Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Day 3 - Berlin, Germany

Today was an amazing day of connections between history and the present day.  Our day began in a section of Berlin called the Bavarian Quarter, so named because many of the streets were named after towns and princes in the German state of Bavaria.  In this middle class section of the city, once lived an estimated 16,000 assimilated German Jews  most of whom would be murdered by the Nazis.  The modern memorial established in this areas is comprised of over 80 signs attached to poles throughout the quarter.  On one side of each sign is a city ordinance or law which had been enacted against the Jews during the period of 1933 to 1943, and on the other side is a picture or symbol which depicts the essence of that rule.
Several years ago we had passed a school while walking through the Bavarian Quarter and noted a wall of bricks in the school courtyard.  On each brick was written the name of a person,  the date of birth, and the date and place the place the person died or had been deported.   We wanted to know more about this project and meet with children of the school but this was not to happen as our trip had always coincided with their spring break ----- until today.   We were greeted at the Loecknitz Elementary School by the principal, Mrs. Christa Niclasen, and three wonderful 6th graders who would be making a presentation to us.  Mrs. Niclasen began by telling us about the school.  There are 400 students in the elementary school and it is a microcosm of the world.  She said there were international students from China and Turkey, for example, German children, Jewish children, as well as 25 refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.  The school building is 118 years old, built as a school in 1898 for Jewish students because on the school grounds was a synagogue.
The synagogue was not destroyed during the war but was torn down in 1956 because there were no Jews left in the Bavarian Quarter.  In the 1990’s a book was published about the memorial signs in the area and in the book were also listed 6,069 names sorted by streets and house numbers with the date of birth, and the location and date of death or deportation.  Students started asking about the signs on their street and they wanted to look at the list of names in the book, noting that someone who was deported by the Nazis had the same name or birthday, or had lived on their street, or in their apartment building.  They wanted to know more about these people and thus was born in 1994 an incredible educational project they call the Memorial for Jewish Citizens.  Mrs. Niclasen told us how she brought 25 yellow bricks to the school and each 6th grader chose a person,  writing their information on the brick.  They have a unit on National Socialism and the persecution of the Jews.  Then, in an annual celebration the students talk about their citizen and add the brick to the growing wall in the courtyard.  The project has become an annual event because each incoming 6th grade class is anxious to continue to learn about the people who lived in their community and were persecuted and murdered because they were viewed as different, and not to be included in the German society.  The wall now has 1,300 bricks and the ceremony has drawn Holocaust survivors who had lived in the area.  She told us about one survivor who learned about the project and wanted to meet the student who had prepared the stone.
Although the student had graduated, Mrs. Niclasen knew who the student was and was able to connect the survivor and the student in the school courtyard.  The student had chosen the citizen, Joachim Forder, because he had lived at the same address.  The student brought Mr. Forder to his apartment, and 70 years after he had been forced to leave, he was able to revisit his childhood home.

We were then introduced to Marouan, from Tunisia.  He told us of a Jewish saying “If people are forgotten, they die a second time.”  The students want to be sure citizens who lived in their neighborhood, are not forgotten; to keep their memory alive.   He showed us a suitcase which was another project they had done.  Jews were allowed to pack one suitcase as they were deported to the east -  destination unknown.  The suitcases were marked with the owner’s name, address, and often the transport number or date of birth.  Marouan told us about the suitcase for Alfred Israel Berger of 1 Stubbenstrasse and how they spoke of what might be included in his suitcase.   Evielin, from Georgia, and Elmin, from Turkey, then conducted an activity with us, in which they showed us a picture of one of the memorial signs in the quarter and asked if we could determine what the law or discriminatory rule was.  They then explained each of these signs and how each rule impacted the Jewish community.  For example, one picture was a loaf of bread and the  law was that  ‘Jews are only allowed to buy food between 4 and 5 in the afternoon’.    Marouan, Evelin and Elmin all delivered their presentations in English, which our students found amazing, and they were wonderful ambassadors for the school and the project.  We were then taken outside to the wall we had so wanted to visit and had time to closely inspect the stones.  Marouan showed us the stone for Alfred Israel Berger.  

The students then took us to 1 Stubbenstrasse  where Alfred Berger had lived and they showed us the stolpersteine [stepping stones] before the building.  Stolpersteine are brass plaques placed throughout Berlin and other European cities, where Jews lived before being deported.  Each plaque had the name, date of birth, date of deportation and date and place of death.  As Marouan, Evelin and Emlin left us to return to school, we had the chance to walk around the Bavarian Quarter, noting several signs.

This was a truly unique opportunity for our students and we want to thank Mrs. Niclasen for being such an inspiring educator and all of the 6th graders, past and present, who have voluntarily decided to be a part of such a meaningful project.  And of course, a special thank you to our new friends, Marouan, Evelin and Emlin.  We learned so much from you and believe you truly live your school’s mission:  Our school doesn’t forget the past, shapes the present courageously, and prepares the future with responsibility.   It was noted that in such a diverse school the goal was to ensure these students understood the consequences of discrimination and developed a sense of appreciation for their differences and an empathy towards each other.

After lunch, we went to the Wannsee House.  It was in this house, located on the beautiful waterfront lake, Wannsee, that representatives of the bureaucratic agencies would meet on January 20, 1942 for a luncheon over which they would discuss how to implement the plan known as the Final Solution.  Mr. Barmore told us the Nazis were faced with a paradox:  they came to power in 1933 and wanted to solve the “Jewish Question”, but did not know how.  The Nazi ideology was racist and about the survival of the fittest [the Aryan race], but in the beginning they were more about expulsion of Jews from society rather than their annihilation.  On the one hand, they wanted to eliminate Jews from society, but on the other, they didn’t have a clue as to how they were going to accomplish their goal.  Yet in nine years, there would be 5 factories of death operating in Poland, with precisely that function.  So how did they arrive at 1941, doing exactly what they could not conceive of doing in 1933?

Therefore there were three phases in the Twisted Road to Auschwitz, I-Emigration and Legislation, II-Ghettoization, and III-Annihilation.   Through this process the Nazis came to be what they could not conceive of when they initially came to power.  Heydrich and representatives of the bureaucratic agencies which would be used in the  murder of  Europe’s Jewish population delineated the process for it here,  over lunch, in this house where we now stood.

Our next visit was to the train station in Grunewald, a very wealthy residential area of Berlin.  It was from this train station, beginning on October 18, 1941, that most of Berlin’s Jewish residents were to be deported.  Olaf showed us three memorials at Grunewald to the deportation.  The first memorial was a cross section of railroad ties in front of the entrance to the train station, established by a local group of Lutheran women in 1987, with a plaque commemorating the beginning of the deportations and a group of trees which had been brought from Auschwitz and planted there.  The second memorial was a wall which depicted figures as they walked up the hill to the train platform to be deported.    The third memorial established by the  German Railroad, was two platforms lined by plaques which represented each deportation train from Grunewald, listing the date, the number of Jews and the destination of the train, including Theresienstadt, Lodz, Riga and Auschwitz.

Our last stop of the day was another special educational opportunity for our group.  Mr. Barmore had met a film producer, Mathias Schwerbrock, who had been working with an agency which was helping recent refugees to Germany.  In the past two days, due to the efforts of Mr. Schwerbrock, Mr. Barmore, and Olaf, we were going to be able to meet with some refugees.  Mr. Schwerbrock met with us first and gave us some historical background about refugees and Germany.  He told us that between the period of 1992-2002, there had been an estimated 100-150 asylum seekers killed in attacks on their living quarters, often in fires caused by Molotov cocktails.  There had also been more than one hundred attacks in Germany since 2015 and the recent influx of refugees from the Middle East.  We also learned about a right-wing group, the National Socialist Underground [NSU].  450 warrants had been issued for known members of the NSU but they had not been arrested, because their location was currently unknown.  He also told us about the elections last month in which the anti-refugee party, Alternative fur Deutschland [AfD] had made dramatic gains in regional elections, gaining seats in state parliaments in three regions. 

We then walked to the hotel were refugees were being housed and met Martin, a social worker from a non-profit agency working with the refugees.  He told us how most refugees were housed in gymnasiums or a converted old airport, where refugees might be in large rooms with hundreds of people, unable to separate and have privacy, living there fore three months or more until their status was determined.  This hotel was the first of an expected twenty future hotels which was being used to get some of these refugees, in particular those families with children, and people with disabilities, into more humane and normal living conditions.   We also learned that the future status of the refugees and their desire to remain in Germany might hinge upon whether they were regarded as from unsafe countries (such as Syria) who were coming to save their life, or a country deemed safe [Iraq or sometimes even Afghanistan] and were coming for economic reasons.

After a brief tour of the hotel and the facilities provided for the refugees, such as a breakout conference room for the teenagers, an art room to provide art therapy for the children, and a playroom for the children, we were introduced to a brother and sister, Mohammad, 17, and Sanaz, 16, who had escaped with their family from Herat, Afghanistan, after several kidnappings of their father, who had to be ransomed back, and threats by Taliban members to kill the children.  Mohammad and Sanaz were able to communicate directly with us as they spoke English.

Their story of the family’s harrowing two and a half month escape, walking through Iran and Turkey, traveling in a small unstable plastic boat across the Aegean to the Greek island of Lesbos, terrified as the boat took on water, then walking through Slovenia and Slovakia, to Austria and finally Germany, touched all of us.  Sanaz told us her father had been captured and returned to Afghanistan, but once in Germany, the non-profit agency had been able to locate him and he would be coming in one week to Berlin.  We were struck by their courage, their lack of anger and their optimism in the face of all they had experienced in their young lives.  We hope to remain in contact with these amazing young people and learn more about their fate. 


Student Reflections:

Wanlin says :  At the Bavarian Quarter School today I learned from three 6th grade students how they wanted to continue the legacy of building a memorial to victims of the Holocaust who lived in their neighborhood. I was surprised by their dedication to the project and their ability to communicate their personal experiences with the stories of each individual they researched.

Dave says: Today our talk with the Afgani refugees brought up this question in my mind, "Is the world going stand by and watch this or do something to help the situation?" This question confronted the world before during the Holocaust and how a nation responds is critically important. I hope for the sake of these two teenages I met today, Mohammed and Sanaz that the world doesn't sit by passively.

Bryce says: - Refugees: While the absence of difficulties may otherwise breed indifference, these families having to struggle for 50 days only for a chance at a better life ultimately cultivates character in a way no other experience can.  I was humbled in the shadow of their grave and immiduate threats to their safety and secuirty when compared to the much smaller problems we have in the United States.

Mary says:- The school we visited today is a perfect example of connecting the past to the present in an extraordinary way. The younger generation is able to make connections to the past and understand the history that fills their city and teach it in a more modern way. The names that make up the wall will never be forgotten and we have these amazing children to thank for that.

Alysia says:  I was told today of Jewish saying - When someone is forgotten he dies a second death. This saying influences every thought and saying of the children and teachers in the Bavarian Quarter school because they all have devoted their time to ensure that the Jewish victims would not fade into history. One way that they do this is with their yellow brick wall that 6th graders are able to add on to each year that has the names of these victims so that they might never be forgotten.

Saige says:  Today I was very impressed with the 6th graders at the Bavarian Quarter School.  I cannot imagine being that age and understanding the historical significance of my neighborhood while willingly participating in the creation of a memorial that remembers those lost to the Holocaust.

Lizzy says:  I was amazed today by meeting two young Afghani refugees. All I have been hearing back home is that refugees are extremists who endanger the well being of their host countries. What I saw today flies in the face of that. The two refugees I met and the young children I saw today represent the neediest of humanity - I am hopefull for their futures and I am glad I learned the truth about their situation.

Erika says:  Education from a young age is one of the most essential ways to create a compassionate generation who not only acknowledges and shows respect to the history of their nation, but will prevent tragedies from happening in the future. The kids we met today at the Bavarian Quarter Elementary School proved that the Holocaust and its victims will never go unremembered. As they are surrounded by memories every day and each year work to build a memorial to those who fell as victims, a hope for future generations is made clear.

Stephanie says:  Today while visiting the elementary school we learned about how Holocaust education can greatly impact a student. The principal of the school told us of a story of a student from Lebanon named Mustafa who refused to add a brick to the memorial that the school personally builds throughout the years because he did not want to lay a brick for a person who was a part of the people who were in war with his people. But the boy met a survivor and heard her story and it changed his view on the matter of putting a brick so he went to the princpal the next day and told her that he would like to create a brick for the memorial. After hearing the story, I thought about how a story from one survivor changed one's perspective and help shape a better future.

Brandon says:  Today we visited an elementary school in Berlin that was an original Jewish school during the Holocaust. In the school the students did a project in which they wrote the name of a Jewish victim from their neighborhood on a brick and they researched their story. This showed how close to home the Holocaust and the discrimination of the Jews was to these kids.

Fiona says: At the end of the day we visited a hotel in Berlin which acts as a home for refugees where there we were given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk to two teenage Afghani refugees about their long and draining 50 day journey.  As the brother and sister, 17 and 16 years old, talked about the struggles they faced, from being separated from their father to becoming extremely ill, I not only became moved and humbled by their resilience, but I reflect upon the manner in which society treats the refugees.  Many people today, especially in America, view the refugees as threats. After listening to Mohammed and Sanaz talk, it became clear that it is time for people in America to educate themselves on this issue and come to treat these refugess as the strong and brave individuals that they are.

Justin says:  After a full day of learning and visiting some amazing sites, we went to a hotel, and after being shown around the premises and seeing the amenities, we sat down and listened to the stories of two young refugees from Afghanistan.  They spoke of their struggles with warlords and terrorists back home, their appreciation for Berlin, and their ambitions for the future.  I am not only grateful for the opportunity to speak one on one with real refugees after seeing them sensationalized and objectified in the media, but am humbled to have been in the presence of children who have been through so much.

Nikki says: The children's candid and detailed knowledge of the Holocaust at the Bavarian Quarter School perfectly embodies the young German generation's sensibility; this response was not only unexpected for children their age, but also uniquely personal because of the visible connection to their community.

Kaitlyn says: At the Bavarian Quarter School children of different ages, cultures, religions and ethnicity engage in social interaction and a part of history that is difficult for adults to discuss.  There is a level of empowerment and encouragement that I saw in this school and these children. They amazed me with their dedication to the memorial project commemorating their former Jewish neighbors.  This open mindedness shows how their work will help shape future generations.

Chanila says: Understanding what has happened to the refugees by first hand experiences was unbelievably surreal.  Listening to two young teenagers about their stuggles to leave their homeland that is filled with violence caused me to realize how not everything is black and white. There is more to a story than what the news reveals and it seems that not everything that is on the news is accurate.  I realized that the American people need to stop relying so much on the media and get out into the world and see for themselves what is really happening in the world.


  1. This is truly a once in a lifetime experience! I'm so glad Mary has this wonderful opportunity!

  2. The history of the school with the brick Holocaust remembrance project is remarkable. I remember stopping and looking at the brick wall, but I did not know about the history of the school itself. I am interested to see what else I will learn.

  3. Reading this sent chills through my spine. To think about all the lost lives and yet the unbelievable courage. Reading these blogs is so powerful. I can only imagine the experience you are all having.

  4. Such a wonderful project the elementary school children participate in. I know what something like that would mean to me if it were my family being remembered. The stories of mr. Forder, mohammed and Sanaz were truly touching and humbling. After reading all of the reflections, I realize that you all will make our future better and brighter. Never forget.

  5. Thank you for sharing all of the events of your very full day. What amazing experiences you had related to the past and the present. Your student reflections are very insightful. Looking forward to tomorrow's entry.

  6. Such amazing opportunities. Finally getting a chance to hear the story of the tribute from the elementary school children and then meeting with the refugees from Afghanistan! Reaching out and learning from these young people will truly impact our students!

  7. Wow, sounds like those 6th graders had quite an impact on high school students. As you all can see now, influences come in all shapes and sizes. Great reflections guys!

  8. I would like to first of all thank you all for sharing your meaningful experiences afer such a long day! As a teacher, I would have loved to have visited that school today! Kudos to all involved in that wonderful project!! I can't wait to visit this blog tomorrow.

  9. Wow Colleen- this is a superbly written piece. I was drawn in and felt every emotion. We always say we learn so much from our students, so to be presented with this information through the lens of a child is priceless. I am reading, wishing I were there beside you, learning with our students.

  10. I remember seeing the brick wall from behind a gate two years ago, it is incredible to see you guys talk with the sixth grade teacher and learn more about the students involvement with the wall. Have a great rest of the trip and cannot wait to keep reading over the course of the next two weeks! Safe travels.

  11. There is so much books and art in the library it is so much better than the school library. Also beautiful street art.

  12. whay people make the floor with metal for walked

  13. in the musing is a lot of cool think to learn about the holocaust

  14. Sounds like a great experience - the immigration question is always an issue and refugees bring out both the best and worst in a country.

    The parallel of the past with what is happening now is an important one you brought up to remind us to remember.

  15. I'm surprised that the Synagogue survived the war but was later destroyed after it ended. It's very sad that there were no jews left in this area to keep the synagogue up and running. Its so awesome to see the kids in that school now honoring those during the war.