by Abby Alfred, ICCI intern
Last week, ICCI hosted a group of young adults from Germany who joined us for an intensive 5-day dialogue program with a group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims from Israel, entitled “Present Memories“. The program included discussions, joint learning, tours, and action, organized by ICCI in collaboration with German organization Evangelisches Jugend.
On their third day together, the group members visited Yad Vashem. Visiting a Holocaust remembrance site was not a new experience for anyone — most of the Israelis and Palestinians had visited Yad Vashem several times before and the majority of Germans had visited Aushwitz and other concentration camps in Europe. But this was the first time these individuals explored this history together, German with Jew with Christian with Muslim.
The guide began this tour by presenting the two themes on which we should focus. He wanted us first to think about the dilemmas of the different groups involved at the time of the Holocaust, and next, how the construction of memory of the events shapes current day Israel.
As we entered the museum, we were first confronted with images of pre-Holocaust communities in Germany, where Jews were integrated in society and everything appeared normal and content. Our guide explained that, “in order to understand what happened, we have to understand what was destroyed.” We continued through the halls of the museum, watching the systematic dehumanization of the Jewish community in Germany through the use of children’s games, propaganda posters, ad campaigns, etc. One of the German group leaders later noted to me his shock at seeing a popular board game in which children “deported Jews”; he played a very similar game as a child, only he wasn’t deporting Jews, he was getting rid of bad guys. He saw here how his cultural artifacts were manipulated to alter the world views of children just like him.
Our guide shared stories of individuals in various circumstances and challenged us to think about the choices they had in their respective situations. In one photo we looked at, did the soldier have to shoot the woman? Did the Kapo have to turn on other Jews to save himself? In presenting these different dilemmas, our guide noted the complexities of the Holocaust, the different roles people played, and the decisions they made, and warned of the dangers of societal manipulation and dehumanization of groups of people. As we neared the end of the museum, he presented to us the righteous among the nations. It is important for Yad Vashem to track down these people, he told us, because they remind us that–despite the dangers involved–there was another choice.
Leaving the museum, the group took some time to reflect on their thoughts and feelings having gone through the place together. One Israeli woman, referring to a trip the day before to a Palestinian village destroyed in 1967, reflected to her German peers: “I was wondering if you felt today the way I did yesterday.” A German young man confessed that as he walked through he felt “ashamed, but not guilty, of what [his] country did to these people”; that he cannot take on the guilt given this was generations before him, but he still feels the pain of what happened in his country. The group session ended with a Palestinian man’s thoughts that “we need to not just feel our pain, but everyone’s pain.”
Abby Alfred is interning with ICCI’s Communications and Development department and also helping at educational organization in East Jerusalem for the duration of her current stay in Israel. Abby is a graduate of Barnard College of Columbia University, NY, where she studied Psychology, and additionally holds a M.A. degree in Social Work from Boston College, MA. She has extensive background working in education and health settings, and has also served as a staff member on the Seeds of Peace International Camp for three years.