Nothing to be Sneezed at

details place/state: Berlin   SCHOOL: Heinrich-Zille-Grundschule   TEACHER: Klaus Emrich age group: 8 years and older subject: Social studies   learning activities   Creating local historical references   Oral history   Reflecting forms of remembrance   Resurrecting biographies   topics   Anti-fascism   Memorial   Plötzensee   Resistance   Victims

At Berlin's Heinrich-Zille school, students aged nine to twelve developed a project focusing on Wilhelm Lehmann, who was murdered in Plötzensee in 1943. Via oral history, they learned about Lehmann's fate and subsequently decided to devote themselves to a memorial plaque. The project grew beyond ist original scope into a series of activities focusing on antifascism in Berlin-Kreuzberg. The activities are documented in a video.

Working Process

Berlin-Kreuzberg, May 1989: Students from a local third-grade class attach a simple cardboard plaque in front of the Bethanian artists' house. The plaque commemorates nearby events in October 1942, when Wilhelm Lehmann, then more than seventy years old, wrote an anti-war and anti-Hitler sentence on the wall of a public toilet. He was observed and denounced. On May 10, 1943, he was murdered at Plötzensee im Namen des Volkes [In the Name of the People].

German, Polish, Turkish and Kurdish students now remember this incomprehensible event. On three pages pasted to self-made cardboard panels, the students tell the story of Wilhelm Lehmann in simple sentences and pictures [see Documents]. They explain why they remember him in a flyer that they made, and they distribute this flyer to pedestrians and engage them in conversation. The background for their action is their anger about the murder of this person, who had lived in their neighborhood; he was an old man, similar to anyone's grandfather. Other motivations arose from the students'.own situations. Some of the students had experiences with the growing xenophobia and an expanding strength of neo-Nazi groups in Kreuzberg during 1989; others had heard about such experiences from their parents.

This project would not have succeeded if the children had not been able to connect these two levels of dismay, since these were emotional preconditions for the project.

The nationwide paper tageszeitung ("taz") commented that the students' gesture at the Bethanian artists' house was "Nicht von Pappe" [Nothing to Be Sneezed At]. The "taz" had been notified about the placing of the plaque and had sent a reporter. The headline had a double meaning for the project; while the figurative translation of "Nicht von Pappe" is "nothing to be sneezed at," the phrase literally means "not made out of card board."

Further Development

Afterwards, the project developed its own momentum, one that could not have been planned through conventional teacher preparation. A reader wrote to the class after seeing the "taz" article. The children invited her to speak to them and learned about the acquittal during the 1960s of Judge Rehse, who had sentenced Wilhelm Lehmann to death. The students were enraged by this further knowledge and wrote a letter to the "taz"; this letter was also published.

The students' curiosity about the past, their research and their collective production of materials was accompanied by a growing delight and pride in their effective public action. Their emotions were linked to their own "radical thinking." This connection was the prerequisite for ongoing work, which continued throughout the students' primary school years. This type of instruction cannot be replicated, since it cannot be traditionally planned but rather depends on the special emotional and incidental conditions of the class.

New Initiatives

Later, it became known that the Kreuzberg district planned to erect an official memorial plaque for Wilhelm Lehmann. The dedication speakers included the children, who spoke successfully. They wrote a letter to the Berliner Abendschau [Berlin Evening TV News] about the dedication of the plaque and confidently appeared alongside "knowledgeable" politicians. These initiatives would have been inconceivable for them and for me one year earlier.

Ultimately, a project group was created in which the students investigated anti-fascist history in Kreuzberg and learned extensively by orienting themselves to oral history methodology.

Three Years Later...

Three years after they had mounted their hand-made cardboard plaque for Wilhelm Lehmann, the students were received by the district mayor and made a presentation to.him. Because Kreuzberg includes one of the largest residential Turkish communities in Berlin, the students wanted to erect a memorial pillar at the Kottbusser Tor to honor the Turkish trade union leader Celalettin Kesim. Celalettin had been murdered in 1980 by a group close to the "Gray Wolves," a Turkish right-wing organization. The pillar, which was approved and erected, was designed by the children and the Turkish artist Hanefi Yeter, who lived in Berlin.

The cardboard plaque had become something continuous. The process resulted in something visible - the pillar. But I suspect it also resulted in something less visible-the children's attitudes.

Two Years Later...

The children and I voluntarily met again two years after the dedication of the memorial pillar to Celalettin Kesim. By then, the students were enrolled in various upper-level schools. We produced a film about the creation of the memorial pillar. We again visited Hanefi Yeter, spoke to Celalettin's brother and went to the Stadtrat für Volksbildung [District Education Officer]. The children's report about this project was submitted to the "Students Competition on German History for the President's Award" and received a prize from the Körber Foundation.


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