There is a place in the forest, about an hour away from Berlin, where no birds sing. It’s not a pleasant silence, it’s a heavy and worrying one. That place is the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. That was our end of the year class trip.
During the year, I had taught to two Welcome Classes. One with complete beginners, who didn’t have German upon arriving at school, and another one with older, more advanced kids. This class was a teacher’s dream, as most of them were curious of everything, friendly, open-minded, good natured, eager to learn. I woke up each day with a smile knowing I’d see them. They were a once in a lifetime class.
Parallel to German, every now and then, I would talk to them about German history. At the beginning of the year, all they knew about Germany’s past was “they were nazis”. I couldn’t let them know only that about their new country, so we had many a discussion about Germany. We read the Constitution, I told them where it came from, I told them about the rise and fall of the Wall. I told them about the destruction of entire cities. It came to World War II, and I told them about the Holocaust. The Polish kids already knew a lot about it, being born in a country where most of the death camps were settled. However, I thought I had misheard when one of the Palestinian kids blurted out “I hate Jews, Hitler was great!” after I had mentioned the war. He was saying that as a joke, with a hint of truth behind. He saw that I was surprised and saddened, so he explained: “They stole my country!”. I wondered how much he knew about Hitler. About the War, about Jews’ history pre- and during the war. I also feared I had to start to explain the creation of Israel to Palestinian kids on the spot. No one taught me how to do that. But all eyes were on me, and everyone was waiting for an explanation. For the time being, I thought the most urgent was to explain that human beings, regardless of their race or religion, had been reduced to ashes in an evil and industrial scale. So I used figures, I described the camps, and I explained that not only Jews, but also muslims, gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, young people, old people, from all over the world, experienced those atrocities. “Questions?” I asked. There were plenty. I first turned towards the kid who had proclaimed he hated Jews. “Do you still think Hitler was great?”, I asked. “Of course not…it was a joke…”, he said, rather sheepishly. There are jokes that are just too sad to make, I explained. He raised his hand: “Could you tell us more about the war, about those camps?”. I could, yes, but I worried. Most of the kids I had in front of me had lived through wars. Was it really necessary to bring up those memories? Yet they were asking, and they were old enough to be told. So throughout the year, we talked history, we saw documentaries about the war, about the camps, the Polish kids shared their family history with us, I talked about mine. During the music classes, we sang songs from all over the world, including songs in yiddish. They all complied, and it mustn’t have been easy for all of them. The Palestinian kids understood a tiny bit better why Israel suddenly appeared on their map, one day, after a UN decision.
The schoolyear went by, and as July approached, it was time to plan the end of the year excursions. Those are supposed to be light, enjoyable moments, that end the year on a positive note. I asked the kids what they would like to do. They looked at each other, obviously they had talked about it between themselves. The Palestinian kids who originally sparked the debate came forward: “Could you show us…those camps?”. Again I thought I had misheard. “Do you want to visit a concentration camp?”, I asked. “Yes please!” they replied. I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit one, but they were adamant, save one Syrian kid who asked me whether he could skip the day. So that’s where we went, one cloudy July morning. We arrived at the information desk, and a solemnity settled in, save for one kid who kept on playing Pokemon Go (there’s always one). I couldn’t leave him at the lockers so I confiscated his phone instead and off we went. We walked silently along the barbed wire leading to the entrance of the remaining triangle-shaped camp. As we made our way, it had fittingly started to rain. On the other side of the road, a dozen of police officers were returning to their barracks, still adjacent to the former camp. The kids were oblivious to it, but they were absorbing everything else they were seeing.
After the barbed-wire, we walked the short way through the forest towards the entrance. One of the Polish kids observed that silence had never been creepier. A friend of mine had told me about this unsustainable silence, and while I had experienced it before, it was a whole other experience surrounded by a dozen teenagers. We stopped by some landmarks, where we could hear testimonies of former prisoners, in various languages. Then we made our way towards the gates. The “Arbeit macht frei” door was standing in front of us. You see it in your history books and then you walk under it, and you feel the weight of 6 million deaths. We visited the remaining barracks, saw some prisoner’s beds, bathrooms, then clothes, diaries, drawings, pictures of their former lives. And for those for whom it had still be an abstract concept, suddenly the Holocaust and the horror of World War II became real.
We spent several hours reading testimonies of prisoners, and all were disappointed when it was time to head back to Berlin. If necessary, it brought us even closer as a group, and sealed the friendships born between each kid. I had feared that day for months, feared to impose too much on their young minds, but what I saw happening, beyond the terrible reminder of the horror men are capable of inflicting to fellow human beings, was that those kids were enlightened. In a single day, they absorbed a life lesson they will never forget. Primo Levi said “It happened, and it can happen again in the future”. We owe to the millions of dead to see to it that it never does, and only through education can we avoid such a repetition of horror. In spite of never ending conflicts, in spite of that feeling that men never learn to value life, that day was another proof that education is the most precious gift to convey. Those kids, the same kids that escaped war, and understand now that history sadly repeats its darkest hours sometimes, will never again think that anyone deserve such a fate, regardless of any other motive they might have to dislike who they see as enemies. Hopefully they will convey what they have seen and share it with future generations. Hopefully there will be enough knowledge, at some point, to come out of dark times, again.