"That Everything has been so Authentic ..."

details place/state: Berlin   SCHOOL: Leonardo-da-Vinci-Gymnasium   TEACHER: Heidemarie Sow age group: 16 years and older Country/ Countries: Poland, Germany subject: History   learning activities Creating an exhibition   Intercultural Learning   Learning by research at memorial sites   Resurrecting biographies   Working with archives   topics Antisemitism   Auschwitz Lie (Holocaust deniers)   Combatting violence and racism today   Concentration camps   Death registers   Majdanek   Right-wing extremism

Students from Berlin have visited the former concentration camp at Majdanek, Poland annually since 1989. Over the years, students have traced victims and perpetrators in the camp's memorial archives, where documents like death registers are the main sources. The results of the students' research have been collected in an exhibition seen in Germany, Poland, Japan, and Norway.


I created the Majdanek project with a colleague in 1989, in response to the right-wing behavior of some students at the Leonardo da Vinci Gymnasium [high school] in the Berlin district of Neukölln. For example, during class trips, one student refused to enter the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and another student refused to visit the Bergen-Belsen memorial because of "German pride." Coincidentally, the 1990 Berlin elections revealed a clear rightist trend: 20 percent of the voters living near the school in the traditional working class district of Neukölln voted for the Republikaner (a right-wing republican party).

The teachers in our class thought it was urgent to actively fight these right-wing proclivities. We began our project by traveling with a small group of students to the former Majdanek concentration camp. The climate at school changed following this trip. Students and teachers became more sensitive to xenophobia, foreigner hostility, graffiti, and right-wing student language. Those who had visited Majdanek became facilitators, opposed deniers in school, and spoke up more frequently in class when the mass murder of the Jews was challenged.

The trip led to a massive research project. Archival research found a substantial body of new information that was used in an exhibit, which was shown in Germany and abroad.

The First Encounter with Majdanek

In 1989, I planned to take tenth-grade students to Majdanek, located at the edge of the eastern Polish city of Lublin, in order to visit a former concentration camp as proof against the Auschwitz Lie and Holocaust denials. I chose the former concentration camp Majdanek because it is located in eastern Poland and many historic structures are still standing and well preserved. Our students would see the original machinery of destruction with their own eyes. As well, they could also conduct archival research on the structure of the camp and the lives of its victims.

Ten female and two male students from several grades registered for the trip. This first visit to Majdanek was moving. The students were shocked by the size of the camp terrain and astonished that anyone traveling past Lublin could see so much.

During the subsequent seven days, the students, who were given their own choice of activities, conducted research in the memorial's archive and library about the concentration camp, work camp, prisoner-of-war camp, and killing center. They also inspected the gas chambers, the prisoner barracks, the crematorium with its five ovens, the execution pit, and the memorial with its mountain of human ashes. The group members developed a close-knit team spirit and grew very supportive of each other so that they could better comprehend what they saw. The sight of the barracks, where gigantic quantities of shoes and other prisoner possessions were preserved, and the original artifacts in the memorial museum were unforgettable.

The group also visited the former killing center at Treblinka, the site where millions had been killed (although today there are few traces of the victims). The students were more impressed by Majdanek than by Treblinka. In Majdanek, history seemed more tangible, explicit and authentic than in Treblinka. Moreover, at Majdanek they received candid answers to questions posed to survivors.

In 1989, with the help of two teachers, the trip participants worked on an extensive exhibit about World War II in Poland and the Majdanek concentration camp. The students had two goals. They wanted to show their fellow students at the Leonardo da Vinci Upper School the historical relationship between the German occupation of Poland and the murderous policies in the Generalgouvernement [General Government]. They also wanted to present an account of their experiences to their classmates.

The students incorporated a number of prisoner narratives into the exhibit, including passages from Halina Birenbaum's autobiography, "Die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt" ["Hope Dies Last"], about her experiences of being deported as a young girl from the Warsaw Ghetto to Majdanek.

The exhibit had 30 panels. Students in the school were very interested in the exhibit, and subsequent memorial trips to Majdanek were very popular. During the next school year, eight classes participated in the next six trips. A total of 140 students traveled to Majdanek, some of them making the trip for the third time. When they were asked for an explanation, they replied, "We haven't yet finished our archival work."

Archival Research on the Death Registers and Looking for Victims from Germany

The youngest members of the group were especially zealous about researching the names of the victims in the death registers in the archives of the Majdanek memorial. Two of these death registers from 1942 and 1944 survived the 1944 SS attempt to set the archives on fire in order to destroy evidence. These fragmental records only establish the names of the prisoners who had been in the camp for some time before they were killed in the crematorium in those years. Those prisoners selected for the gas chambers immediately on their arrival to the camp, then murdered and cremated, are not listed in the crematoria's so-called "death registers" by either name or date of birth. Only those prisoners who had been at the camp for days, weeks, or months were registered by prisoner number, name, date of birth, place of birth, nationality, and objects of value.

The students examined these archival documents intensively during their several trips to the memorial and copied data about prisoners from Berlin, the Rhine-Main region, and later from all of Germany. It was difficult for them to decipher the often-unreadable old.German handwriting of the "bookkeepers of death" and therefore, perhaps, the students made it a point of honor to document the names of the victims for posterity. Frequently, they had not brought enough paper with them (paper shortages were common in Poland). The 1942 death books contain mostly Jewish victims. By cross-checking against the published Bundesarchiv [German Federal Archives] memorial book in Berlin, the students discovered that many of the German Jews whose names they had copied from the Majdanek crematoria registers were not listed in the Bundesarchiv memorial books. The Bundesarchiv database for German Jews killed in the Holocaust was incomplete. The students' data showed that more than 600 Germans -- mostly Jews - were killed in Majdanek during a ten-week period in 1942.

The 1944 death register was significantly different from the 1942 ledger. An analysis of the names of German victims showed that it contained few names of Jews that had been killed, but instead held the names of other victims and opponents of the Nazi regime. In 1944, many anti-Nazis were deported from Germany to Majdanek and killed there. This was a completely new discovery for the students and teachers.

We found that the number of those killed from Poland, Russia, and other eastern European countries was significantly larger than the number of names registered by the students. Because so many people were not listed in the death registers, we questioned the accepted statistic that 360,000 individuals were killed at Majdanek. Where did the large number of shoes come from (found when the camp was liberated)? These questions were raised again in light of the new archival findings.

The documents showed more than the names of many Jews from Germany and Poland. When the district of Lublin/Zamosc was declared "judenfrei" ["Free of Jews"] and few new transports arrived from Eastern Europe to Majdanek, the German police transported many other Germans to the killing center. These included so-called "antisocials," homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, criminals, and opponents of the Nazi regime. "Aryanization," or the annihilation of these people, continued in the concentration camps in Poland.

After the students learned about these documents, they copied the relevant information from the archives. They discovered that the families of the murdered always received an "Abgangsmeldung durch Tod" ["Notification of Death"]. The students compiled hundreds of names as well as the grounds for arrest, the name of the agency that ordered the arrest, the ostensible cause of death, the date of death, and the date and place of birth. The students noticed that once on the same day at least 20 people died of heart or circulatory failure and were subsequently cremated.

When the names of these Majdanek victims were published in conjunction with the exhibition at the Neukölln town hall, one man asked our assistance because his wife wanted to know why her father had been deported to Majdanek. She had been refused access to the records in her native town. Since the students had recorded the cause of arrest, they informed the man that his father-in-law had been arrested by the police for "homosexuality" and deported to Majdanek. One can imagine how shocked he was by this information, which also revealed that his father-in-law had been denounced. With data from the death registers, we are able to explain the fates of some individuals, but we have not yet decided how to do this.

The students often had to stop while working on the list of victim names. Often a birth date or a first name reminded them of someone they knew, causing them to reflect about this data. In one instance, they discovered that a group of youngsters from Frankfurt was killed at the same time. Other records showed that a father and his son were killed within two weeks of each other. Entire families had been murdered. The students were often lost in thought, since similarities of name and circumstance led them to feel connected to the victims.

The youngsters wanted to double-check their transcription of names against the main card file in the Majdanek archive. That file contained 70,000 prisoner name entries. They discovered that some of the names from the death registers were still missing in this card file. "There is now at least a little evidence about the death of these people," noted one teacher, who hadn't reckoned with the fact that the archives have not been fully processed even today.

Students Archival Research about the Perpetrators

Nearly two-thirds of the trip to Majdanek was spent in the archives, where the students also researched the perpetrators. The facility was almost completely accessible to them, and in one of the many drawers, the students accidentally discovered photos of SS male and female guards who had worked at Majdanek. They were interested in knowing how a person became a killer and asked for biographical data about the approximately 1,000 guards once employed at Majdanek. Had they been married, did they have children, what were their previous jobs or professions? The huge number of SS and perpetrators shocked the students, who no longer believed the claims of their own grandparents that they had known nothing.

Information about the perpetrators was located in the archives at the Majdanek memorial, and later, also at the Berlin Document Center, which was still administered by the Americans. After the facility was transferred to the Germans, research at the Berlin Document Center was restricted because of privacy restraints.

Through research, it became clear that normal citizens often became beasts when assigned to work in concentration camps. The students read SS application letters; their personnel, correspondence and disciplinary files; requests for permission to marry, which contained the required genealogical proof of Aryan ancestry; and promotion reviews. They copied much of this material, since it was not systematically recorded and was not published.

The students learned previously unknown details about the concentration camp commandants and the elaborate bureaucracy of the SS stationed in the camps. They discovered in files containing correspondence about vacation denials that one SS-man had shot himself in the hand when his request for vacation had been denied; he was subsequently allowed to return home for convalescence. The students were interested in reports about inadequate male and female SS job performance, since such guards would not have been transferred to more sensitive postings like Auschwitz. The students asked numerous questions about the system that produced such perpetrators and also learned to ask historical questions with current political implications. These included the question about why SS who had worked in the concentration camps still received special disability pensions, without respect to whether they lived in Germany, Croatia, or the Ukraine, while the victims frequently received no compensation for arrest, forced labor, or forced prostitution.

The Student Exhibition about the Memorial

In 1990, I established a volunteer working group at the Leonardo da Vinci School because the students wanted to present the results of their work to the public. While working on this exhibition, we often reflected on how we could present the horrors of a concentration camp like Majdanek. Would the viewers feel the same as we did when we saw the localities of torture and murder with our own eyes? In developing the exhibition's concept and design, all of us considered how to effectively present the industrialized mass murder that had occurred. Some of the children felt that we should show heaps of naked corpses, since they felt that "this was the reality." Others wanted to show the 800,000 pairs of men's, women's, and children's shoes found outside the barracks when Majdanek was liberated. We finally all agreed that it made more sense to show the shoes as symbols of the murdered, since these shoes still shock visitors today because of their odor and abundance. We didn't want to shock young people. We wanted to encourage them to think.

The first exhibition panels were cheap wooden boards that the students painted yellow. The exhibition panels were mounted with documents about occupied Poland, eyewitness reports about the Warsaw Ghetto and the situation in the General Government, prisoner reports about daily life in the concentration camp and the machinery of death, student photographs from the Majdanek memorial, and student texts. We obtained material about occupied Poland from libraries when schoolbooks and academic monographs did not have enough information. After each trip to Majdanek, new panels containing prisoner reports and SS biographies were added. With the assistance of Polish students in Lublin and Berlin, German students used transcripts of Polish postwar trials to draft new texts about Erich Muhsfeldt, the former head of the crematorium. This material was translated into German for the first time so that information about his atrocities could be read on the exhibition panels.

Volunteers worked on the panels on numerous afternoons after school. Money to produce the exhibition was raised by selling food to teachers and by selling waffles at various Berlin Christmas fairs.

The exhibition was shown repeatedly at the school and also at the Neukölln town hall. It was also displayed at the "Workshop for Cultures of the World" in Neukölln, where it was positively received. Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, visited the exhibit at the school in October 1993 and discussed not only the project, but neo-Nazi tendencies in Germany as well.

The students who had visited Majdanek guided their classmates through the exhibition many times and described their experiences. This was the origin of the idea to tell students in other countries about the Majdanek project.

Students as Communicators

Since 1993, several colleagues and I have informed other countries about the Majdanek project. We received support from several foundations and from the Neukölln district office. The exhibition was translated into Polish in 1995, and in 1996 some of the students visited the Wladyslaw IV. Gymnasium in Warsaw to present their work resulting from visits to the former killing centers at Majdanek, Treblinka, and Sobibor. The exhibition stayed in Warsaw and was frequently lent to other Polish schools - to the delight of our volunteer working association.

Japanese teachers, who visited our school and exhibition in 1993 and 1994, invited us to visit them. We learned that their students could not display this type of exhibition in public buildings. It is still taboo in Japan to speak about Japanese war crimes and war guilt. It is forbidden to include the topic in classroom instruction or to offer books about the subject in public libraries. Many Japanese, including politicians and educators, believe that such negative subjects should not be taught to youngsters. They believe such subjects challenge the established system and might provoke uncontrollable reactions among students. In 1995, the Majdanek exhibit was translated into Japanese with help from the Neukölln district office and several foundations. A group of volunteers assembled the Japanese exhibit.

Twenty-two students, ages 17 to 22, who had previously visited the memorial at Majdanek, traveled in three groups to thirty Japanese cities including Osaka, Okayama, Tsumaya, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Matsumoto, Yokohama, Omiya, and Urawa. The exhibit was shown in museums, town halls, and schools. It resulted in numerous discussions with Japanese students about how we worked through our history. We also talked about our research, which was a completely new idea for Japanese youths attempting to confront their own history. Our exhibit is still shown in Japanese schools and town halls and we sometimes receive newspaper clippings about these exhibits.

During the 1994 trip to the memorial, the students met Norwegian survivors of Majdanek and other concentration camps. We tried to establish contact with them and, after several failed attempts at correspondence, we succeeded in communicating with former prisoner Erich Bauck. In 1996, a small group of ten students visited him in Frederikstad, Norway. We brought an English-language version of our exhibit with us and displayed it for one week at the local city library. Mr. Bauck was delighted and surprised that German students tried to locate him. He told us about his experiences in various German concentration camps and about the death march from Majdanek to Auschwitz that he survived.

In Norway, as in Poland and Japan, our students stayed with local host families, thereby contributing to a reciprocal understanding and helping to alleviate existing prejudices. The Norwegians suggested creating a school partnership with the Leonardo da Vinci School, and we are now preparing the first exchange.

Many students who participated in the memorial trips have already graduated and left school. Many younger students were so inspired by their last trip that they participated in project days where they described their experiences to students at other Berlin schools and universities during the 1997-1998 winter strikes. That project has developed its own momentum.

In the fall of 1998, the volunteer work group plans to visit Israel to present the students' research to Yad Vashem. We also asked Halina Birenbaum (with whom we have been in touch for quite a while) to ask Israeli students to take us through the Yad Vashem exhibition.


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