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Books

Star-studded refugee benefit in Cologne focuses on the power of words

Til Schweiger and Herbert Grönemeyer were among the celebrities praising the power of language at this fund-raiser for refugees. Literature echoes Germany's refugee crisis from the 1930s with the current situation.

More than a dozen German authors, actors and musicians came to the stage at Cologne's Lanxess Arena on Thursday (17.3.2016) during a benefit event for the Til Schweiger Foundation.

Held as part of the Lit.Cologne festival taking place in Cologne this week, the benefit drew an audience of 7,200 - many of them school children - for an evening of singing, reading and storytelling, all aimed at raising funds for programs that support newly-arriving refugees.

Under the theme "You, too, are Germany - refugees and the power of language," the celebrity guests read powerful texts about the plight of refugees. The mixture of texts taken both from Germany's history, with its own refugee crisis in the 1930s and 1940s, and stories from the contemporary refugee crisis, provided stunning parallels.

Striking echoes: Refugees from yesterday and today

Cordula Stratmann read a selection from Stefan Zweig, a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1934 whose book, "The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European," is considered the most famous book on the Habsburg Empire, written after the author fled Vienna for England and later Brazil.

Detailing life in 1920s Vienna, the author also tells of experiences he'd had with many of Germany's most famous personalities at the time. It has come to serve as a portrait of the German-speaking intellectual class just ahead of the war and the impacts of anti-semitism on everyday life.

Author Frank Schätzing reading at Lit.Cologne benefit, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/H.Kaiser

"Auch ihr seid Deutschland" - You, too, are Germany: A message at the heart of many current discussions. Pictured here, author Frank Schätzing

A striking undertone to this text selected for the reading is that Zweig committed suicide in 1942, while living as a refugee - a fact that exemplifies the difficulties that people face when exiled from their homeland due to war.

Reflecting the current situation, German writer Frank Schaetzing read from the recently released book by Cologne-based author Navid Kermani called "Einbruch der Wirklichkeit: Auf dem Fluchtlingsstrecke durch Europa" (A break in reality: On the refugee trail through Europe). The book chronicles a reporting trip taken by Kermani as he accompanied refugees from the Turkish coastal city of Izmir while they made their way to Germany.

The contrasts provided by this selection of texts gave the audience much to think about, and created a backdrop for musician Herbert Grönemeyer's message later in the program. In his closing act, Grönemeyer showed his dismay at anti-refugee sentiments in the country. In a refrain sung from his song about people on the run, "Feuerlicht," he asks listeners to take a moment to think, to not look away.

When musicians leave their instruments behind to flee

The three-hour program combined entertainment by much-anticipated headliners with thought-provoking sentiments and discussion-stirring food for thought.

Syrian band Khebez Dawle at Lit.Cologne refugee benefit, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/H.Kaiser

An emotional performance by Syrian band Khebez Dawle

And while performers like German rapper Cro and Thomas D., a member of the Fantastischen Vier, may have been a hit with the students in the audience, others in the public were in tears when the Syrian rock band

Khebez Dawle

took to the stage.

The band members had to sell all of their instruments to afford their flight to Europe. They left Syria when their drummer got killed, deciding their country was no longer a place for musicians. Yet they couldn't live very long without music, so they bought new instruments upon reaching Athens and turned their journey into Europe into a concert tour. They are now seeking asylum in Germany.

The power of language serving as a common thread for the evening's events, it seems only fitting that the donations taken in at the reading will go to support programs aimed at literacy education for refugees. All of the proceeds from the star-studded event go to support the Til Schweiger Foundation, a non-profit clearinghouse launched in 2015 to find an unbureaucratic way to quickly support the newly arrived refugees.

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