Geoffrey S. Cahn
Understanding the Past Reconciles the Future

An American Jew in Berlin Classrooms

Most teachers do not have to cross an ocean before entering their classroom. For the last ten years that’s exactly what I’ve done numerous times—traveled 4,000 miles from my home in New York City to Berlin to work with gymnasium students there. Together we examine the legacy and lessons of the Shoah. My primary goal continues to be the empowerment of the current generation of young Germans — enabling them to transcend the remnants of guilt and shame, while remaining ever mindful of their moral responsibility towards the present and future.

As a child of German Jewish survivors, my initial trips to Germany some twenty years ago were sometimes difficult ones.  Unlike a number of Jews, I never avoided buying German products or concealed the fact that Wagner’s operas are among my favorites of the repertoire.  Visiting Dachau and Buchenwald (where my father and grandfather were respectively interned) and catching myself staring intently into the faces of elderly Germans I passed on the street, however, were unnerving experiences. It was on one such trip that I began to consider how, as a Jewish educator, I might forge a more constructive connection with our shared past, one in which the process of reconciliation could emerge.

As I quickly learned, coming to terms with the nation’s nefarious past continues to be a painful process for Germans as well.  The citizens of today’s Germany can be proud of their nation’s foremost achievements in leading the EU in promoting peace while leading relief efforts throughout the world.  Nonetheless, the dark clouds of the past never seem to disappear. This was glaringly demonstrated by last year’s federal and the most recent state elections, in which the AfD gained a significant increase in popular votes and parliamentary representation.

Needless to say, as an educator, I have had many “teaching moments” in Berlin as my project continued to evolve.  Since the students have been well prepared by their teachers in advance of my workshops, there is much eager anticipation (and sometimes anxiety) as to how we will come to terms with the angstof the past.  The German government has done a superb job in integrating the history of the Shoah into the curriculum and there is little need for me to reiterate the grim facts with them.  I soon came to realize that the more personal I became, the more the students were engaged.

They are particularly interested in my family’s history –the fortunate escape of my parents and the tragic loss of my grandparents and aunt who perished in the Lodz Ghetto.  With that also comes a better understanding of Jewish life in Germany before World War II.  As Berlin’s Jewish population continues to grow today, I am still surprised to hear from many of the students that I am the first Jew they have ever met. Therefore, their rudimentary knowledge about Judaism as a religion and culture becomes an important segment of our workshops.   One of the most encouraging reactions to our discussions on Judaism came one morning from a Muslim student who admitted to the class how much he now appreciated and understood the similarities between Judaism and Islam.

Students are eager to discuss the complex issues of the Middle East and ask me whether I think there will ever be peace there.  I explain to them how we as Jews living in America grapple with the same question. They are surprised to hear that we continue to vehemently disagree with one another on possible solutions to making the State of Israel secure while at the same time creating a viable Palestinian State.  More recently, with the spate of terrorist attacks and growth of anti-Semitism in Europe, students consider what role they can play in ameliorating these threats.  Chancellor Merkel’s acknowledgement that “Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism” is a view, however, which so far has not been embraced in Germany or the rest of the world. I recall during a particular workshop, a student asked me if what his friend had told him was true:  Were there really “death camps” in the West Bank?  After a stunned moment of silence in the classroom, a serious discussion proceeded, examining how extreme left and right wing parties manufacture such propaganda as a weapon against the Jewish State and people.

Hopefully, exploring current issues of mutual concern is shedding new light on the dark past that we share.  One such concern is the strong reaction to Merkel’s decision to permit hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek asylum in Germany.  The Chancellor’s idealistic efforts continue to face stiff opposition both at home and from other members of the EU.  Right-wing populist parties like the AfD have grown in their appeal for those who feel threatened by their government’s open-door policies. All the students and teachers I have spoken to are deeply concerned about the surge of right-wing parties in their country.  They are equally distressed by other right-wing populist leaders like Marine Le Pen and Norbert Hofer who had also been tapping into the fears of migration, economic insecurity, and the loss of control in a rapidly changing and increasingly diverse world.

With the shocking victory of Donald Trump in 2016 and the menacing ascent of the populist right in America, these concerns are only magnified.  As citizens of the world, together we are tackling some of the most urgent issues facing all of us today — including the rise of anti-semitism in my own country. While drawing upon the troubling lessons of our shared past, it is my greatest hope that in some small way, my message of reconciliation to young Germans will unite us as we continue to face the challenges ahead. It would not surprise me that on my next visit to Berlin, which is fast approaching, I will be asked to discuss the recent deadly attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue – the worst atrocity that Jews experienced on American soil.  It seems that another teaching moment in the Berlin classroom awaits me.

About the Author
Geoffrey Cahn was educated in New York, receiving a Ph.D. in History with a specialization in 20th Century Germany. He has taught both high school and college students for over 30 years. As the creator and the director of The Holocaust Reconciliation Project, he has been conducting workshops in Germany for over a decade. For more information please see www.holocaust-reconciliation.org.
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