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Literary homecoming

August 3, 2011

When Jewish refugees left Nazi Germany for Israel in the 1930s and 40s, many packed the very books the Nazis were burning. Now, the Holocaust survivors are sharing their libraries with German students.

Stack of books sent from Holocaust survivors in Israel to German students
Many of the books would have been destroyed by the NazisImage: DW

The pupils in class 9S at the Grabbe Gymnasium in Detmold have a particular reputation for boisterousness. But on the day that the package from Jerusalem arrived, you could have heard a pin drop, said 15-year-old Charlotte Szymanowski.

"Our teacher came late to history class," Charlotte remembered. "We were all wondering what was going on. Then he arrived with this package, and we opened it and out came these beautiful books."

Students at the Grabbe Gymnasium school in Detmold, Germany
The students sent a package of their own back to IsraelImage: DW

The six yellowing books were once the proud possessions of a Jewish girl named Ada Brodsky. Born in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1924, Ada was barely 15 when she was forced to flea Nazi Germany - almost exactly the same age as Charlotte and her classmates.

"She was an amazing woman," said Charlotte, who studied the little biographical pamphlet included in the package with growing admiration. "I'm so impressed by everything that she achieved."

Bridging the culture divide

Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, Ada Brodsky remained determined to celebrate the good things about the culture she had grown up in. She lovingly preserved the German books which had escaped with her, and even built a successful literary career on introducing German classics to a Hebrew-speaking audience.

Now, after over half a century, her books have arrived back in Germany as part of a project called No Lightweight Packages. It's the brainchild of Simone Lenz, director of the Goethe-Institut in Jerusalem.

When Lenz arrived in Jerusalem six years ago, she found herself inundated by requests from the families descended from German Holocaust refugees hoping to find a home for the books they had brought with them from Germany.

Student at the Grabbe Gymnasium school in Detmold, Germany
The students could identify with Ada BrodskyImage: DW

Most second and third-generation Israelis have long since lost contact with the German language of their grandparents, so the volumes were simply gathering dust. Something about the books, however, caught Lenz's eye.

"I was moved that they brought us these books of the very authors who were burned in Germany in the 30s," recalled Lenz, who immediately set about hatching a plan to return the books to their country of origin.

A literary homecoming

Together with the young scholar Caroline Jessen, Lenz worked on compiling biographical information about the books' donors. Then she contacted various German schools, offering teachers the chance to receive a parcel of books intimately linked to the biographies of individual Holocaust survivors living in Israel.

Steven Förster, a 31-year-old teacher at the Grabbe Gymnasium in Detmold, jumped at the chance to get involved in the project.

"The problem is that if you don't have a personal story which the pupils can relate to, then it's just an ordinary lesson," Förster explained. "But if you can get them to emotionally connect to the life of Ada Brodsky, then it goes much deeper and lasts a lot longer. That's what history lessons should be about."

Steven Förster
Förster says it's crucial to connect students to personal storiesImage: DW

According to Förster, the benefits of developing a personal connection to historical events are social, as well as educational. "If a pupil really reflects on something, then he or she can reach the right conclusions," said Förster. "That doesn't just help the pupil, it helps society as well."

Sadly, Ada Brodsky died before her parcel of books reached Germany. Nevertheless, Förster's pupils have sent a package of their own to Israel, full of letters expressing their thanks for the gift of her books. They are hoping that her family will read the letters, and that this will be the beginning of a lasting connection.

In the meantime, their teacher has been so inspired by the project that he is keen to try out a similar scheme with people who lived through the communist dictatorship in East Germany.

Authors: Kate Laycock

Editor: Kate Bowen