Teaching Germans About Their Jewish Past | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.03.2005
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Teaching Germans About Their Jewish Past

Experts say German history lessons are skewed, giving too much weight to the Holocaust and failing to teach kids about the rich heritage of German Jewry, in which Jews were much more than merely the Nazis' victims.


Are they learning what they should?

Germany is socially, culturally and economically poorer since the Nazi's reign of terror killed or chased away most of the country's Jews. Experts agree that school kids don't know that because they receive a one-sided view of Jews as having been little more than the persecuted victims of German history. They never get wind of the fact that Jews contributed vastly to German society. And it's something that some people are trying to change.

"In German school books and classes there is a sole emphasis on the years of the Holocaust, between 1933 and 1945," said Frankfurt Jewish Museum Director Georg Heuberger. "The fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany should be studied in a much broader context. It should be integrated in 2,000 years of history of the Jews in Germany."

Heuberger was part of an illustrious panel commissioned by the Leo Baeck Institute (LBI), an international organization devoted to the study of German Jewry, to draft guidelines to ensure that pupils learn that Jews have played a fundamental -- and positive -- role in European and German culture. With support from Germany's largest teachers' union, the GEW, and the Association of History Teachers in Germany, the LBI has launched a campaign to convince educational authorities, schoolbook publishers and teacher trainers to change their methods.

Germany without Einstein?

Moses Mendelssohn, der jüdische Philosoph der Aufklärung und enge Freund Gotthold Ephraim Lessings

Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786)

German culture would be unthinkable without the contributions of Jews of the German-speaking world, including Enlightenment-age philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, poet Heinrich Heine, physicists Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner, composer Arnold Schönberg, filmmaker Fritz Lang, philosopher Hannah Arendt and Marlene Dietrich's longtime songwriter, Friedrich Hollaender.

Silvia Haslauer has been teaching history and German at Jules Verne Comprehensive School in Berlin's Hellersdorf district since 2002. Her wards are between 17 and 19 years old, when students prepare for and take Germany's grueling final exams to earn their ticket to university, the Abitur. Haslauer said that teachers and their trainers are indeed sensitive to the problem of ensuring pupils receive a differentiated view of German-Jewish history.

"Already in teacher training we examined the problem of Jews only being presented in the role of victims," Haslauer explained. Her instructor stressed the merits of field trips to teach kids about German-Jewish history. "We dealt with it through excursions."

Haslauer takes her pupils on school trips to concentration camps, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. She says that especially going to Auschwitz is productive, because there "kids see that there was much more than just persecution." In school, they also learn about Jews in other eras of German history, during medieval times and as German soldiers in World War I, she said.

Gradual change

Holocaust Gedenktag


But Haslauer pointed out that it's up to teachers to choose what topics to emphasize, at least in the capital's schools. While she feels she has the freedom to make sure German-Jewish history is taught, she said changes will have to be made when the centralized Abitur, already in effect in nine other states, is introduced in Berlin in 2007. Then, instead of individual teachers deciding what topics their students will be tested on, a central authority will determine the subjects for all final exam-takers.

Haslauer may be in a better position to address the issue of teaching German-Jewish history than her colleagues, since she's already sensitive to the issue herself and has more space to influence what her students learn than in other states.

Juden in Deutschland Schüler Regensburg

At the same time, Heuberger and the LBI commission certainly believe there are glaring discrepancies that still need to be addressed. "Young people have to understand that the Jews were not strangers in Germany, foreigners like some of the minorities that live in Germany today." And he stressed that German Jewry shouldn't only be considered in the past tense, disregarding the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews live here again.

But Heuberger is positive that improvements will be made over time. "The change is gradual, but we were already sent a new school book last week. We are optimistic that the changes will slowly come and that eventually the schools will pay more attention to the Jewish contribution to their society."

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