Yonathan Bar-On

Learning, walking, and feeling European-Jewish history


All the CSA2023 participants, with the people of Cafe Centropa. Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern, courtesy of Centropa.

In the first half of July, 75 elementary, middle and high school teachers from the USA, Israel and more than a dozen European countries spent eight hot days of their summer vacation in Vienna and Prague. They worked together and took part in several social activities, getting to know each other, creating new learning units, picking up new ideas for their classes, and learning about the differences and similarities between schoolwork in their respective countries and communities.

The staff of CSA 2023. Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern, courtesy of Centropa.

This unique teachers’ seminar was organized, for the ninth time (in 2020 and 2021 it was held online), by Centropa. Founded in 2000 in Vienna and Budapest, Centropa is the brainchild of Edward Serotta, and it now has offices in Vienna, Budapest, Hamburg and Washington, DC, plus coordinators in about a dozen European countries and Israel. Ed and his team have collected an immense amount of life stories of elderly Jewish women and men in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. Centropa staff members sat with these people, went with them through their family albums, and listened to and recorded their life stories. All those stories are now available on the Centropa website, together with thousands of pictures from the interviewees’ photo albums. The website also contains dozens of videos, based on the interviews, which tell the life stories of individual interviewees or cover specific parts of European and European-Jewish history. Thus, Centropa has become an exceptionally rich, freely available online treasure of resources for anyone who is interested in that history, especially for educators. Centropa organizes teachers’ seminars throughout the year and all over Europe, Israel and the United States, getting teachers acquainted with the extensive range of Centropa resources, and creating a multinational peer network. Even though the common theme is European-Jewish history, teachers from a wide variety of fields can participate (and did so this summer): history, music, civics, religious studies, English, literature, language, art, and more.  The aim of the Centropa Summer Academy (CSA) is for the participants to turn the Centropa material into learning units for their students, and to share those units and their personal learning experiences with their colleagues, both from the Centropa network and within their own communities and countries. During the CSA, every day a couple of hours were dedicated to working in smaller groups, part of five electives: Border-Jumping, aimed at creating cooperations between schools from different countries; Stories of Terezín (in German: Theresienstadt); the Kindertransport; Stepping into the Future with Empathy (sharing emotions and reflections on the subject ‘refugees’,  through photographs and interviews); and the one that I chose, Holocaust Youth Diaries, led by Alexandra Zapruder, author of Salvaged Pages: Young Writers Diaries of the Holocaust. After we have had time to process and work out all our ideas at home, in the coming weeks and months we will forward our lesson plans – with attachments, suggestions for further work, visual aids, tips, etc. – to Centropa, so that everything becomes part of the very rich pool of educational material that is readily accessible on the organization’s website.

Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern, courtesy of Centropa.

Every summer, during the summer academy, the Centropa staff members turn one or more European cities into a classroom, with the teachers in the role of both students and educators. This year, we visited Vienna and Prague, each city for four days. In Vienna, among many other things, we visited the Belvedere and the Military Museum, learnt about the life of Jews in the inner city, and on Friday night we attended a Kabbalat Shabbat service in the imposing Stadttempel. I particularly enjoyed the almost mesmerizing vocal harmonies of this Jewish community’s small choir (all male, this being an orthodox synagogue). Throughout our stay in the Austrian capital, we were hosted at the Diplomatic Academy. There, Philipp Blom, author of The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914, gave us a wonderful introduction to pre-WWI Austria and Vienna. Over lunch, we were able to chat with American, German, Australian, Ukrainian and Israeli diplomats. During a panel with Hannah Lessing of the National Fund (of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National-Socialism), Patrick Siegele of ERINNERN.AT, and Moritz Wein of Austria’s Education Ministry, we learnt about their country’s long and arduous (but eventually successful, I’d say) road towards accountability and recognizing the importance of fighting racism and anti-Semitism, and of educating youngsters towards tolerance, inclusion and diversity. One of the most moving and impressive parts of the Viennese program was meeting Holocaust survivors, people who take part in a very special project in Vienna, Café Centropa, where elderly Jewish people meet socially on a regular basis. Together with my German friends and colleagues Anke and Johanna, I had the pleasure and privilege of watching and hearing Mrs Gisella Neumann tell her life story.

CSA 2023 participants from the USA, talking with Holocaust survivors. Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern, courtesy of Centropa.

On our way from Vienna to the second half of the summer academy in Prague, we stopped for a couple of hours at the UNESCO heritage site of Třebíč, with its well-preserved ghetto and picturesque 17th century synagogue. In Prague, we had great walking tours of that city, including some key spots related to the Velvet Revolution, and of course the incredibly beautiful Jewish quarter, with its stunning but also sad history.  On the last day of our stay in the city, Theresienstadt survivor Michaela Vidlakova told us her and her family’s tragic but also uplifting story of survival. We finished the seminar with a very nice dinner at the residence of Dr. Bettina Kirnbauer, Austria’s ambassador in Prague.

Photo by David Kumermann, courtesy of Centropa.

Personally, out of a week crammed with highlights, I found three elements the most moving and enriching. First of all, three teachers from Ukraine told us about their experiences in the last year and a half. Edward Serotta and Centropa have been very supportive of Ukrainian teachers during the war in that country. In Israel, we know how wars can affect our lives and work, but we have never had to work under warlike conditions for such a long time in a row. Talking with one of the Ukrainian CSA participants (all women, for obvious reasons), I was happy and proud to hear that Israeli trauma experts have been giving Ukrainian teachers and other professionals training and advice.

Ed Serotta working with some of the Ukrainian CSA 2023 participants. Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern, courtesy of Centropa.

Secondly, as part of our program in Prague, for the first time ever I visited the site of the former ghetto and concentration camp at Terezín. I’d read a lot about this camp, and about the desperate efforts of its prisoners to preserve some sort of ‘normalcy’ under horrendous and very abnormal conditions, for example by educating the children and developing many cultural activities. Still, none of my reading had prepared me for the experience of walking around in what has all the appearances of an average Central-European small town, where today less than 3,000 people live. But when you think of the horrific experiences of almost 150,000 Jews who spent a few days or several years in the ghetto in the years 1941-1945, every building, street corner and tree looks extremely sinister, and you can easily understand why the Nazi regime, with an almost unimaginable touch of evil genius, chose this garrison town, with walls all around and easily guarded by less than two hundred Czech policemen plus a few dozen SS men and German civilians, as the place to fool Red Cross and other officials who more or less wanted to be fooled. One of the CSA participants, Marc Bragin, Jewish chaplain and director of spiritual and religious life at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, led a beautiful memorial service at the Terezín Jewish cemetery.

Centropa’s Jonathan Schwers, with CSA participants, at the site of the former ghetto of Terezin. Photo by David Kumermann, courtesy of Centropa.

But the most poignant, instructive and hopeful impression that I have taken from the Centropa Summer Academy 2023 were the screening, at the Ghetto Museum in Terezin, of the film Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, and a meeting with Maestro Murry Sidlin, president and artistic director of The Defiant Requiem Foundation. Never before had I heard this story of how Verdi’s requiem – with lyrics about liberation, wrath, martyrs being led to Jerusalem – was used as a means to resist. The requiem offered Jewish prisoners the opportunity, in the words of conductor Rafael Schächter (1905-1945), to “sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them”. Being both a historian of the Holocaust and a fan of classical music, I immediately connected to this fascinating chapter in the history of those darkest years in the chronicles of our people. If possible, I would like to try and bring Maestro Sidlin to Haifa next year, 80 years after the last performance of the Requiem in Theresienstadt, for a performance of the Requiem or of his concert-drama Hours of Freedom, based on the work of fifteen composers who were imprisoned in the camp during the Holocaust.

Photo by Ouriel Morgensztern, courtesy of Centropa.

To sum up, together with 74 other teachers I spent eight days, filled to the brim with work and information but highly educational and enjoyable, in two scenic European capitals. I know, we teachers all need our summer vacation, but I can highly recommend any American, European and Israeli colleagues who want to learn more about European-Jewish history and to expand their arsenal of educational tools and knowledge, and who are open to learning with and from peers from all over the world, to apply for future Centropa events. My work with this NGO has made all the difference, not only regarding whát but also as to hów I teach.

PS: The Centropa Summer Academy 2023 was supported by: the Claims Conference; the EVZ Foundation (Remembrance, Responsibility, Future); Germany’s Federal Ministry of Finance; the European Union; the ZukunftsFonds (Future Fund) of the Austrian Republic; the National Fund of the Austrian Republic for Victims of National-Socialism; Meeting Destination Vienna; the Austrian Bundeskanzleramt; Wilf Family Foundations; the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Research; the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs; the American Embassy in Vienna; the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation; and the Maimonides Fund.


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.