Category Archives: Germany 2022

Ich Judenwochen – A Lone Jew in the Kraichgau

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“Oh wait! Are you Jewish?” 

This was said to me in a lecture that I sat in on at the Jewish Studies Institute in Heidelberg. The lecture was in German and I had been doing my best, aided by Google Translate, to follow along. It also helped that it was on the Crusades and Jewish lamentations and accounts of this time period – a subject I have studied and that I teach. I had just written in my notes a minute before “I wish I could speak in English (or German)! I have sooo much to add to this discussion.” I had been told I was welcome to participate but “We will be speaking German.” I wasn’t sure if that meant I had to participate in German only, but that was what I took it to mean. Finally, unable to stand their “I wonder…” or “I know that Judaism says X so I am not sure why they would do Y…” statements anymore, I raised my hand and said “Can I speak in English, I can answer some of these questions.” As I explained Jewish concepts of dying Kiddush HaShem (for the glory of God – or as a martyr) and why in a religion where preserving life was the highest value dying for God (versus conversion at sword point) was also a highly religious act, one of the students turned and said those words “Oh wait! Are you Jewish?” They were thrilled to have an actual Jewish person in the lecture to explain from a more personal and less academic viewpoint how Judaism actually felt about these topics. I also discussed their comparisons to Masada and the three commandments that you cannot break and must choose death if those are your options. The concept of “Whose blood is redder,” meaning whose life is worth more, was also discussed and the idea that we cannot know whose life is really more valuable, ours or someone else’s, and therefore are not allowed to choose between our life and theirs. In the end they were very grateful for my additions in English and for the ability to discuss these topics with a Jewish person. 

Institute of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg

For many of the students to whom I spoke during my two weeks in Eppingen, Sinsheim and Heilbronn, I was likely the first Jewish person that they had met in person. Certainly the first that they had spoken to and could ask questions about Judaism. For some, not only was I the first Jewish person they had met, they were learning about a chapter of history they had not previously known existed from this Jewish person. Teaching German teenagers about Jewish resistance and the rescue of Jews by non-Jews during the Holocaust was a heavy task. But they were very serious and many were visibly impacted by the stories I shared. One teacher, who had watched my keynote speech from Australia in 2019 (https://youtu.be/ZdXbdRucP78), asked for me to teach about William Cooper, an Aboriginal man who protested to the German Consulate in 1938 about the treatment of Jews in Germany on ReichspogromNacht (Kristallnacht). As I told these young people about a man, who was not considered a human in his own land, who took the time to protest about the treatment of Jews in Europe, they were gobsmacked. This message of the brave acts of Upstanders and the difference that one person can make resonated not only with the students but with the teachers. I have heard since my return that my call to be Upstanders was invoked in a staff meeting to encourage admin and faculty to make a united stance against expressions of hate in the school. 

One of my favorite lessons was with a class at Selma-Rosenfeld- Realschule – a school named for one of the Jewish residents of Eppingen prior to the Holocaust. Her family’s home and bar still stand – I spoke there to a group of Jewish Heritage supporters. The class at this school was a Religious Education class of 6th graders. The teacher had a set of Jewish religious items and I brought along a few others. She had placed them out and covered them. The idea was the kids would uncover them one by one and I would explain them. At the end they were going to play dreidel. The class had great questions and shared what they did know about more common items like a Hanukkiah (menorah for Hanukkah). I then showed them how to play dreidel and handed out dreidels and “gelt” (fruit chews rather than chocolates) for them to bet with. I have never seen a group of young people have so much fun playing dreidel! This was also the class where I spoke the most German as their English was less advanced than other groups. It was a really nice experience all around and their first experience of Judaism was positive and fun.

Judaism teaches that we are all responsible for how our “people” are seen by others and that the missteps of one of us become seen as the missteps of us all. As a historically maligned and scapegoated group, this is very true and is not true just for Jews. Other marginalized groups have the same burden and experience. That said, I would like to think that I did my best to make sure that the students to whom I spoke took away a positive outlook of both Judaism – the religion – and individual Jews as well. That they will keep in mind the examples of Jan Korczak who would not leave his orphans even to save his own life, the Bielskis and other partisans who fought back and saved Jewish lives when they think about the history of the Nazis and the behavior of Jews under that oppression. I hope that when they think of the Jewish religion that they will remember my answer to what my favorite thing about being Jewish is – “I love that my religion demands that I be a better person each year. That it is not just a suggestion but that there is a time of the year for specifically working on this. For thinking back over the year and seeing where I went wrong and to think about how I could have done better and to resolve to do so in the coming year.” Again, the expressions on the faces of the students as I explained this were telling and they were clearly not expecting this answer and were moved by it.

Every small village or town that I went to during my two plus weeks in Germany had an “alte Synagog” or a plaque showing where the synagogue had stood until it was destroyed on 9-10 November 1938. Every one. In a couple places we found these reminders accidentally as we wandered around looking for the right street and found ourselves on what was clearly the RIGHT street for that moment. But that said, they did not have Jews. Alan mentioned the one or two Jewish students he has had over the years he has taught in this area. When I asked “for what percentage of those kids was I the first Jewish person they had ever met?” His answer was “I suppose easily 90 percent of the kids…but I can really only guess.” Each class I spoke to had been told that I was a “Jewish teacher from Seattle WA” but even then some were not clear that I myself am Jewish. Perhaps I only taught about Jewish things – like the professor in Heidelberg. In Eppingen there are several places of Jewish interest and I was the “tour guide” at one for the first ever Wir Juden Tag – which was more like Ich Jude Tag as I was the only Jewish person involved. As such, I was asked to speak at the medieval Mikveh (ritual bath) in town. The organizers figured I was the only person who would have used a Mikveh, so best to have me speak about it. 

With Alan by my side to translate, we waited for visitors. Our first visitor was a reporter who ended up spending most of the day with us and writing an article about the Jewish life in Eppingen and my visit there. We also ended up on KraichgauTV in their weekly spotlight on life in Eppingen. (https://youtu.be/maw0rnFpLu0 – most of it is in German) Again people were excited to find out that I am Jewish and to hear me speak about the role of a mikveh in a Jewish community and what comprised a visit to the mikveh for a woman. We talked about how much different it would have been in this 500 or so year old stone mikveh versus in a modern one. I told the story about a woman in Jerusalem wanting to get married, but by a Masorti Rabbi not an Orthodox one, and being turned away from multiple Mikvaot for not having the right document. (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/2015/12/23/turned-away-from-mikvah/) Each group that stopped by was sincerely interested in the Mikveh, its history, the Jewish history of the town and my presence on this day to tell them about family purity and how the Mikveh was often the first communal structure built in a new Jewish community. 

Over and over my presence was taken as representative of the Jewish people written large. It was not the first time in my travels, which often take me to places where Jewish life used to be vibrant and well established but no no longer exists, that this was the case. “Ona jest Żyd?!?” still echoes in my ears from Warsaw in 2018. Anywhere this would have been an awesome responsibility, in Germany it was a heavy one as well. I try to make clear that there are many ways to be Jewish and will talk about my pluralistic school and the breadth of Jewish learning and practice I teach. I focus on the positive and share the universalistic, as well as proudly explaining the particularistic. Like to the young man who asked about my views on Jesus and wanted to clarify that I did not consider Jesus to be the son of God. My gentle “No. That would make me a Christian, not a Jew” was perhaps a more logical answer than he expected. Seeing the number of non-Jews living in these places working hard to make sure that the Jewish history of their village or town is not forgotten is heartwarming, even if it comes across a bit awkward. “Wir Juden Tag” translates as “We/Us Jews Day”. The idea for this day nationally was started by a Jewish man wanting to combat antisemitism while celebrating Jewish life in modern Germany – and in places where there is a reborn Jewish presence and community, this name makes perfect sense. Groups in areas without a current Jewish community chose to participate and focus on the Jewish heritage of their towns. In the TV piece, Michael Heitz speaks of the importance of remembering the lives and way of life of those Jews who lived in the area, not just remembering how Jewish life came to an end, and this is really the point. Perhaps there the “We Jews” of the name for the day is more likely to evoke the voices of the Jews who once lived there. Using my voice, with my visit, speaking to these young people, as well as to the adults, I am able to show that vibrant Jewish life continues, and helps them to have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what was and what could be. L’chaim.

Q&A in Germany – What the questions asked say about how the US is viewed abroad

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Many of my sessions in classrooms have been opportunities for students to ask me questions. Questions about the US, questions about Judaism, questions about my life, questions about the Holocaust, about history. Anyone who has been in my classroom, or had a child in my classroom, knows I love questions and discussions. Some questions were light and fun, others more serious. Some were asked once, and others were asked every single time. What I learned from these questions, especially the frequent fliers among them, is what German teens think about when they think about the US. And it is not flattering.

One student yesterday asked me “How does it feel to be in a country with an embarrassing history?” I began to answer about facing the history of slavery and the genocide of indigenous people and she stopped me and said “I meant here, Germany.” I laughed at my mistake. But really, after all the questions I had been asked that were about the embarrassing history of my own country, my mistake was understandable. Every single group of students asked me about “weapon ownership.” Not guns, but weapons was usually their word choice. “Do you own a weapon?” “Do you know people who own a weapon?” “Do you have a weapon in your classroom?” “Is it legal to buy weapons where you live?” “What do you think about people having so many weapons?” 

And the questions about owning, having, using guns were usually followed by questions about how safe or unsafe I might feel. Had my school had a shooting? Did I know of school shootings in the Seattle area? Did my school have a guard? Did I feel safe in my city, home, school? 

I would explain about hunting rifles and growing up with a dad who went deer hunting and had a hunting rifle. I would explain about people who had a pistol for safety. And then I would explain that no civilian needs a weapon of war, and they certainly don’t need 10 or 20 of them. I would talk about how I teach at a Jewish school and so we do have security because we are a target for antisemitic attacks. I would answer that I did not have and did not plan to have a weapon, but yes in many places it was far too easy and legal to buy them. I shared that I did have friends who are also teachers who had had shootings at their schools. And I said that this all needed to change but I wasn’t sure how or if it would. That I had to answer this question once was sad, that it was a question in every single class – from 7th – 11th graders – is really damning. 

I was asked a number of questions about TFG (you can Google that if you don’t get it from context.) Could I explain why people like him? My very honest and to the point answer was “No. No, I can not explain it.” This got a few laughs. I was asked what I thought the percent chance of his running for president again was. My somewhat cryptic but very honest answer was “Hopefully very soon it will be zero as it should be.” I am not sure the students understood that I meant he should be in jail where he couldn’t run, but it was a clear answer nonetheless. I had fewer questions about our current POTUS than TFG, and again this seemed a poor reflection on how our country is viewed from afar. 

I had a number of serious discussions about Roe vs Wade being overturned and the separation of church and state. I wrote about that in my first post. Students yesterday asked my thoughts on the topic and cheered – actually cheered – when I said that a woman should have 100% control of her reproductive processes and her body in general. In another class there were two young women in hijab and they were very pleased when I pointed out that both Jewish and Islamic law allow abortion and put the mother’s life first. 

In the category of random questions, today I was asked if I eat Chick-FIL-A and I got to teach the class about the idea of putting your money where your values are as I said that I didn’t like my chicken with a side of hate. My favorite random questions though were from a student on Tuesday. This young man was very engaged and asked a lot of questions. Most were very good questions. But he also asked the two most random things I have been asked this whole time. 

“What is your favorite 9/11 conspiracy theory and why” and “Do you know the show “How I Met Your Mother” and is it true people in America think Canada doesn’t exist?” WHAT??? To the first question I responded that I don’t “do” conspiracy theories. About the second, I assured him that I have been to Canada and I am sure that it exists. 

Many of the students want to know about school and education in the US. Do we really suck at geography? Why don’t we learn more foreign languages? Did I have a lot of debt when I finished college? Do we have a lot of fancy balls like in the movies about high school? Are all our tests multiple choice? To this one I answered that I don’t give tests and I was asked if I could perhaps move to Germany and please be their teacher. Is there only one kind of bread in the US? My answer that there was more than one kind but that I didn’t really eat bread earned the great follow up question of “What do you possibly eat for breakfast if you don’t eat bread?” I assured him there were plenty of other things to eat in the morning. 

To the geography question I shared about being upset a couple of years ago that my students could not each name five countries in Europe and that I did a short geography unit on Europe as a result. When I was in Alan’s class (my teacher friend who set up my whole visit), he pointed out that his students can’t label a map of Africa. One of the students then spoke up and said that he thought perhaps it was too much to expect my students to know the countries of Europe as most German students couldn’t locate the US states on a map. To test this theory, Alan pulled up a quiz online where you had to correctly identify the states. This same student correctly identified at least half of the 50 states. I pointed out that this wasn’t helping his argument that it was ok my students couldn’t do the same on a map of Europe.

Another topic that came up a lot was racism. One young man asked specifically about the aftermath of George Floyd – knew his name – and the BLM protests. How had it changed my life and what did I see as the long term impacts? Had I experienced antisemitism was also asked several times. One person asked “Do you experience antisemitism every day?” The classes that I visited in Sinsheim and Heilbronn were diverse and their concerns reflected this diversity while living in fairly rural Germany. The schools I visited are all part of an anti racism project in the schools here and so their awareness of the topic was not surprising. The teachers who invited me into their classrooms all are working hard to create safe places for all of their students and to address discrimination when it happens.

Today’s classroom visit was with a lively bunch of 8th graders who are learning about the Pacific Northwest in their English class. They had great questions about Seattle and Washington. They asked how I would know someone wasn’t from Seattle and I made them try to pronounce Puyallup. They asked what was something unique about Seattle and I told them about KEXP and its global reach in promoting music and community. I showed pictures and they were amazed by the houseboats on Lake Union and asked about the foods and animals that were representative of Seattle. Salmon made both categories.

Meeting so many young people here in Germany has been really great. I loved seeing them warm up to me and realize I really would answer all their questions from “Do you like the Ramones” and “What is your favorite animal” to very serious questions about politics and law. My overall observations are that young people here and young people back in Seattle are not so different. They have similar concerns. They dress and act similarly. They respond positively to adults who are sincere and interested in them. I had students come up to me individually after a couple of classes and ask things that they did not want to ask in front of the group and I love that they felt that comfortable with me. I am particularly grateful for the students in each group who asked the first question or kept asking questions and who really thought seriously about what they wanted to learn from this opportunity to “Ask me Anything.” I just need to make sure no one hacks into my online accounts now that they all know my favorite pet, color, food, band and word in Polish. 😉

Teaching the Holocaust in Germany

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Teaching about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust as a Jewish visitor to German schools.

(Again out of order chronologically, but fresh, and heavy, on my mind…)

This week I spent two days teaching at a gymnasium – “college prep” high school – in Heilbronn. I was speaking in their Religious Education classes, a History class and one English class. One of the teachers was very excited to plan a lesson for the students that both fit into their current learning and took advantage of my areas of expertise. We determined that Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust was the best way to do this. After some discussion we determined to start with a film that I show to my students at the start of our Holocaust unit in 8th grade – “Spielzeugland” (Toy Land.) This film tells the story of two young German boys – one Jewish, one not, and what happens when the Jewish family is rounded up for deportation. I won’t give away the story in case you want to watch it.

After this film and a discussion of it, I would then teach about Jewish Partisans and Ghetto Fighters using photos from my travels in Poland and Belarus. I would focus on the story of Novogroduk and the escape from their ghetto and into the woods where the Bielski Partisans were and, relative, safety, and also on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I ended up teaching this lesson to three different classes over the two days I was in Heilbronn. The gravity of teaching German children about the lives, and deaths, of Jews during the Holocaust was not lost on me. And I was honored by the trust their teachers put in me to help them learn from this history and, hopefully, be inspired to work to finally make a world where these things stop happening again and again. 

We began with the film and as the final credits began to scroll, I wiped away a few tears. It was dead quiet in the room. I asked if there were any immediate questions or comments. There were none. Students were then given five minutes to write down or discuss with a peer their thoughts. I acknowledged for them that this was a heavy film and encouraged them to write down whatever their thoughts were. I also gave them the prompt of “Was what happened planned or spontaneous?” After their time to process it, I asked again for comments or questions. One student commented about the difference in the treatment of the woman in the film between when the Nazi officers thought she was a Jew and when they saw her Auspass and realized she was not. They went from yelling and cursing to practically flirting with her and being very helpful. The student said “Without her papers, they could not tell whether she was Jewish or not. We cannot tell who someone is just by looking at them.” There was general consensus that the events were spontaneous and that the woman made “a good choice” when she saw an opportunity to save a life. One of the students referred to the characters as a “Jewish boy and a German boy.” Andrea, one of the teachers who was observing the lesson as I would be teaching in her class the next day, said to me later “He was wrong. There were only two German boys.” 

I then taught the class the word “Upstander” and how it is important to add it as a fourth category when discussing situations of oppression. The usual three are Perpetrator, Victim and Bystander. I explained that a bystander, by choosing to do nothing, takes the side of the perpetrator. Their silence or inaction allows oppression to continue. I then explained that an Upstander is the person who sees a wrong and does something – small or big – to try to stop that wrong. I then talked about RIghteous Among the Nations – non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust, and then on to Jewish resistance. We talked about the concept of altruism and the importance of doing the right thing purely because it is what should be done if one is a good person. That our responsibility to each other as fellow humans should be enough to motivate action. 

The students in this class and the two others where I taught this lesson, were all moved by the stories of religious resistance – observing holidays in Auschwitz, stealing the materials to make a Hanukkiah (menorah for Hanukkah) or to write from memory the Book of Esther so they could observe Purim. We talked about how having secret schools gave students hope as well as an escape from their grim surroundings. It showed that there was an expectation that they would live and need to know what they were being taught. I also talked about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese Diplomat, who lost his job and died in poverty for giving out visas so that Jews, and others fleeing Nazi Germany, could get out of France. Watching the faces of the students as we discussed each type of resistance, and I shared stories of specific examples, showed their surprise and their respect for those who took action. 

We then moved on to armed resistance and I told the story of the Novogroduk Ghetto and the digging of the tunnel for 206 meters and the escape from the Ghetto. I then showed pictures of “Forest Jerusalem” the Bielski Camp in the Naliboki Forest and told the students about Tuvia and Zus and the 1205 Jewish lives that they saved. I ended this part with my photo of descendents of Bielski Partisans dancing in the camp in 2019.

The final part of the lesson was about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I asked the first class how long they thought the Jews, with few guns, starving and desperate, held off the Nazis. I was deeply moved by the first answer – “Two years?” I thanked the student for his faith and belief in these scrappy Ghetto Fighters. Others said “three months” and “a couple of weeks.” I shared it was almost a month and that this was impressive considering how lopsided the battle was. I ended the lesson sharing with them about one of my favorite Upstanders – Janusz Korczak – and his refusal to leave his orphans and how he made sure that they were not panicked as they went to the trains. The teachers shared that they had all learned Korczak’s pedagogy when they were in training. 

The discussion in each of the three classes was a bit different, but we focused on how being able to make choices – even if it is only if you will die in a camp or fighting Nazis in the ghetto – is important for one to retain their humanity. We talked about “choiceless choices” and the desire of Jews to assert their ability to resist. One of the teachers asked what the Uprising accomplished since it did not “succeed” in terms of stopping the Nazis. The students all commented on the hope it gave, how it let the Nazis know that the Jews could and would resist, and on the importance to those who participated to feel in control of their fate. 

In the third class, one young man asked me how one goes about forming a resistance group. “You can’t resist such powerful things on your own. How do you form a group to work together?” I shared how Emmanuel RIngelblum formed Oneg Shabbos in the Warsaw Ghetto. How he recruited his like minded friends and they recruited theirs and the group grew in this way. Others asked about how the Jews got weapons and how Partisans got food. I shared about Mira Shelub and her interview on the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation site where she talks about “friendly and unfriendly peasants” and how the friendly ones gave them food and that from the unfriendly peasants, those who were supporting the Nazis, they took food that had been prepared for the Nazis to pick up. The partisans would leave a receipt to let the Nazis know that their food had been taken by Jewish partisans.  

At the end of each lesson we talked about my purpose in teaching this history. That I want people to know the stories of Jews who resisted during the Holocaust to counter the prevailing narrative that they did not. That I want to inspire young people to know that they can make a difference. I pointed out that the people who were partisans and ghetto fighters were not much older than they are.

I finished by saying that I want to instill the inspiration and confidence to do the right thing in a future that I hope that they never have. For them to be able to be Upstanders.

Nance in Germany – Sinsheim visit 8 July

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Nance in Germany – Sinsheim visit 8 July

This post is out of order chronologically but was written right after my visit.

On Friday I went to Sinsheim, a town near to Eppingen to speak to students in a variety of classes. This was set up by Jutta, another Centropa teacher, who is the Catholic Religious Education director. A short train ride away from Eppingen I was met by Jutta at the train station and whisked off to her school. She was an excellent hostess and made sure I had all I needed.

The first class I was in was a year 7 religious education class. The students did not know I was coming and so were not prepared with questions, but they warmed up as the class period passed and in the end we ran over. The school has a collection of Jewish ritual items and I was able to use these, along with my own Tallis and tefillin, to discuss Torah reading, Hanukkah candle lighting and the commandment for placing a mezuzah at your doorpost and to wear Tallis and tefillin.

One student was curious about translation of the original Hebrew into other languages and we talked about the missing Nun line in Ashrei (Ashrei is an acrostic but does not have a line for the letter Nun (n) in the Masoretic text version) that was is present in the Dead Sea Scrolls psalms scroll. This shows that copying errors can be made and then replicated for centuries. This class was also interested in the nature of sin in Judaism and I talked about personal responsibility for fixing one’s missteps and the importance of the High Holy Days in reminding one of the importance of this. They had a tiny shofar that I was only able to get a very irritating squeal out of. Fortunately I have a video of me blowing the shofar and I was able to let them listen to this so they could hear what the blasts are meant to sound like. 

It was interesting to me that one of the students knew about Lilith and asked if all Jews consider Lillith to be the first woman instead of Eve. I did my best to explain the concept of midrash and its role in Judaism. Not sure if I was successful, but I assured her that the majority of Jews would consider Eve the first woman. 

My second class was an English class of older students who had voted that they wanted me to come and were excited to ask me questions about my life in the US. Again the striking down of Roe v Wade came up and I was asked how I felt about the issue of abortion. I was also asked if I felt unsafe in a country with so many guns and if antisemitic violence was a big problem. I was asked what was my favorite thing about the US and I had to think hard about what I could say that they would understand. We had already talked about the loss of rights for women, about racism, about the issue with guns, and about how expensive higher education is, so I was feeling like I needed to say something a bit more positive. I said that I loved the “idea” of what the US was meant to be – a melting pot where all were welcome and could make a new life and find success. But that right now it was only an idea and working to make it a reality for all was important. 

It is interesting the things that they know about the US and what is happening in our culture and society. One student asked about “pronouns” and why there was such a big deal about them. I explained that the idea of everyone sharing their pronouns was meant to normalize this so that those whose were not obvious were not singled out in having to share theirs. I talked about having trans students and how beautifully the other students accepted these classmates and that it gave me hope for our future. 

The third group was a mixture of 9th grade religious education students and were quite quiet. It took some prompting to get them to ask questions, but we ended up having a very meaningful conversation. One boy was clearly from a very religious family and thought deeply about his own practice. I was going to show them tefillin and wanted to have them think about what how they would interpret the verses that resulted in Jews wearing Tefillin – “bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes.” This young man gave the most beautiful answer “that you should use the strength of your arms to do God’s work and should keep God in your mind and in how you look at the world.”  WOW! I then showed them tefillin and said that it was certainly the goal that wearing this very literal interpretation of this commandment was that you would do those things, but that his more active interpretation was lovely. 

This same boy asked me “What do you think of Jesus?” I answered that he was a teacher who had his own take on how to be Jewish and had many teachings, which came from Judaism, about being a good person. I said that I did not think he meant to start a new religion, that it was Paul who took it that direction. He then said “So, not the son of God?” I smiled and said “If I thought Jesus was the son of God, I would be a Christian, not a Jew. Belief in this is what is required to be a Christian.” He smiled and agreed with this. 

After we were done with the classes, Jutta, my hostess, took me to see the small old synagogue in the nearby village of Steinsfurt – this was where I was supposed to go on Sunday when I was on the wrong platform and missed my train – twice. I was so glad she was able to take me to it now. It is a small building and the interior is still much like it would have been when it was a synagogue. The courtyard outside has stones in honor of each of the populations targeted by the Nazis. Jutta shared that there is a mikveh under the courtyard. They do not have the money to excavate and preserve it currently and so having it covered is the safest for now. She also shared how the building survived Kristallnacht Pogrom because it had been sold to a German neighbor who came out and stopped those who would have destroyed it. “This is a German building now. It is my property. Leave it alone.” That this had to happen in a very small village here shows how widespread this “spontaneous” expression of outrage was. 

It was again a lovely thing to see the people who live here working to preserve the heritage and property of a community that is no longer here. Jutta is Catholic and very involved in her own church and community, but is also involved in preserving and restoring Jewish sites. She also works with refugees and has a young man that has lived with her family for seven years who is a refugee. Jutta has also been trying to get Stolpersteine – “stumbling stone” – memorials placed outside the former homes of Jewish families in Sinsheim. She has met some resistance and is planning to have her students work on this project as it will be more acceptable to the community if it comes from the young people rather than adults. I wish her luck on this undertaking. It was lovely getting to know her and see the good work that is being done in this community.

Nance in Germany 2022 – Natzweiler KZ Lager

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While folks back in the US were deciding if or how to celebrate The Fourth of July in this year where our rights, freedom and liberty seem at high risk, even for those whose privilege generally has kept them insulated from previous or ongoing injustices and inequality, I joined the Year 9 students of the Hartmanni Gymnasium on their field trip to Natzweiler – Struthof Concentration Camp and Strasbourg. The experience of visiting a Nazi site with Germany students was one I was not about to pass up. Alan and I had discussed the impact that this usually has on his students and having me along, a Jewish teacher from the US, would add to this experience for them. 

Natzweiler – Struthof was the main camp of a network of prison/forced labor camps in Occupied France and the southwest of Germany. The earliest and most numerous prisoners in these camps were French resistance fighters and other political enemies of the Nazis. Jews were shipped here from the East, some specifically to be used for medical experimentation. The camp has a very strong patriotic connection for the French and many of the memorials within the camp have a strong French and Christian nature. 

When I first walked through the gate and into the camp, I immediately thought of Boris Pahor, a Slovenian who was imprisoned by the Nazis and whose memoir, “Necropolis,” I had read as part of working my way through Balkan literature. I did not however think that Pahor had been imprisoned in France, so I pushed away this thought and assumed that the camp was just similar to the one he had been in. Imagine my surprise about 30 minutes later when Alan, sharing some information about the camp with his students,said Pahor’s name and read an excerpt from his memoir! I apologized to the corner of my brain that had presented me with Pahor shortly before and promised to not doubt it in the future! In his book, Pahor recalls the conditions of the camp and his struggle to survive and to help others survive in inhumane conditions. It was his description of the camp and its conditions that caused me to unconsciously recognize it immediately on entry. 

During our tour of the camp we visited the Appelplatz – the yard where all the prisoners gathered each day to be counted and recounted while standing in the hot sun or bitter cold. This was also the place where punishments and executions were publicly carried out and a gallows still stands there as a reminder. We then worked our way down the hillside to the “Punishment Block” and then the crematorium and rooms for medical experiments. Natzweiler was not a death camp, but prisoners did die from malnutrition, brutal mistreatment, disease and other causes. Others were victims of medical experimentation. These were the bodies that were cremated here. 

In a room in this building were shelves full of clay urns. If a family paid to have their relative’s remains returned to them, these urns were what they were sent. This detail reminded me of a story I read years ago about a family whose father was taken during Kristallnacht and whose remains were sent to them in a box. I was curious how many actually paid to have remains sent, or how they were informed that this was an option. It is mind boggling to me that there was a mechanism for people to claim the ashes of their loved ones who had been crushed under the wheel of the Nazis and cremated in a prison camp. How many of these urns were used or do the full shelves reflect the reality that very few were ever used? 

We then went back up the hill and had time to visit the permanent exhibit in one of the barrack buildings. This gave a history of the area – it had been a ski resort prior to becoming a Nazi Concentration Camp – and information about both the prisoners and the Nazi leaders who ran the camp. There were many images drawn by prisoners in the camp, as well as haunting paintings of huge eyes in gaunt faces or just the eyes. I also walked up to the large “eternal flame” monument that was at the top of the camp. Next to this was a graveyard – again with all crosses. An unknown prisoner is buried in the memorial and the impression of a “typical deportee” is seen in the stone flame shaped structure. 

After we were done touring the camp, Alan and his colleague had the students circle up for a debrief on the experience. The students had been very serious and respectful throughout the tour and many were very clearly impacted by the experience. At one point one student had felt faint. Several of the girls warned their peers in another group as we passed each other. They were clearly very upset by the crematorium and punishment blocks and wanted to be sure that their friends were prepared for what they would see. In the circle they asked great questions and expressed their shock about what they had seen. A few questions stood out. 

One of these is an eternal question about Nazi work camps. Why did they mistreat and starve their workforce? If these prisoners were doing necessary labor, wouldn’t you want to keep them strong and alive?  I was asked this privately before it was asked again in the circle. My answer was that they did not see their prisoners as human and felt that there was a never ending supply of “sub-human” laborers to replace those who died. I think my answer seemed so unbelievable that they had to ask it a second time to Alan. His answer was much like mine. 

Natzweiler Struthof sits in the Vosges Mountain range and really is surrounded by natural beauty. The question was asked “Do you think that the prisoners ever had the time to appreciate the beauty around them?” I first said “I don’t know that they had the strength to lift their heads high enough to see the beauty of the nature around them. I then explained that many camps were in beautiful places as they were remote so that they were harder to escape. This juxtaposition has struck me at various places where evil happened in a beautiful setting. I mentioned Ponary in Lithuania which is where this desecration of nature by evil first struck me. I said that I found it sacrilegious. 

As we left the camp the students were quiet and reflective. They all were clearly impacted by what they had seen and learned. Sadly my German, and the fact it was my first time with these students, did not make possible a deep discussion on what they were thinking beyond what was offered up in the circle, but it was clear that the implications of such a place were not lost on them. Walking back to the bus I had a conversation with one of the other teachers, it was their first time at the camp, and they expressed a sincere desire that the prisoners had been able to find some hope or beauty in their surroundings and that it gave them strength to keep going. I mentioned Viktor Frankl and “Man’s Search for Meaning” and Frankl’s conclusion that we all need something to give us a reason for living and his focus on the “why” of living that allows us to survive the “how” we are currently in. 

After this somber morning, we went into nearby Strasbourg for a short visit. I stayed in the general area of the cathedral and enjoyed its amazingly detailed exterior and the beautiful stained glass windows inside. Really just a taste of this beautiful city and reason to return. 

So, back to this all being on the 4th of July – Making such a visit on this day was an excellent reminder of what we need to avoid and that we must always stand up to oppression – our own or that of others. Whether we are fighting for democracy in our own country, supporting those doing so in Ukraine, or speaking out against ongoing violence in other parts of the world, we cannot evil win. 

Nance in Germany 2022 – First weekend

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Nance in Germany 2022 – First weekend

In response to my frustration at finding myself finally able to travel but without a plan for travel and learning for this summer, my awesome friend Alan offered up that “perhaps I could come and be a visiting scholar at his school for a week…or two.” I immediately said “That would be wonderful.” So Alan inquired of his principal and I asked The SAMIS Foundation if I could use my professional development money that was part of my R. Greenberg Master Teacher award for this purpose. Both said yes, and so I am now writing this from a hotel room in a beautiful half timbered building in Eppingen, Baden – Württemberg, Germany. 

I arrived on Thursday, 30th June, and made my way from Frankfurt to Eppingen. It was wonderful to be back in Europe and I was quickly reminded of some basic differences between here and Seattle. The bottom floor is 0 not 1. The ground floor is just that, it is not the 1st floor. People smoke here. A lot. Everywhere. Seattle is practically smoking free since you can’t smoke inside or within 25 feet (7.6 m) of the door or windows of a public place. There are cigarette vending machines ala the 1970s all over the place – literally on the sides of streets in residential areas. Crazy!

On the weekends that I am here I am staying in “Rapunzel’s Tower.” This is a tower that is part of the outer wall structure of the 17th century castle where Alan lives. I have always wanted to live in a tower and so am very excited about this. The first night I was there it was windy and raining. There were many loud and concerning noises for much of the night. Once so loud I sat up in bed and yelled “Hello?” I thought someone had broken down the door!!! I told myself it was only trees banging on the roof because of the wind and went back to sleep. The next night Alan and I walked into the local village for dinner and were walking down the drive behind the castle. I looked up and noticed that there were NO trees anywhere near the tower roof. So I was a bit concerned about just what was making all that noise. Alan reminded me of the cute Dormouse I had encountered getting dressed that morning and said that that was the source of the noise. Later we were in the tower and he confirmed that this was indeed the issue. Apparently there are more dormice than the one I saw and they like to party – hard – all night long. At least knowing the source allowed me to not panic when they managed to crash about at 2 am. 

No trees near that roof…

Friday I came into town with Alan so I could meet the principal of his school and some of the teachers that I would be working with. It was a day of oral exams for the graduating class and in Germany teachers from other schools come to judge/grade these exams. This meant that some of the teachers at other schools that I will be visiting were here in Eppingen for the day. It was great to meet them and quickly other teachers decided they also wanted me to come to their classes and my “dance card” quickly filled in. 

Alan took me to the cemetery right by the school. Of interest in this small plot were a few things. The grave of a Catholic priest who was imprisoned by the Nazis for his defiance regarding their treatment of Polish forced laborers. He allowed them to receive Communion and attend mass at his church and was sent to Dachau for four years. His crime was “offending the healthy national feelings” of Germans. Also buried on the edge of the cemetery were Soviet POWs and Polish forced laborers who had died while in Eppingen during/after WWII. This was particularly interesting to see and think about who had arranged for these prisoners to be given a burial in the city plot. 

On Saturday I joined Alan at his school’s graduation or “Abitur” as it is called here. It was a lovely ceremony and I was very impressed with the accomplishments of the students and the prizes given for each subject and for overall scholarship, leadership and the like. The “valedictorian” was a young man who received 898 credits out of 900 possible during his last two years of Gymnasium (college prep high school)!!! Other students were equally impressive winning multiple subject specific prizes, some even in multiple languages. The students do not wear cap and gown, but rather dress up quite formally. The girls in particular were just stunning in their formal gowns and looked as if they were going to the prom rather than graduation. Another cultural difference was the availability of beer at the event and the fact that the graduates are old enough to partake. The ceremony is planned and organized by the 11th graders who also sell drinks (beer and soft drinks) as well as pretzels to raise money for their graduation. It was lovely to meet some of the students, including the valedictorian, who was a modest and serious young man, and his sister who will be in one of my classes this coming week. She told me she was very excited to have me in their class. 

Sunday was a low key day of moving into town and wandering around a bit on my own. Eppingen is a lovely town filled with amazing half timbered buildings. It is amusing to the locals how taken I am with the buildings of their town which they see every day and, in my opinion, do not properly appreciate. I was going to go visit another village on Sunday but failed to find the correct platform at the train station. Good news is that I will need to be on that platform on Friday very early and now I know where it is! The sights of Eppingen and some delicious hausgemacht Eis (homemade ice cream) more than made up for missing the train. 

More on my first two days with the students in my next post. 

Rapunzel’s Tower and Nance’s luggage.