The Holocaust is a mandatory part of German's education curriculum. But the quality and scope of the lessons are left up to the states, each of which have jurisdiction over their education curriculum. Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Ynet spoke with four German high school students about Holocaust commemoration and confronting the past in their country's educational system.
The students admitted that unfortunately they never met a Holocaust survivor, but during their studies, they visited German concentration camps with their school.
"The first time we spoke about the Holocaust was in eighth grade," says Anneke Frommen, a high school student in Dusseldorf. "we discussed it in history class as well as in bilingual lessons." She said that they learnt all about the Second World War but didn’t focus ion any particular event.
"No Holocaust survivor ever visited our school, but we visited concentration camps where we held workshops. I am quite satisfied with how the subject of the Holocaust is handled in German schools because I believe that it is a matter that is constantly present and is very important."
Anna Laura, also from Dusseldorf said that her class read Anne Frank's Diary and focused on the atrocities committed during the war. "We discussed the subject all year long," she said. "I think that the school is doing good work by teaching the youth about the matter and by not ignoring the horrors (that were committed)."
Fynn Bothe, a high school student in Hanover, noted that he was exposed to the subject in ninth or tenth grade and that they learnt about the war and Auschwitz. "I am satisfied with how the school teaches the subject because we learn what the Nazis committed. They were responsible for one for the most horrific crimes in the history of Germany."
Aaron Täger, a student in Barsinghausen (Lower Saxony), also said that Holocaust studies were taught in grade nine or ten and that he is ambivalent regarding the way it was taught. "It is good that we are familiar with the subject matter, but it is unfortunate that we could not meet with a Holocaust survivor." He said that it would have given the students a better understanding of what occurred and of the Jews' suffering.
A 2017 survey of German students found that 40% of students aged 17 and older had never heard of the Auschwitz death camp. Recently, Yad Vashem signed an agreement with the 16 German states in order to improve the state of Holocaust studies in the country and train teachers.
"Some teachers prepare lessons for younger students, but most study the subject in depth in high school," said Rachel Kaplan, director of the European Division at Yad Vashem's International School of Holocaust Studies. "In the last two decades, Germany has a lot of diversity among students, many were not born in Germany, or their parents weren’t born in Germany.
"Some teachers, as with any subject, want to focus on the facts and we try to help them to teach through the prism of who used to live here, not just in Europe but in all of Europe; or to focus on who were these people, because most students never met a Jew," she continued. "We want to encourage the teachers to recognize the heritage and history of the Jews in Germany. For that reason, oftentimes the curriculum begins from 1933 and examines the Jewish contribution to German society."
She said that she feels that German schools do a good job of dealing with the past, albeit regarding German civilian cooperation with the Nazis, less so. "Sometimes they fail to understand that the story isn’t only about Hitler the murderer, but also about the collaboration of Germans during the Holocaust. Educated people who were involved in the plan and its implementation. Police, who were supposed to protect people but transformed into killers.
"Hitler did not shoot six million people by himself and we see a lot of ignorance in this matter," she continued. "The expulsions by train did not occur at 3am outside of the city. Many people witnessed these events and the street where it happened still stands today. Therefore, local initiatives to commemorate this are very important. It is also important to connect the students with the places where they live. Sometimes they live in neighborhoods that in the past were populated by other people who didn’t simply disappear."
She noted the local initiatives, such as cleaning Jewish cemeteries by German students, in locations where there are no longer any Jewish communities.
Holocaust researcher and teacher at the Kibbutz Seminar Dr. Nili Keren said: "All of the large concentration camps have become centers of study and education. The subject is taught but it depends on the curriculum and the state and there are all sorts of disagreements regarding how much to teach."
Students are taught that in addition to Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs and Poles were killed and this sometimes raises the ire of the Jewish community. But the Germans owe it to the other victims as well. "The past is recognized, but there is also a feeling that the younger generation should not have to bear responsibility for the sins of previous generations."
Germany's absorption of immigrant refugees has raised the issue of xenophobia with regards to the past in the education system says Dr. Keren. Some focus more on that on the Holocaust she says. "I believe that the second generation to the Holocaust, those of the 1960's, identified more with the guilt and today, it is taken for granted that the Holocaust is part of German history."