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Teaching the Holocaust in Germany

At the end of his lecture on the Holocaust to high-school pupils last fall, Israeli professor Gideon Greif asked the class whether they had more questions. A Muslim girl wearing hijab raised her hand and said, “Most of the Jews were clever, right?” Several of her friends giggled in embarrassment. Others looked tensely at the teacher.

Greif, who in recent years has accumulated a great deal of experience teaching young people in Germany, kept his cool. By now, he has seen and heard everything, including questions “with an anti-Semitic flavor,” as he describes them. “I don’t think all the Jews are clever,” he told her. “Among the Jews, as in any other nation, there are smart and stupid people, good and bad people. It is an entirely normal composition. One must be careful about generalizing on any topic.” After a brief break, he qualified his statement. “Relatively speaking, there are many Nobel laureates among the Jews — so it would seem that the Jews do not excel in stupidity or lack of ability. But on the other hand, I also don’t think that we are smarter than others,” he said with a smile.

Greif spent last fall in Germany. His journey, which lasted a month and a half, included 60 lectures before thousands of school pupils and university students all over the country. The Muslim girl’s question was unusual for the local landscape. Greif says that most of the German pupils express empathy over what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust, show interest in the darkest period of their country’s history, and ask intelligent questions that show familiarity with the subject. “I meet such great teenagers. What wonderful young people they are! Where were they then? Why weren’t their voices heard then?” he asked in late November, when I spent an intensive week of lectures with him in western Germany.

“German teenagers are showing more and more interest in the Holocaust — the opposite of the situation we feared in the past. They are studying the Holocaust above and beyond. Their teachers devote a great deal of time to the subject. They go to Auschwitz on study trips and devote more time to the topic than the curriculum demands,” says Greif.

Remembering the Muslim Righteous Among the Nations

Greif is not the first Israeli who teaches about the Holocaust in Germany. Aya Zarfati, a 32-year-old Israeli woman, has been living in Germany for the past few years as she studies for her master’s degree. She works as a guide at three sites that are related to the Holocaust, each in its own way: the Jewish Museum in Berlin, a memorial site at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and the House of the Wannsee Conference, where German senior officials met in 1942 to discuss the implementation of the Final Solution. Zarfati has guided many pupils there. “They come with a great deal of knowledge,” she says. “Holocaust studies in Germany are just as thorough as they are in Israel, if not more so. For example, here you will never encounter a German class that does not know about Kristallnacht. Almost every school in Germany where I have worked has a project related to the Holocaust. The topic of the Holocaust appears in almost all areas of study.”

“Particularly in Berlin, every fourth pupil comes from a non-German background,” Zarfati says. When one seeks to answer the question of what the Germans learn about the Holocaust in 2014, one must first ask: Who are the Germans? “It changes their perspective on history,” she says, referring to pupils from immigrant families who study the Holocaust. “If you give these pupils the feeling that the place where they come from and their history are also important, they will usually be outstanding in the way they participate in the lectures and the tours, and in the questions they ask.”

A few years ago, Zarfati accompanied a group of teenagers from several German schools on a special trip in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin and Jewish immigrants. They traveled from Berlin to Paris by bus, continued on to Marseilles and the Pyrenees and returned to Germany via Spain. At the end of the trip, the pupils shared their experiences and their impressions with the class. One pupil, of Turkish extraction, said, “Everyone alive in Germany today has a responsibility to tell this story.”

The people at Yad Vashem are very familiar with Holocaust education in Germany. Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies has a special desk devoted solely to German-speaking countries — Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Dr. Noa Mkayton, the school’s director, has already taught in-service courses and workshops to 3,500 German-speaking teachers who come to Jerusalem to learn new ways of teaching the Holocaust in Germany from the experts at Yad Vashem. “In classes where 90 percent of the pupils are the children of immigrants, there is liable to be a feeling of distance from the subject, and not only because the children are four or five generations away from the Holocaust,” she says. “The pupils might say, ‘This is not our story.’ In many cases, that comes from the way the subject is taught in class.”

She has been in schools where the Holocaust is taught as a national story of Germany alone. “They want to convey the message: ‘We are responsible; we have learned our lesson,’ so they teach the Holocaust as German history. But how will Muslim pupils who come from immigrant backgrounds respond to that?” Mkayton asks. In an attempt to make the topic more relevant to all the pupils with no connection to their ethnic origin or age, Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies has developed study kits that offer “a global and transnational look at the Holocaust,” Mkayton says. The curriculum includes lessons about people recognized as Righteous among the Nations who were Muslim or complex and unique figures such as Gad Beck, a Jewish underground fighter and gay man who lived in Berlin.

A good example is an incident that took place a year and a half ago, when pupils from Berlin’s Kreuzberg borough, which has a high percentage of immigrants, visited Yad Vashem. In the group were Palestinian pupils living in Berlin. The staff from Yad Vashem told them the story of Refik Veseli, a 17-year-old Muslim from Albania, who rescued a Jewish family during the Holocaust and was recognized as one of the Righteous among the Nations. The Muslim pupils in Berlin were greatly moved. Through their teachers, they contacted the authorities and asked that the school’s name be changed. Their request was granted earlier this year, and the school is now named for Refik Veseli.

The smiles vanish in seconds

Back to Professor Greif. Last fall, we were together in Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf and many small towns. “This is the longest lecture tour I’ve ever done,” he said. Over the past 13 years, since he began lecturing to German pupils, he has appeared before 150,000 people. “It’s a Guinness record, but I am not satisfied with it,” he says with a smile. “About 82 million people live in Germany today. I would be glad to lecture to all of them about the Holocaust.”

Greif, 63, was born and raised in Tel Aviv to a family who emigrated from Germany. As a young man he was a singer and musician who had a few hits on the radio hit parades. Later on, when he was searching for some more content in his life, he began to study history. He earned his doctorate from the University of Vienna, and became a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Since then, he has worked as a historian, researcher, lecturer and editor for many institutions including the Knesset, Yad Vashem and universities in Israel and abroad. His book, We Wept Without Tears — the first work to bring to light the testimony of the members of the Jewish Sonderkommando units at Auschwitz — was translated into six languages and sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

In the city of Essen, he spoke before the pupils of a prestigious high school. The pupils were impeccably dressed, almost all of them the sons of German families; there were no immigrant children there. Without a pause, Greif began projecting photographs of the Auschwitz crematoria buildings. “This is a technical lecture, and I feel that I should apologize for the fact that it is technical, but I have no choice, because this is an industry — an industry of death,” he said by way of introduction. The smiles on the pupils’ young faces vanished in seconds. They listened in silence as he spoke about corpses, cremation and gas. “Between 10,000 and 20,000 human beings were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau every day during the spring and summer of 1944,” he told them.

The room was quiet throughout the lecture. No pupil played with his cellular telephone. “I have no deliberate policy of shocking anyone,” he said after the lecture. “That is not my educational approach. On the other hand, we have no right to obscure or censor the truth. That is the essence, the routine and the reality of Auschwitz. Auschwitz was not a place for enjoyment.

“I am opposed to softening the reality to make it easier for the observers. In the end, the little visual material that documents the Germans’ crimes is not enough to illustrate even one second of the suffering, humiliation and cruelty that were the lot of the Jews and the other prisoners in the concentration and death camps.”

When he is asked whether Nazis raped Jewish women, Greif must speak about a sensitive subject. “Every phenomenon of every kind could be found in Auschwitz. Every human phenomenon was there, of every kind and type. Even romantic relationships between members of the SS and Jewish girls,” he tells the surprised pupils. “Human feelings, including romantic feelings, are feelings everywhere. Even in a place like Auschwitz.” After the lecture, the teachers say that they have never seen the pupils so quiet. Later on, over coffee in her office, the principal recalls that in her youth, “We were not taught anything about Auschwitz.... We cannot leave Auschwitz. We will never be able to be free of it,” she finally muttered.

Yad Vashem’s International School of Holocaust Studies will be holding a special conference in Berlin in early April. The attendees — teachers and educators from German-speaking countries and from Israel — will present educational projects and various teaching aids connected with Holocaust studies. The attendees will share with one another their challenges, problems and solutions about teaching the Holocaust to German pupils. “We in Israel are also learning from the Germans. It’s mutual,” Mkayton says. “In Israel, the Holocaust is taught so as not to be victims ever again. In Germany, the perspective is different — the purpose of teaching the Holocaust is to prevent a situation where the Germans will again become a nation of ‘criminals.’ We open up this topic for discussion and learn from one another,” she adds.

At the conference, various projects will be presented through which the Holocaust is taught in German schools. One project that has been gaining momentum is teaching the Holocaust through local stories. Thus it happens that in various schools, the pupils are asked to research the history of their Jewish neighbors who lived in the city, in the neighborhood or even on the same street where the school is located. Students sometimes discover forgotten historical stories on their own, through which the Jewish neighbors who once lived there are commemorated. Sometimes, as happened recently in Berlin and Hamburg, the pupils and teachers contact the Israel embassy in Germany and ask for help in locating relatives of Jews whose names they have found in their research. These projects often end with a moving ceremony in which memorial stones are laid at the home where the Jews of the neighborhood had lived, worked and studied before being sent to their deaths.

Not hidden under the rug

No anti-Israel comments were heard throughout Greif’s journey. He says that in the 13 years that he has been teaching German pupils, he has encountered that sort of comment only “once or twice.”

“Even then, it was done gently,” he says. “After all, I’m not here to deal with current events, but to tell about things that happened 70 years ago.” Greif has even managed to speak to neo-Nazis, and the meeting passed without incident. “The neo-Nazis asked fairly good questions,” Greif says. He also lectured to employees of the Topf and Sons company in Erfurt, one of the companies that manufactured the ovens used in the crematoria in the death camps.

We are going to the vocational high school in the city of Viersen, where 400 pupils aged 15 to 19 are waiting for Greif in a huge auditorium. The history teacher tells the pupils that Greif’s lecture is connected to an issue of current events: a recent European Union poll showing that many Jews felt threatened in Europe. “Do you know how many Jews there are in the world?” he asked. No one raised their hand. “Had they not been murdered, there would be about 38 and a half million Jews living in the world today. But that is not the full number, because together with every Jew who was murdered, the future potential of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren was murdered as well. If not for the Holocaust, we would not be such a small nation, numbering 13 million four hundred thousand, as we are today,” says Greif.

Suddenly, one pupil raises his hand. He asks an unusual question, one that Greif has never heard during his lectures in Germany. “Were there also Jews who collaborated with the Nazis?” he asks. Greif thinks for a moment and says yes. “A few. Yes. There were also instances where Jews collaborated with the Germans. People wanted to live.”

In the morning, Greif looks a bit tired. “It is because of Hitler,” he says, and laughs. “All night long, I watched documentary films about the Holocaust on German television, until 3 A.M.” He adds, “There are programs about the Holocaust or about World War II on television here every evening. Two days ago, a biographical program about Goering was broadcast. One about Goebbels was broadcast the day before. The media here is obsessed with the Holocaust. Hundreds of books are published about it every year. Not a day goes by that you don’t find an article about the Holocaust in one of the newspapers.”

In Bonn, we are hosted in a huge school with a student body of 3,000. There are many children of immigrants here. Greif deals heroically with the teenagers’ German slang, which even real Germans have trouble decoding. “Was everyone murdered? Even women and children?” asks one pupil wearing hijab. “Didn’t they smell the sharp odor from the crematoria?” another pupil asks. “Were the members of the SS punished for their crimes?” asks still another. Greif answers, “Most of them died at a very old age. Some lived to be more than a hundred years old.”

Another student asks, “Why did Hitler hate the Jews so much?” Greif answers that even after so many biographies have been written about Hitler, this basic question remains a mystery. “There are theories based on a story of a Jewish physician who treated Hitler’s mother, who was dying of cancer, but I think that even if we could bring Hitler to a psychologist’s couch, not even he would be able to answer that clearly,” Greif says.

Ofer Aderet