Students from Mülheim an der Ruhr planned a one-week writing workshop. In preparation for it, they organized a research project about Jewish life in their town. After interviewing Jewish eyewitnesses and talking with experts, the students wrote their impressions down in literary form. The students presented their literary efforts to their classmates and then published the texts as a brochure.
The writing workshop project in our school has become a tradition. For several years now, I have conducted an annual one-week writing workshop, held outside normal school operations, where senior students have the chance to write their own texts and to exchange their creative writing experiences with their classmates.
Initially in the first writing workshops, I stressed free non-thematic writing, not restricted by outside constraints. In 1995, I decided to work with students on an assigned topic; the first time we tried this approach with the subject "Roma and Germans."
The assigned-subject approach was developed further in a 1996 writing workshop with the subject "Jews in Mülheim after 1945." The decision to choose this topic was made in December 1996 because of various local and supra-regional considerations.
- The planned move of the Mülheim Jewish community to Duisburg appeared to be finally decided. Because of space, site and financial reasons, the city of Mülheim an der Ruhr was not in a position to offer the Jewish community an appropriate alternative to their house of worship on Kampstraße. Thus, the communities Mülheim-Oberhausen-Duisburg resolved to accept the offer of the city of Duisburg to build a new synagogue there.
- Public discussion was stirred by two publications:
Ulrich Herbert: "Best: Biographische Studien über Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft, 1903-1989" ["Best: Biographical Studies of Radicalism, Ideology, and Reason, 1903-1989"], Bonn 1996, and
Daniel J. Goldhagen: "Hitlers willige Vollstrecker. Ganz gewöhnliche Deutsche und der Holocaust" ["Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust"], Berlin 1996.
- "How do we deal with the subject of the Holocaust?" had again become a highly explosive public question and had provoked a number of fundamental debates "against forgetting." The German President Roman Herzog asked at the Bergen-Belsen memorial service, "Have we already found the right approach to memory?" thus formulating one of the principal questions for our discussions.
- A further stimulus to thought was Theodor Adorno's evaluation: "The inability to identify with others was without question the most important psychological condition that something like Auschwitz could occur among relatively moral and harmless people." (Quotation in Theodor W. Adorno, "Erziehung nach Auschwitz," in: "Stichworte: Kritische Modelle 2" [Education for Auschwitz in Keywords," in: "Critical Models 2"], Frankfurt/M. 1969, pp. 85-101).
This implied demand to attempt to understand the motivation of others was the reason we tried creative writing as a basis for new strategies to promote discussions with victims and perpetrators.
After determining the overall topic of "Jews in Mülheim after 1945," we conducted interviews with Jewish survivors and consulted with established specialists on this subject so that we could develop themes for model texts:
- Dr. Ludger Heid from the Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute at Duisburg University lectured about the history of east European Jews in our region;
- Gerhard Bennertz allowed us to participate in his detective-like studies about the history of the Mülheim Jewish community before and after 1945;
- Edna Brocke presented information about the Alte Synagoge [Old Synagogue] in Essen; and
- Patrick Marx told us about the current daily life of the Jewish community.
Moreover, Petra Kunik, a member of the Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main and the author of a number of books about Jewish life in Germany, assisted us during the writing workshop.
As we evaluated the texts produced by the writing workshop, we also read the books by Hanna Krall, "Schneller als der liebe Gott" ["Faster than God"] and "Existenzbeweise" ["Proof of Life"]. Hanna Krall is Jewish and is considered one of the most important contemporary Polish authors. Her documentary writing style includes incorporating historical events into fiction and was thus significant as a model for our project. We contacted Hanna Krall and persuaded her to come to the school for an afternoon to work with us.
On the occasion of the commemoration of the Holocaust, May 4, 1997, the students published their own texts together with survivor interviews in their book entitled "Verwüstet ist der Ort - Tora, wer wird dich nun erheben?" ["The place is destroyed - Torah, who will lift you now?"]. This brings us back to the starting point for our writing workshop, "Salvation is Remembering."
The texts selected here [see Documents] attempt to approach the Holocaust and its local consequences through creative literature or fiction. This approach corresponded to the rules that we set for the development of texts. During the writing workshop, some participants did not want to be required to write about the stipulated themes. Our response to basic fears about a critical public was that texts would be published anonymously.
If clear thematic subheadings are absent, the beginning of each text is printed in bold. Thus, one can assume a change in authors. Lastly, the revised final texts were read once again and selected for publication using the previously agreed-upon criteria for the documentation.