'Now I can see what the Shoah really was'

Young Germans volunteer in Israel, with an eye to the past.

Holocaust generic (photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
Holocaust generic
(photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
They can be found all across Israel, in schools for handicapped children, senior citizens' homes or shelters for abused women. Every year, 600 to 1,000 German volunteers arrive seeking ways to bridge the history of Nazi Germany with the future. The German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung cannot be translated simply into any other language, but its essence leads many German youth to Israel. It describes a process of coming to terms with the past. This process encompasses the confrontation of the past and poses the question of how to move forward. Some recent high school graduates arrive via the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a German organization that mobilizes volunteers in countries affected by World War II. The group was established in 1958 by the Evangelical Church in Germany, to atone for the past and to encourage younger generations to stand up to racism. In Israel, the service accepts approximately 30 volunteers a year. The youngsters are asked to research their own family history during the war before they arrive. Once in Israel, their day is divided between social projects and meeting Holocaust survivors in their homes. The nights are often spent processing the events of the day. "It's 24 hours Shoah," says Alexandra, a 19-year-old from Hamburg who volunteers at Yad Vashem. "But, for the first time I can see what the Shoah really was." Some hope to come to terms with their nation's history by humanizing masses of Jewish victims. "In Germany, we analyze the history, but not at a human level," Alexandra says. Meetings with Holocaust survivors enable the volunteers to engage not only with witnesses of Nazi atrocity, but with Israelis as well. "I meet with them [the volunteers] not as a victim. I meet them as a proud Israeli and a proud Jew," says Ester, an 84-year-old who grew up in Germany, fled to an orphanage in England, and made aliya in 1948. She meets with Alexandra once a week in her apartment in the capital's Rehavia neighborhood. "I open a window into contemporary Israel for them." The volunteers assist survivors in whatever they require or simply chat with them. "The Germans are more open to listening about the Holocaust then Israelis. Here too much is going on, the wars, the intifada - there is only so much room in the heart for pain," Ester says. Exploring the volatile reality in Israel is another reason young Germans come. "Everybody knows Israel. It's an adventure," says 26-year-old Markus. "Because of the special relationship between Germany and Israel, people want to take a closer look." Despite the desire of the organization to distance itself from politics, it is difficult to avoid. "Some of them come because of the [Arab-Israeli] conflict," Ester says. "The image of Israel in Europe is generally negative. They want to see for themselves." Others do not aspire to such objectivity. "My main motivation is to support Israel," says Stefan, 19. Regardless of personal politics, the volunteers' experience in Israel alters whatever view they had of Israel from the safe distance of Germany. The mission of atonement implied in the work is much more complex than analyzing Israeli reality. The moral stains embedded in the fiber of Germany run deep in the psychology of the volunteers. The magnitude of horror compiled with the silence of most Germans created a vacuum of responsibility. The young Germans do not hesitate to carry the burden of responsibility. "Some people in Germany think we can move on, but the Shoah was such a crime, we cannot. We have to continue dealing with it," Stefan says. "Guilt" is a word often mentioned by those who choose to contribute their time in Israel. "It's hard not to feel guilt when you stand before Israelis," says Alexandra. The guilt accompanies the Germans in the beginning, but dissipates as they discover the relative normalcy of Israel. "I was surprised that people were so open to me and not anti-German," says Niels, a 19-year-old from Berlin. Volunteering in Israel has been a station in a 60-year journey to redefine German identity following WWII. The guilt and responsibility has made it impossible for many Germans to find pride in their country. "The German nation itself is not important. We don't need an identity," Stefan says. A revival of German patriotism ignited by the 2006 Soccer World Cup hosted by the federal republic was also met with caution. "I am against the flag-waving, because of history. We have to be careful with nationalism," says Alexandra. The exorcising of demons from the past is an unfolding, possibly futile, exercise. The Holocaust lurks as a warning sign for those wishing to revitalize contemporary German identity. "The process of identity is ongoing because of history. The Shoah was only 60 years ago," says Katharina von Muenster, the Reconciliation Service for Peace's executive director. The process of coming to terms with the past does not end in Israel. "My work will continue in Germany. I want to show the human side of Jews. I can give their names, not just numbers," Alexandra says. The volunteers are dedicated to speaking out against racism and anti-Semitism once they go back home. "They need to be active against racism," says von Muenster. To never be silent again.