Reconciliation the goal for volunteers in Germany

berlin | On a recent summer’s evening, 18 young adults from countries spanning the globe sat on the broad lawn in front of the Reichstag munching on bagels.

Nearby, a long line of tourists waited to enter the building through its towering, neoclassical entrance, over which is written: “The German People.” This symbol of democracy, hated by the Nazis, is once again home to Germany’s Parliament.

The group was recuperating from a third day of orientation as volunteers for the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a 46-year-old German Protestant group that works to heal the wounds of the Holocaust.

These young volunteers — hailing from Germany, the United States, Israel, Wales, Norway, Belgium, Austria, Chile, Ukraine and Poland — were about to embark on year-long internships at Holocaust memorials, as well as human rights organizations throughout Germany.

Though not all the group’s members are Jewish, every single one of them will be confronting the darkest chapter of German history.

This year, Action Reconciliation — its name literally means “Action Atonement” in German — sent some 100 volunteers to aid these survivors.

At times, often unexpectedly, deep friendships have resulted between young volunteers and survivors across the globe. But the program is neither about forgiveness nor forgetting. Rather, its leaders say, it is about reconciliation and about atonement — on the spiritual plane.

Confrontation with the past is a prime mandate of the organization, but atonement generally is not applicable for the foreign volunteers. Thus, it was not an easy decision to include them in the program, said Thomas Heldt, 38-year-old adviser for the volunteer program.

But “our foreign partners said that dialogue requires not only that Germans go out, but that they come to us,” said Heldt, who accompanied the volunteers through their orientation. “We had a big discussion about it at Action Reconciliation. Can we expect people outside Germany to work under the name ‘reconciliation?’ Especially if they are Jewish?”

The answer, said Action Reconciliation director Christian Staffa, was yes. The group’s founder, Lothar Kreyssig, once wrote that “the partners should tell us what we should do,” Staffa, 44, recalled.

“And if the partners say, ‘Hey, we want to come to Germany, we don’t want a one-way thing, we want dialogue and communication,'” she said, Action Reconciliation “has to do it.”

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.