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On Holocaust Remembrance Day, a look at how Germany remembers the past

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Seventy-nine years ago today, Red Army troops liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. In Europe, antisemitism is on the rise again. And the German government, mindful of the weight that country carries, has no tolerance for it. As NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz reports, that begins in the classroom.

(CROSSTALK)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: High school students chat between classes in the hallway at Rutli School in the Berlin district of Neukolln. Lately, there's been a lot to chat about.

MEHMET CAN: (Through interpreter) Europe's largest community of Palestinians lives here. Around half our students are Arabic. This means the impact of the conflict in the Middle East often plays out here at the school.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

SCHMITZ: Mehmet Can teaches history and politics at this school, including a class on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where in-class discussions became heated following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Can says some of his students glorified the attack, prompting him to take a step back with them, look at the facts of the Hamas attack and urge them to reach a minimum consensus that the group's massacre had nothing to do with Palestinian freedom. These types of in-class moments can be challenging in a neighborhood where a pro-Palestinian group made headlines by handing out treats to celebrate the October 7 attack.

CAN: (Through interpreter) I cannot change the minds of the adults who handed out baklava down the road on that day and celebrated the horrific murder of more than a thousand people in Israel. I can't do anything for those adults. But I can foster critical thinking in my students. Most of them are impacted by stereotypes themselves as young Muslims in Germany. They know all too well what it means to be discriminated against.

SCHMITZ: And that's the starting point for Can and his co-teacher, Clara Debour, as they teach students about the Holocaust. Germany's systematic murder of 6 million Jews in World War II has a special emphasis in the country's school curriculum. It's a mandatory unit for all German students. And Debour says it's a gateway to challenges Germany still faces.

CLARA DEBOUR: (Through interpreter) The lessons we learn from the Holocaust include all forms of discrimination under Nazi fascism - against LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, anyone the Nazis did not consider normal. We see that as a mandate to design a space that is as diverse as possible and promotes democracy.

SCHMITZ: Since October 7, Germany's government has reported a threefold rise in antisemitic incidents - an average of 29 per day in the month following the Hamas attack. In Berlin, these included apartment blocks where Jews were believed to live graffitied with Stars of David, an attempted arson on a synagogue and physical attacks. All examples that when it comes to preventing antisemitism in Germany, there's a lot more work to do. Berlin's antisemitism commissioner, Samuel Salzborn, says on the one hand, the city's schools have done a commendable job at teaching students about Hitler and the Holocaust. But...

SAMUEL SALZBORN: (Through interpreter) On the other hand, very little is taught about what led to antisemitism during the Nazi era, nor is there much content on antisemitism in post-war Germany or its modern forms. In my view, antisemitism prevention needs to be a part of all subjects.

SCHMITZ: Salzborn says Germany has one chance, while children are in school, to reach everybody when it comes to preventing antisemitism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: One state-funded group helping on that front is called simply Meet a Jew. And that's precisely what it offers, the chance for students to ask questions to one of Germany's roughly 100,000 Jews.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Inside an eighth-grade classroom in the Berlin district of Schoneberg, a boy asks two volunteers what it feels like to have to go through a security check each time they go to synagogue. Police patrol the city's synagogues around the clock to prevent attacks. A volunteer named Noemi says she's both worried and reassured by it, especially now that she has children.

NOEMI: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Noemi, who didn't want to give her surname for fear of retribution, says most of the questions she's fielded from students are superficial. We get a lot about our diet, dress codes for holidays, things like that. But she says that's understandable because most students have never met a Jew. She says the deeper questions typically come from Muslim students, who see commonalities in how both groups respect their cultures.

MARAT SCHLAFSTEIN: We're trying to bring more normality.

SCHMITZ: Marat Schlafstein directs Meet a Jew.

SCHLAFSTEIN: We're talking about Jewish holidays. We're talking about just the regular Jewish life. How do we celebrate our holidays? What do Jews eat? What do they - what don't they eat?

SCHMITZ: He says the goal is to debunk stereotypes and build bridges. Often, though, when German institutions try to normalize Jews, says Schlafstein, a backlash follows. In December, when public broadcaster ZDF posted a Happy Hanukkah message on its Instagram feed, Schlafstein says at first he was pleasantly surprised.

SCHLAFSTEIN: But when I opened the comments under this post, I was shocked. And actually, for us, it shows even more why we need to do what we do.

SCHMITZ: What's encouraging, he says, is that in the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of Germans have staged demonstrations in cities throughout the country against right-wing extremism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in German).

SCHMITZ: The protests were spurred by news of a meeting of far-right politicians, who reportedly made plans to deport Germany's migrants and anyone with an immigrant background. The meeting was held just miles away from where the Nazis held their infamous Wannsee Conference in 1942, where the Holocaust was mapped out. Today's far-right politicians are calling their plan for mass deportation remigration. Teacher Can Mehmet says his Muslim students are worried.

CAN: (Through interpreter) Today my 12th graders and 10th graders both asked me to talk about this issue of remigration. Some of them even asked me, will I be deported? They're really scared.

SCHMITZ: Can says when he's finished with this interview, he's heading upstairs to talk to his class about this so-called remigration plan and why the far-right is again on the rise in Germany. It may be a German history class, but it's beginning to feel all too present inside his classroom.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILLY GONZALES' "CARNIVALSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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