A Jewish Cemetery in Germany Tells its Story



place/state: North Rhine-Westphalia
school: Anne-Frank-Schule
teachers: Gabriele Wasser and Hanne Schrader
age group: 14 years and older
subject: Crosscurricular study group

learning activities

Creating an exhibition
Researching local history
Restoration and maintenance work
Working with archives

Over a period of six weeks, students from Bonn studied the Jewish Cemetery in Schwarzrheindorf. The names on the gravestones led to research on the lives of Jewish families. The students became interested not only in the persecution during the Nazi era, but also in Judaism and everyday Jewish life. After working in Bonn's city archives and interviewing experts, the students presented an exhibition of documents and artwork.

Preliminary thoughts

Anne Frank is not only a name for our school, but also a reminder of our responsibility. In the past few years, our students have carried out a number of projects that have tried to prevent racism and hatred against foreigners. They have also attempted to discover common ground among cultures, to emphasize and accept differing value systems, and to practice tolerance toward all religious and cultural groups.

This project, "Traces of Jewish Families in Bonn: The Jewish Cemetery in Schwarzrheindorf Tells a Story," follows these aims. It began when a group of tenth grade students visited the Jewish cemetery in Schwarzrheindorf (Bonn-Beuel). After these students related their impressions to their schoolmates, they spontaneously.decided to care for and maintain the cemetery. Five teachers offered to supervise seventy-five students from the tenth-grade classes working on this project.

The impetus for this project was our interest in the history, traditions, and daily life of Jews from Bonn insofar as we are able to understand them. The project is made difficult because it revolves around people who were killed in a brutal and horrendous manner. It is important to recognize that their spiritual heritage is imperiled and can be forgotten. Nevertheless, the most brutal episode of the Nazi period has been deliberately under-emphasized. Our project did not aim to emphasize pictures showing the destruction of life, but hoped instead to present insight into the destruction of Jewish culture. While visual reminders of suffering serve as an important warning, it is equally important to emphasize knowledge about the significance and beauty of Jewish culture lost in Germany and Europe. This former Jewish world was destroyed by hate and fanaticism. It has been irretrievably lost to us. The remnants of this culture, such as the Jewish cemetery in Schwarzrheindorf, have a different impact than memorials and commemorative plaques. Our project demonstrates that our history remains incomplete without the rescue and documentation of Jewish cultural history.

What was not previously destroyed is vulnerable to the ravages of time. The essence of this culture vanishes when the people who once put on their prayer clothing, observed celebrations, attended religious services, and buried the dead with traditional customs and rituals, are absent. Their disappearance is our loss.

Project Method

This project is extremely important in the concept of our full-day school program. Students in the fifth grade are currently assigned to work on specific projects. Changing the rigid structure of "normal" class schedules allows cross-curricular learning to cut across specific subjects and grade levels. The students are encouraged to complete their assignments with assistance from outside institutions. As a result, there is a broader use of outside resources and materials than is possible in traditional teaching models. In order to complete their projects, students leave the protective surroundings of the school environment and solve many problems through encounters with real life. This collaboration with outside institutions demands that students overcome their fear of the unknown. It requires that they learn appropriate behavior and how to record the results of their work. Prior to any project work, participating teachers discuss their expectations.with non-school partners who serve as contact persons for the students.

During the implementation of these projects, an entirely new level of communication develops between teachers and students, which brings about a higher level of trust without any loss of teacher authority. Abandoning traditional forms of teacher-student interaction also promotes greater student satisfaction in learning, and increases the students' sense of personal commitment.

Practical Development of the Project

This project was initially intended to last two weeks. During this period, practical work was to be completed at the cemetery. Before this started, we contacted those responsible in government offices and the Jewish community in Bonn to clarify details. These initial contacts led to an increasing interest in receiving more information about the cemetery and Judaism. The project developed its own momentum and consequently the goals changed substantially. After many teacher-student conferences, the students developed their own thematic focus.

After identifying the precise goals, the traditional curriculum of the tenth-grade classes was suspended for six weeks. The restructured teaching plan provided for a daily period of two hours for teaching Judaism in an historical context. Following this formal classroom instruction, students worked in smaller groups on their specific projects.

The groups received advice from various organizations including the Gesellschaft für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit [Association for Christian-Jewish Cooperation], Synagogengemeinde Bonn [Bonn Synagogue], Deutsch-Israelische Gesellschaft [German-Israeli Association], the staff of the Bonn city archives, the local history museum in Beuel, and the Israeli scholar Dan Bondy. While conducting our research, we met two Holocaust survivors who had returned to Bonn. They allowed us to use their memoirs and their previously unpublished diaries.

Working with persons outside of school raised the students' morale and enthusiasm considerably. This extensive outside support motivated us. A report about our project, produced by the television station Westdeutscher Rundfunk, served as an additional incentive [see Audio/Video].

The project organization and content received extensive support from the directors of.the school. During the course of the project, many other teachers and students offered to assist us in areas that the project team could not cover. Many parents, including those from other classes, approved of the intensive work on this project and they kept themselves abreast of our progress. Even people not affiliated with the school, who had seen the students working at the cemetery, asked about our results. After the completion, the results were presented to the public [see Visuals and see Documents].

The work on the project "Traces of Jewish Families in Bonn" will be continued by the new fifth grade classes. We will continue to adopt and maintain the cemetery.


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