Yonathan Bar-On
Yonathan Bar-On

Building Bridges, and Crossing Them

During the second half of the Succoth vacation, thirty teachers from Germany and Israel spent four days working together. After a three days’ stay in Berlin, we traveled for one day to Hamburg. Under the heading “Building Bridges between Germany and Israel”, the seminar was organized by Centropa. Centropa is, in its own words, ‘an interactive database of Jewish memory’. Based in Vienna, and with offices in Budapest, Hamburg, and Washington DC, the non-profit organization was founded in 2000 by journalist, photographer and filmmaker Edward Serotta. Centropa staff members interview (mostly elderly) Jewish individuals from Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. All the information gathered in those interviews – stories, pictures, family recipes, but also historical overviews, books and videos based on the life stories – is collected, organized and made accessible online, on Centropa’s website. Centropa even offers traveling photo exhibitions, for example on Jewish life in Poland or life in Sarajevo during the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Photo by Alexandra Copitman, courtesy of Centropa

An important part of Centropa’s work is conducting teachers’ seminars. At those seminars, teachers become familiar with the many educational resources offered by the organization, and they learn how to use that material in their lessons. Teachers are encouraged to create school projects with each other. Many school exchanges and cross-border friendships have already been established through such projects. Besides seminars for specific countries there is also the yearly Centropa Summer Academy, where a large number of teachers from North America, Europa, Israel and even South Africa work together in one or more cities in Central or Eastern Europe. Last month’s Berlin-Hamburg meeting was Centropa’s first multinational face-to-face teacher seminar since the start of the Covid19 pandemic, and we managed to do a lot of work and have great fun at the same time.

Photo by Alexandra Copitman, courtesy of Centropa

My very first visit to Berlin was during the Centropa Summer Academy of 2013, followed by participation in the 2014 summer academy in Vienna and Sarajevo. Eight years later I am already considered a veteran Centropa teacher, which is why at this year’s seminar I was asked to present two projects that I created after participating in those summer academies. In one project I teach my students, through the story of the Kindertransport, about the dilemmas and obstacles faced by young and adult refugees. The other project, based on the story of the Jews of Sarajevo, deals with the importance of human rights for everybody, but particularly for minorities.

Photo by Alexandra Copitman, courtesy of Centropa

Last month’s seminar’s program consisted of visits to various monuments and historical sites, guided tours in areas of Berlin and Hamburg that are of specific Jewish interest, lectures and presentations by historians and veteran Centropa teachers, and – last but definitely not least – intensive work sessions of the Israeli-German teams that were formed on the first day of the seminar. We stayed in really nice hotels and were well fed. On Friday night we all attended the Kabbalat Shabbat service in the beautiful synagogue in Berlin’s Pestalozzistraße, a very musical service of the kind that is typical of German-reform Judaism, with an excellent cantor and an outstanding choir. In the evenings, after all the official work had been done, there was time to unwind and relax, and to cement – with the help of snacks, a beer or soft drink, some background music – the friendships that were formed at daytime. We even managed to witness history being made – the elections on 26 September – and to applaud some of the participants of the Berlin Marathon.

Photo by Alexandra Copitman, courtesy of Centropa

As with previous seminars that I attended, this bridge-building teachers’ meeting achieved several goals. First of all, we kept and continue to keep Jewish history and memory alive, by preserving and studying the life stories of the men and women who are at the center of Centropa’s work. By doing so, and by visiting the historical sites and monuments throughout Hamburg and Berlin, we also honored the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and of the Shoah’s survivors who are no longer with us. Centropa is about much more than ‘just’ the Holocaust, though. We were also there to celebrate Jewish life in Europe, and to learn about the complex, difficult but also beautiful and rich – both religiously and culturally – lives Jews have led there before and after the years 1933-45.

Photo by Alexandra Copitman, courtesy of Centropa

Another achievement was the friendships built between German and Israeli, Jewish and non-Jewish teachers. From experience I know that some of those friendships will last for many years. By meeting ‘the other’ on an equal footing, and while working towards a common goal (to create really good, fun, and interesting educational projects), we learn about the similarities and differences between our personal and professional lives. In addition, we often become ambassadors for each other’s country. During my visits to Berlin and other cities in Germany I really have come to (re)appreciate the history, culture, food and people of Germany, and I bring that fascination and appreciation home – and to school – with me. In a similar way, I hardly know any better friends of Israel than Wolfgang, Michael, Andreas, Stephanie, Judith, Cahit and other German colleagues that I worked with at this and other teachers’ meetings in Germany and Israel.

Photo by Alexandra Copitman, courtesy of Centropa

The work of Centropa is done in close cooperation with various social, academic and educational institutions in the countries where Centropa is active. Centropa’s important work would not be possible without generous financial support from a variety of donors. This particular seminar was sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), the Lotto Foundation Berlin, and the GEW, the education sector union affiliated to the German Trade Union Confederation. On the first day of the seminar in Berlin, Ludwig Schulz of the KAS, told us about the foundation’s work all over the world, focusing on his own department, the Middle East and North Africa. Not for the first time I was impressed and even moved by the efforts, the money and energy that German governmental and non-governmental organizations invest these days in developing and promoting democracy, as well as European and international cooperation. In my opinion – as a historian, a teacher and a Jew – this is one of the fascinating ironies of history. There we were, in that beautiful, exciting city which once was the capital of an evil empire. Eighty years ago some of the most cruel and inhumane chapters of world history were planned in and directed from Berlin. Today, however, we Jewish teachers from Israel were working there with our German friends and colleagues, learning about those terrible years but also about Jewish history and culture, and making sure that our students will learn more about the lives of Jews in Europa, and about the dangers of prejudice and hatred.

Photo by Alexandra Copitman, courtesy of Centropa

Now the teachers are all home again. In the coming months and years we will work out our ideas and turn them into class projects, which we will carry out with both Israeli and German students. Later in the school year, the thirty participants of last month’s seminar will meet online to share the class projects they have created with one another, based on the material provided by Centropa. Our students will virtually cross the bridges between our two countries, bridges that we built in four days in Berlin and Hamburg.

About the Author
Yonathan Bar-On (Bert de Bruin) is a historian and an EAL teacher. He teaches English at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and has written extensively for Dutch newspapers, and occasionally for American and Israeli newspapers and online media. Yonathan writes a weekly column for the Dutch daily Friesch Dagblad. In 1995 he immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands.
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