Learning about Holocaust: Germanys teens face nations darkest chapter

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Buchenwald — Nicole and Sabine pop the cork from the bottle, sending it soaring up the length of the brick school building. Surely the braces-wearing. East German teens and their two friends had other plans for the cheap champagne, yet meeting two American Jews at Buchenwald seemed cause to celebrate.

Despite a language barrier, it seemed they knew about their history, knew they could not change it and offered up the only things they could — their smiles, warm greetings and drink.

And Robert Zurawin and I, two Jewish writers from the United States, felt fortunate as the recipients of their gifts. We toasted life, l'chaim, after viewing the cemetery of 51,000.

We met the America-infatuated teens on the number seven bus from Buchenwald back to Weimar, about a 10-minute ride downhill. They had visited the concentration camp; now they were returning to their lockers, gymnasium and 10th grade classrooms; Robert and I were heading to Dresden and then Houston and San Francisco respectively.

This was the final stop of a week-long tour of Germany sponsored by the German government — a trip commemorating 50 years since the end of World War II in Europe. The official press junket, including me and 19 other reporters, had ended two days before. Robert and I stayed on to see the German concentration camp eight kilometers from Weimar.

Little remains of Buchenwald. Gray and black rocks fill the barren earth where rows of barracks once stood. A watchtower clock is stopped at 4:15, the hour of the camp's liberation.

The rolling mountains dense with trees defy my expectations of desolation and death. I am troubled by the beauty. It smells of lilacs, not of ashes.

At former barracks building number 22, a testimonial to the Jewish prisoners is carved in granite. The words, written in English, Hebrew and German, read: "So that the generation to come might know, the children, yet to be born, that they too may rise and declare to their children."

The crematorium is strewn with flowers and Israeli flags left by German high school students. I expected to see other Jews like myself milling about the grounds, but I was unprepared for this youthful presence.

In America, some high school history classes struggle to cover the events of World War II before breaking for summer vacation. In dog-eared history books, Hiroshima and the Holocaust sit together on the same page, a paragraph or two dedicated to each.

However, German youth spend several semesters learning about National Socialism, Nazism and the war that left their country divided.

While American teenagers travel on school-sponsored trips to Washington D.C, their German counterparts visit concentration camps.

And so the German teens are learning even the ugliest parts of their national past.

For some, Buchenwald seems little more than a day out of the classroom. While we walk the grounds in silence, they joke and gossip. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with their emotions. Others appear moved as they drink in the poison of their history.

A young woman drops flowers at a memorial for political prisoners. Another writes comments in a book containing visitors' reactions to a series of paintings displayed in the Disinfection Building, now an exhibition hall. She begs her friends not to read her contemplations. Back on the bus, Sabine, Nicole and their friends ask why we have come to Buchenwald.

"Because we are Jewish," Robert replies. "Because my family died here."

They are suddenly silent. One looks at the floor, another out the window. One young woman looks directly into our eyes.

Their English is poor. Our German is worse. But her eyes transcend language barriers; her stare speaks volumes of apologies. Maybe she has taken her history lessons to heart.

Oliver Paetzke, one of our tour guides from Cologne, says it's hard for German youth not to know about the Holocaust.

"It's everywhere," he says. "The kids get so much of it [Holocaust education] in school. Sometimes I think it's hard for them to process it all."

Many American and European educators visit Germany to observe how students are taught about the Holocaust, he continues. German curricula include talks by survivors, day trips to concentration camps and visits to museums focusing on Germany's role in World War II.

Educators and government leaders are encouraged by the results.

In Berlin, exhibits like "Topography of Terror" and "1945" attract a revolving door of young people. And on a Sunday afternoon the Memorial House of the Wannsee Conference is filled with students completing one-day seminars on Jewish life in Europe before the Shoah, on the planning and organization of the Nazi's Final Solution and on models of conflict resolution.

The latest addition to the nation's rapidly growing educational effort is Bonn's House of History, a contemporary museum focusing on German history from 1945 to the present. It's a quick study geared toward young audiences and is complete with video monitors, a 1951 Mercedes-Benz and mock Bundestag (German parliament) where visitors can electronically vote on a variety of issues.

Erector sets and Nivea cream represent Germany's reliance on exports to survive the decades of economic crisis. In contrast, domestic Easy Rider posters show the impact of American culture on Germany.

Black cubicles are set up throughout the multi-floor museum, each containing exhibits about "National Socialism." One shows excuses uttered by defendants in the Nuremberg War Trials such as, "I was just following orders."

A video monitor runs a German news wire, keeping the museum literally up to the minute on current events.

Hermann Schafer, director of the House of History, calls the museum's approach "infotainment, appealing to interactive, acoustic and visual interests."

The free museum opened less than a year ago. Already it receives 100,000 visitors each month.

According to Schafer, far more people under age 30 visit than those between ages 30 and 60. Those over 60 — contemporaries of Nazism — barely visit.

"We are learning that we need to teach history in different ways to different people," Schafer says.

The reporters on our trip are skeptical. Most have not experienced the "visceral response" Schafer says the museum's creators hoped for.

"I see more `tainment' than `info'," says John Linklater, a writer from Glasgow.

Schafer dismisses the comment and our not-so-well suppressed laughter.

"Objects alone don't tell the story. You have to feel the story," he says. "And Germans have to be aware of the crimes committed in this generation."

It appears that at least the younger generation is getting the message.

According to a summer 1994 poll by the Der Spiegel news magazine, 78 percent of Germans aged 16 to 30 reject the neo-Nazi movement. Thirty-two percent say on principle they cannot be proud of their country. And 57 percent say they could accept a Jew as a German head of state.

Meanwhile, Robert has received a letter from Nicole, the 16-year-old from Weimar who shared her champagne. She wants to know more about him. Although her questions are about popular rock bands rather than Jewish life, she is reaching out to the only Jews she knows. This seemingly typical German teen wants to learn more.

I am hopeful — at least for this generation of Germans.