intended to provide the basis for a theater performance. All results were evaluated during the regular meetings and compared with each student’s own image of Israel. Since contradictory information and a lack of knowledge often led to more questions, the students met with experts such as Dr. Hartmut Pophanken, a historian who had traveled to Israel several times and could draw upon a rich repertoire of experiences. In this way, a "dress rehearsal" of the theater performance emerged, with focal areas including settlement policy, water management and security wall. These issues reflected the images gleaned from media and interviews. During the rehearsal phase, the youths made initial contacts with their partner students in Haifa via Facebook.

Meanwhile, the Israeli students developed three ideas for screenplays aimed at depicting Israeli images of Germany today. The rough drafts were to be completed during the first meeting in Germany, with sequences filmed in Germany (Bremen, Berlin, Bergen-Belsen). In addition, the German youths sought interview partners and scheduled appointments with them.

The second phase (examining and evaluating the results, turning them into a performance and conducting research for a film) took place in Bremen, together with the students from Israel. The 15 youths from Haifa arrived for their week in Bremen on November 18, 2009. The groups soon headed out for their filming and interview locations. Whether with the president of Bremen’s parliament or a former kibbutz resident – the interviews were extremely open and honest. The third day of the trip was emotional – a joint ceremony in the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. It was a tough test for the tender bonds of new friendship. Now, the groups seemed to be working on their projects with even greater dedication. The Israeli students shot film and conducted interviews. The German youths continued to develop their theater piece. On the next-to-last day of the exchange, the German group presented their first ideas to the Israelis. There were tears, incomprehension, anger on the part of the Israeli youths. Did the image of Israel that had emerged from the research – settlement policy, the building of the wall, water management, discrimination of the Palestinian population – not correspond to the facts? In spite of strong emotions and initial speechlessness, something wonderful happened. After ten minutes, the students sat down in a circle: two groups that suddenly saw each other with new eyes. The first words came out with difficulty. The Israeli CHARGE: "That isn’t what our country is like!" The German ARGUMENT: "But those are the answers we found here." Israeli REQUEST: "Come visit us, see for yourselves!" By grappling critically with the presented views and exchanging ideas about them, the youths were right in the middle of the project and the Middle East conflict itself. What is true, what is falsified? Where is criticism legitimate, where is it not? The first German-Israeli meeting in November 2009 ended with this recognition: This performance concept won’t work as is. 

What now?

Thank God, the contact between the youths intensified and the German students were eager to experience Israel and its people. But they had to find a new concept for their theater performance.

A modified research question was now to be at the center of the German part of the project – more personal, closer, more emotional: What comes to mind, to you personally, when you think of Israel? That was the starting point. The students began to look for people who could tell their own stories about Israel and its people. One story stood out because it started before World War II and still continues: the story of a woman seeking her father: the story of the German woman Lea.

An exciting investigation began: Conversations with eyewitnesses, research on the Internet and on the ground shed light on the gruesome events between 1933 and 1945 and brought a story of guilt and atonement to light, a story that the students traced to the Haifa of today. With every new piece of information, the youths delved deeper into the personal history of Lea and her mother, Emma, piecing together a new image of Israel. Ideas for scenes developed, gradually forming a whole. At the same time, the students developed their own perspective on Israel, its history and the related sensitivities. The initial disappointment after the failed performance idea led to many new insights but especially this one: In order to live in peace, we have to talk – not wait in silence. That is why the title of the new play was "Emma’s silence."

Back in Haifa, the Israeli youths were poring over their film material, trying to implement their screenplay in the editing room. Three ideas for films were born: TRAVEL LOG – a documentary about their trip; THIRD GENERATION – about an Israeli student and her grandparents compared with a German student and his grandmother; and CHANGES – the lives of two German kibbutz residents. 

Joint presentation

In the third and final phase (presentation of the video-theater performance) in mid-May 2010, the results were presented in Haifa. The 15 German youths flew to Haifa to visit their friends on May 11, with high expectations and a new play. The idea of the one-year project had been to get students to liberate themselves from the imposed perspectives of media and society and to develop their own positions using film and theater. In the final joint workweek in Israel, the German youths used every opportunity to get to know the country and its history. This intensified their friendships and opened new perspectives. And everyone was very curious to see the results of their research: the play and the documentaries.

May 16, 2010 was the big presentation day in Haifa’s theater. Christian Weber, president of Bremen’s parliament, had traveled to Haifa for the occasion. The evening began with the documentary THIRD GENERATION. The experiences of the first generation filled the documentary with anger and sorrow. Caught up in these emotions, the grandchildren tried to find the words to enter into dialogue. TRAVEL LOG – is a filmic diary about the trip to Germany that looked unflinchingly at the first conflict; and CHANGES hinted at the altered image of the other. The play "Emma’s silence" explored this image through a true story and ended with a surprising twist: Lea actually finds her father, her mother’s husband, the Jewish man who once loved a Christian woman – almost 50 years on, in the cemetery of Haifa. 


To return to the introductory words: Sometimes, the first impression of an issue can turn out to be much more complex than anyone had thought in the beginning. A second and third look are often essential in order to avoid misunderstandings and irreconcilability. Clarity requires a sympathetic light. In any case, the encounters in Bremen and Haifa and the joint work gave the youths from Germany and Israel the opportunity to break with outdated stereotypes, to develop their own ideas, their own image of the other country and to express this creatively. In this way they realized their very own vision of tolerance, friendship and peace on stage and in film, framed by a mutual agreement: Friends have to speak the truth – even if it is sometimes painful. 


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