Germany Close Up
Enlarge image Guided tour of the old Jewish quarter in central Berlin (© Foreign Office) Charlotte is 22 and spending nine days in Berlin with a group of Jewish American students and young professionals. "I felt it was important to look into the Holocaust during my first visit to Germany, and not just to visit castles and other pretty things around the country," she told us.
The young people are here as part of the Germany Close Up program which, since its inception in 2007, has brought more than 700 Jewish American students to Berlin and other Germany cities in order to gain their own perspective on German history and on Germany as it is today. In their Jewish communities and families in America there are still some who hold serious reservations about Germany. Nevertheless, the participants chose to come here. In Berlin they are becoming personally acquainted with Germany's past and present: "Because I'm learning something about Germany's past, my family backed my visit," said Charlotte.
A modern take on Germany
The trips are organized by Germany Close Up, which is administered by the Foundation New Synagogue Berlin - Centrum Judaicum (Stiftung Neue Synagoge – Centrum Judaicum). The German Government helps fund the project through its Transatlantic Program. The Federal Foreign Office's embassy and consulates in the United States also assist in the organization of the trips.
According to Dr. Dagmar Pruin, the director of Germany Close Up, there is a definite need to encourage people to learn about Germany in all its facets: "Knowledge of Germany is mainly limited to the period of the Shoah, and people's view of present-day Germany is very much influenced by its past."
With this in mind, we asked participants about the reactions they had met with when telling people of their travel plans. "Some people back home thought it was great that I was going to Germany," we were told by Chanelle from Los Angeles. "Others were dismissive, and their shocked reaction was, 'Oh, Germany.'"
German can sound gentle
This is the first visit ever to Germany for most of the participants. Ari from Philadelphia told us how nervous he was at first, hearing German spoken around him all the time. He spoke of an inner conflict. He knows that almost 70 years have passed since the Holocaust, but it’s "still the same language." Chanelle was surprised how gentle German could sound. The only German she had previously heard had been spoken by Nazi officers in films. "That was always like yelling," she said.
The Germany Close Up schedule is arranged so that the group examines Germany's past, then its present, and then its future. On the first day Dr. Pruin took the group of Americans on a tour of Jewish life in central Berlin, encouraging them to question the origin of any open spaces. One of the places they visited was the site of the Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Gestapo in 1943. A visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp provided the main opportunity for participants to come face to face with Germany's Nazi past. According to Dr. Pruin, this is a difficult but essential part of the program organized by Germany Close Up.
"Visualizing the stories"
The visit to Sachsenhausen was a very moving, personal experience for some of the participants. "When I stood at the gate to the concentration camp, I could suddenly visualize all the stories my grandmother had told," said 20-year-old Jeremy. "She, too, once stood before these gates." His grandmother was deported by the Nazis to Sachsenhausen during the Second World War, but survived the camp. Seeing the place that he had heard so much about made a deep impression on Jeremy.
Enlarge image At the Federal Foreign Office (© Foreign Office) The participants' introduction to Germany also covers current political issues. Discussions with members of the German Bundestag and at the Federal Foreign Office are thus also on the schedule, as are meetings with Germans their age.
Jeremy and his fellow Americans had the chance to see what motivates their German counterparts over a meal with German students in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg. Ari found this encounter particularly valuable: "I am impressed by how the Germans face up to their past with all their memorials and museums. But meeting young Germans was particularly important, because only then could we find out what the people really think."
While the participants are spending their last few days in the capital, Dagmar Pruin and her team are already working on the program for the next group. They normally work together with partners, such as this summer the American Jewish Committee. Three more groups are expected in this particular year, and so the preparations are intensive. They, too, should have the opportunity to experience Germany close up.
Source: Federal Foreign Office