It is a grey day and it’s quiet. Nobody talks as we walk across the grounds of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site; you only hear the heavy steps of our school group on the cold stone. There is a big metal gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free), a lie which will stay in my mind throughout the trip. It is hard to concentrate on the tour guide’s words and instead, I focus on the pictures and the heavy walls surrounding us. The worst part is walking through the gasification chamber and knowing you are standing in a place of death.
This is just one example of the interactive learning experiences that have always stayed in my mind. Another one is a school trip to Berlin I did in 11th grade. We visited the Holocaust memorial (its full name being Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), which is in the Centre of Berlin. The square covers 19.000 square metres with concrete stones of different heights. The uneven floor and wave-like structure almost make it feel like a labyrinth. You are encouraged to walk through it, which we of course all did. Almost immediately, as everyone chose a different path, I was alone surrounded by a sea of grey. I couldn’t even see the surrounding buildings anymore as the stones were so tall. And even though Berlin is crowded with people, it is silent once you move towards the middle – it’s like time slows. Occasionally, you will meet people in a corner, but apart from that, it’s a place of loneliness. I felt left alone with my thoughts and given the freedom to confront the topic the way I wanted, while wandering.
Holocaust memorial in Berlin, photo by Andrea Nardi
What you may not see at first glance is that the memorial is more than that. Underneath the stone structure is also an Information Centre, where you can find information on the victims supplemented with photographs, diary entries and letters. Victims are named: they get removed from obscurity and put into an actual life context. There are farewell letters projected onto the floor of a dark room. One that makes me tear up immediately says, “I’m hugging you, in tears. I would so much have loved to hug you again, my poor children. I will never see you again.”. In another room, there is a poem titled “Song of Resurrection” by Matvey Kaplan that I spend a lot of time standing in front of: “My little daughter, my first one, Lorotschka / Probably would have been a grandmother by now. // Yet for all time she remains a little child”. This artificially created gloomy and heavy atmosphere evokes emotions in visitors so that I feel like it’s hard to walk out of there with dry eyes.
A year later, my friend group and I participated in a project called “Lebensmelodien”, a project created to acknowledge the melodies made by Jewish people from 1933 to 1945, with my history teacher alongside a music teacher and his orchestra team. In our hometown, a concert for the 27th of January, the Holocaust remembrance day, was planned with a few of these melodies. During the preparation, we learned more about the history and lifestyle of specifically Eastern Jewish people during the Second World War and created a short presentation that explained the circumstances of the melodies or the people behind them. After the concert, it seemed natural for us students to sit together and continue a reflective conversation on this project and on anti-semitism in Germany. Everyone was interested in talking and listening to the coordinator of the project who elaborated on his experiences as a Jewish man and inspired us with his strength and passion.
I can’t help but think about those experiences while looking at the current state of Germany but also other European countries, where the support for the far-right is ever-growing. Especially in Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is a party which has openly pronounced itself against welcoming migrants and is against climate change initiatives. And just recently, one of their party members has been charged in court for using a Nazi parole on an election poster. While the AfD as a party are not classified as Neo-Nazis the AfD has made plenty of misogynistic, anti-migrant and homophobic remarks. This and their frequent use of Nazi and right-wing extremist symbols means that a steady increase in their far-right politics and anti-semitism can be predicted. Alarmingly, despite their views this party has gotten more than 20% of the voters in a few states in federal elections.
After seeing these numbers and the growing support for far-right parties, I believe we should be pushing for changes in the school system and more specifically history lessons that ensure a more in depth understanding of the past. While personally, I was very lucky with my teachers, there is a difference between learning about the past through books and lectures and actively confronting it, especially as the majority of students aren’t always actively listening or participating in class. I can confidently say that my visits and the project were invaluable to my understanding of the past and strengthened my empathy for the victims. Research has shown that people are better at remembering events when it is connected to emotions – this is due to the amygdala, a part of the brain that is activated by emotions and enhances attention, leading to better memorization. Standing in the same place where the Holocaust happened has more of an effect than looking at a picture in a history book. Not only should these visits be offered at more schools, but there should also be other interactive opportunities for students to learn about historical events in general. Students must experience history, through museums, memorials, or extracurricular activities like collaborating with an NGO to get an insight into their work. School curriculums not only in Germany but worldwide should be diversified to include a variety of learning experiences. In doing so we can work towards creating a more understanding and informed environment and reducing the opportunity for hateful beliefs to prosper. More than that, local heritage sites and organisations, which are often underfunded, would benefit from these school trips. Of course, this also includes history beyond the Holocaust. Yet, especially regarding Jewish history in Germany, it isn’t sufficient for us to just remember our crimes; we must actively involve ourselves with the past to really prevent it from ever happening again. It is the German responsibility to keep history alive and for history classes to teach a good sense of responsibility and compassion. So perhaps it is time to think about a reform for the school system that includes interactive, empathetic learning. And with this approach, we might just be one step closer to suffocating the far-right movement.