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German Grandson to Jews

Interview: Diana FongApril 30, 2008

The Action Reconciliation Service for Peace -- a grassroots volunteer group that promotes understanding between Germany and Israel -- is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Wednesday.

young German with elderly Jewish survivor of Holocaust
Young Germans become "professional grandsons" to elderly Jewish survivorsImage: Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste

The Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ASF) was founded by the synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany in 1958 in response to Nazi atrocities during World War II. Since 1961, Action Reconciliation has sent thousands of young Germans to Israel to volunteer in nursing homes, youth centers, hospitals and memorial sites. The grassroots work of this social action group became the basis of a political rapprochement between Germany and Israel, when diplomatic relations were established in 1965. Today, Germany is among Israel's most important allies and trading partners in Europe.

DW-WORLD.DE spoke to Philipp Pohlmann, 25, who spent a year volunteering in Israel. Today, he is a regional spokesman for the group in the Cologne area.

DW-WORLD.DE: How did you wind up joining ASF?

Philipp Pohlmann: In Germany, young men are conscripted into military service after they graduate from high school, generally between the ages of 16-20, but most get out of it nowadays. Some are disqualified because of a minor physical disability, but those who get a clean bill of health, like I did, can opt to do community service instead. The third possibility is to fulfill the civil service requirement abroad, which is what I chose to do.

Why did you specifically choose ASF?

Their focus on Germany's historic responsibility to Jews living in Israel and all over the world appealed to me. I wanted personally to meet the last survivors of Auschwitz or other camps. It is one thing to learn about the Nazi period through textbooks, which is an obligatory part of the German school curriculum, but it's another to learn about the past in a personal way.

So the way the Nazi period is taught in schools is too cut and dry?

Anne Frank diary with black & white portrait of Anne
Anne Frank's diary is often not part of the school curriculum.Image: APTN

Yes. Everyone learns about the facts -- that 6 million European Jews perished in the Holocaust, for example. We know the names of all the death camps-- Auschwitz, Treblinka --it's all very impersonal. We didn't even read the "Diary of Anne Frank" in school. I read it on my own.

The Nazi period is such an important and compelling part of the history of this country, but many teachers never inspire the pupils or stimulate real interest in the subject. There are many Germans and Jews who are still alive to talk personally about this period. Why don't teachers simply invite survivors to speak about their experiences in class?

Perhaps teachers are still grappling with how to teach the subject. Is there perhaps a sense of collective guilt or discomfort in dealing with this period?

One thing is clear: Anyone who was too young during the war or born after the war cannot be guilty of anything, but still, it is very important to know about the history of one's own country and, with that awareness, to ensure that the genocide does not happen again in the future. We, young Germans, have a responsibility to learn from our past.

Have you talked about the Nationalist Socialist period with your own grandparents?

Not really. By the time my interest in this subject was awakened, they were too old or dead. My paternal grandfather is almost 100 years old now. He was a clockmaker from Silesia [part of the German Reich that became part of Poland after the war]. As a soldier on the eastern front, he was captured by the Russians in 1941 and held prisoner of war until 1949. My grandparents had no Nazi sympathies, as far as I know, and I have never heard them utter one bad word about the Jews.

What did you do as a volunteer for ASF in Tel Aviv?

Philipp Pohlmann (third from left) receiving a cheque from pastor in group of six people
A church official in Cologne hands over a cheque to ASF's Philipp Pohlmann (3rd from right)Image: Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste

As part of the program, I spent one year at a home for the elderly, helping them run daily errands or visit doctors. We talked a lot and played gin rummy. They even gave me Hebrew lessons, so I've gotten to the point that I am conversationally fluent now.

How did these elderly Israelis, some of whom were Holocaust survivors, react to you as a German?

This project has been ongoing in Israel for decades, so they are used to German volunteers. Many of the elderly happen to be German Jews, who often revert back to their mother tongue as they get older, so they were delighted to speak German with me. They were also very interested in what's happening in Germany. Some residents even subscribed to a local weekly paper in the German language. Jacob Bar-Or, a Frankfurt native in his 80s, who was one of the prosecutors in the Adolf Eichmann case, even kept abreast of news in Germany by reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on a regular basis.

I never encountered any hostility in Israel. The survivors themselves have no problem with me being German. They know that I'm in my 20s and had nothing to do with the Holocaust. If anyone had a problem, and this was rare, it was younger people, the grandchildren of Holocaust victims, who perhaps never got to know their forebears.

Israel's President Shimon Peres, left, welcomes Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel with a kiss for talks at his residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 18, 2008.
Germany is Israel's best friend in Europe. Israel's Peres with Germany's Merkel (right)Image: AP

Can relations between German and Israel ever be fully normal?

No, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Because of the Holocaust, the relationship will always be a special one.

The Holocaust made claims to a Jewish state a moral necessity, but does that mean that the Germans cannot be critical of Israel?

For Germany, there can be no doubt about Israel's right to exist, but that does not mean we cannot be critical of Israeli policy, in particular when political leaders meet behind closed doors. Still, Germany needs to tread carefully with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Was the Arab-Israeli conflict a part of your daily life in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?

No, even though I was there during two major suicide attacks in Tel Aviv in 2002 and 2003. This needs to be kept in perspective, though. Israel is not the most dangerous place in the world, and most tourists would not even be aware of the presence of suicide bombers. I'm more afraid of driving at high speed on the German autobahns than living in Israel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, pauses after laying a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance
Merkel laid a wreath during a March visit to the Yad Vashem MemorialImage: AP

Suicide bombers won't deter young Germans from volunteering for ASF, but what about scrapping military conscription and the civil alternative, which has been up for discussion for years now in Germany?

It's not a problem. Only one third of those who apply, get accepted into one of our programs abroad, simply because the funding is not there to provide more than 180 placements a year. Volunteers are mainly young people, but we've got a sprinkling of older Germans, too. Also, more than half of the volunteers are women, who don't get drafted into military service anyway. Even among the young men, there are volunteers who are not necessarily doing this to fulfill their civic duty.

I did this to avoid the Bundeswehr and to fulfill my civic requirement, but as I see it now, I wound up gaining a year, not losing one on my career path as a lawyer. Whenever I go on interviews for jobs or internships, my year at ASF has been a huge advantage for me. Every recruiter has asked me about the time I spent in Israel.