Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, some in Germany are attempting to keep the lessons of history alive — a task that becomes more challenging as survivors die and far-right politicians gain ground. Some say an influx of more than a million refugees and migrants from majority-Muslim countries, many of whose ideas about Jews and the Holocaust have been colored by their understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is stoking new concerns.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has said anti-Semitism among new immigrants will not be tolerated. But it remains a delicate issue for Germany, as the country integrates new residents, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party expands its influence.
At the Theodor-Heuss Community School in the Moabit neighborhood of Berlin, where more than 80 percent of students are from immigrant families, one teacher has sought to tackle the issue head-on.
Sabeth Schmidthals says she noticed several years ago how little her students knew about the Holocaust, and the stereotypes about Jews and Israel some held. Some used the word ‘Jew’ as an insult, she says, and conflated a political critique of Israel with their attitudes toward Jews.
So she began asking her students, many of whom were Palestinian, about their own family histories, and realized it was the first time many had been asked. “And then it became clear to me,” she said, “that I don’t think we can expect young people to be interested or even empathetic about the history or suffering of others if they are not shown any interest in themselves and their own history.”
The performance by Nayera and her classmates, a play based on historical documents, is one in a series of efforts by Schmidthals with the Berlin-based Tanz Theater Dialogue and other organizations to help students explore the past to connect it with the present.
Nayera, an Egyptian-German Muslim who wears a headscarf, plays Helene Meyerowitz, a real person who lived in a Jewish nursing home after her husband was beaten to death by the Nazis.
“Will I ever come back?” she read from a letter written by Meyerowitz shortly before she was transported in 1943 from Moabit to the concentration camp Theresienstadt, where she was killed. “I just want to see my kids again.”
The teen describes herself as an activist against anti-Semitism.
“For me this is a way of coming to terms with the past,” Nayera said. “You deal with the past not just to see what happened back then, but why it happened, and why in this way?”
In 2015, Schmidthals took students to Israel, where they spoke with witnesses to the Holocaust and visited holy sites. She has since taken students to Poland, France, Spain and Italy to trace the routes of Jewish emigrants and to connect those journeys with their own experiences and histories of flight and migration.
“It makes a difference whether you’re told this history or whether you see it,” said Omar Bounouala, a former student.
Students participate in these initiatives voluntarily, and for different reasons. Eighteen-year-old Abdulrahim Zarabi, who fled the war in Afghanistan nine years ago, said he felt it was his responsibility to shed light on refugee experiences throughout history.
Others worry about the influence of the Alternative for Germany. One party leader has rejected the notion that Hitler is “absolutely evil” and called the Berlin Holocaust Memorial a “monument of shame in the heart of the capital.”
Schmidthals tries to relate the past to her students’ daily experiences. “Because of their experiences of exclusion, or sometimes even of fleeing or of racism, students with a migration background develop much more empathy and understanding for what happened back then,” she said. “Because they see again and again, that even though they’re not equivalent at all, there are similarities. And they’ve developed a sensitivity for the material.”
Despite the role of the Holocaust in Germany’s modern history, there are no national standards for how to teach the history of the Holocaust or counter anti-Semitism in schools. It’s left to each state — and often individual teachers — to decide how to convey the lessons of the past.
“What we see in Berlin schools in general is that, because the atmosphere is so tense, sometimes teachers shy away from educating about the Holocaust,” said Remko Leemhuis, the acting director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin. “For a lot of children, when they hear Jews and the Holocaust, they automatically think about Israel and about the conflict with the Palestinians. And this is very charged.”
In a study published two years ago, the American Jewish Committee warned that anti-Semitism was widespread among Arab refugees to Germany, and called for more education.
But some feel that immigrants have been unfairly singled out in a country where most high-profile anti-Semitic attacks have been perpetrated by Germans with far-right sympathies.
Memorial sites and former concentration camps have been bombarded with inquiries into their finances posed by Alliance for Germany members of parliament, according to Uffa Jensen, a professor at the Technical University of Berlin. He said the sites have had to cut back on educational programming to respond to the requests.
Twenty-year-old Eva Simon is a former student of Schmidthals.
“We all agree that we would never exclude Jews from our group of friends,” she said. “But that’s what people with a migration background, particularly those who are Muslim, are often blamed for. . . . Everything we do here is a counterexample.”