January 21, 2009

Berlin

The Steering Committee at the Haus der Wannsee Konferenz
(Photo by Eileen Eder)

I have just returned from a week in Germany where I attended a conference at the new Bergen-Belsen memorial museum, see Michael Kimmelman's article in today's New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/arts/design/22abro.html?_r=1&ref=arts). The centerpiece of the trip, however, was meeting up with the Steering Committee of a very exciting new program with the Museum that will offer graduate students, future leaders, and leading scholars, a unique forum to examine contemporary ethical issues using the Holocaust as context. 

Currently titled the Auschwitz Professional Ethics Initiative (APEI), the program will focus on graduate students (initially in Law, Medicine, Business, Journalism, and Theology) who will convene annually in Germany and Poland for an intensive educational experience, which will explore the role of their chosen professions in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.   The APEI will partner with some of the most prestigious Universities in the US and abroad, and will engage students from varying backgrounds in a dialogue that is meant to foster an understanding of the Holocaust as more than a historic event.  The APEI is predicated on the conviction that the study of this history and the distilling of lessons from it, are powerfully enhanced by the location of the study itself.  By taking students to the villa in Berlin where the Wannsee Conference was held and then to Auschwitz, we believe that we will provide an educational experience that will have an extraordinary impact.

 The Committee started their trip in Poland, where they visited the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the Auschwitz State Museum, both prospective partners in the APEI.  I joined the group in Berlin, where we visited the site of the Wannsee Conference and had a very productive meeting with the colleagues there, who run programs that are similar to the APEI.  The trip was stimulating and productive and will yield, I hope, tangible results as we plan for a pilot program of the APEI later this year. 

Committee Members at Gleis 17, the Memorial for the Jews Deported from Berlin (Photo by Shiri Sandler)

1 comment:

Noam Gilboord said...

Hi David,

I was actually visiting Berlin on a similar program to APEI the week before your trip. While I've studied 20th century German history as well as Holocaust studies, you are certainly right that the educational experience is enhanced by actually being there.

However, it is important on these programs not just to show American students (and the ones from abroad as well) that Germany remembers its Nazi past, but that the Germans we deal with on a day-to-day basis are not Nazis themselves (except for a tiny minority). The people who will be working with participants will likely be the post-WWII generation, and those in their 20's like me. The question to ask when you go to these memorials is not only what are they symbolizing and how do they educate people. We must ask a simple question: What do these memorials mean to the everyday German?

When I came back to my home in Toronto, I was very excited to tell my grandparents (3rd Generation Canadians, not survivors) all about my trip and show them photos of the memorials. My grandfather remained silent throughout my presentation, and he asked one question at the end: "Do the Germans look at it?" I think his question goes much deeper. Do they understand what it means? I'm not sure they all do. For example, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is covered with pain made by the same company that produced the Zyklon B gas. Furthermore, we talk in America about social justice and preventing genocides. Germans seem to understand their role in the world as simply remembering their destroyed Jewish communities, but they don't take it one step further and advocate for the prevention of other genocides, like Darfur. I'm not advocating that Germany send an army in there, but there just isn't any public will to recognize any responsibility to humanity beyond remembrance. This is quite upsetting, and left me with the impression that the Germans simply don't realize the trauma they caused to a the Jewish nation.

That was just my impression, and other people on my trip had similar views I've expressed, but also very different ones. I'd be interested in your take on Germany's role in the modern world concerning social justice.

Great Blog! Get on YouTube next!

Best,
Noam Gilboord
Brandeis University/CAJM