The conscience corps

13th December 1996 at 00:00
The Holocaust is no longer a taboo subject in Germany. But some young Germans believe that talking to each other about Hitler's Final Solution is not enough. So they've come to Britain to talk to, and work with, the survivors. Jonathan Croall finds out why.

Hans-Peter Killguss is 20 - the age when he might be doing military service in his native Germany. Instead he is working with elderly Jews in Hampstead, north London, doing service of a different kind.

The Otto Schiff Housing Association was founded in 1933 to provide a haven for German and Austrian refugees fleeing Nazism. Some of them still live in the association's residential home for the elderly where Hans-Peter is a volunteer, part of a team providing occupational and physiotherapy. Some of his clients refuse to speak German on principle, yet most have been welcoming to the young man from Stuttgart who wants to talk and listen to their stories about the Holocaust.

"It's terrible to be told that a resident's family was killed in a concentration camp; it makes me feel so helpless and ashamed," he says. "Even if it was not my personal responsibility, it was still that of my people. It's very difficult to cope with the past."

Hans-Peter is one of a dozen young Germans aged 18-27 with a very special reason for being in Britain. Working as volunteers with people in need in community centres, homeless and family projects, old people's homes, and Jewish organisations, they are trying to atone for the sins of their grandparents' generation.

They are in Britain under the banner of Action for ReconciliationServices for Peace (ARSP), founded in 1958 by the Protestant churches in Germany. It has been sending volunteers to the UK since 1961, when a group came to help in the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombs during the second world war.

"These young people come from a generation relatively free of personal feelings of guilt," says ARSP's coordinator in Britain, Hardy Kluge, who at the age of 18 discovered his parents had been committed Nazis. "They are more open, more tolerant and less loaded with prejudice, and have the opportunity to build bridges with people."

Hans-Peter had already worked in an old people's home in Germany, and had found it rewarding. "Of course they accept that I can't be blamed personally, although one old man living in the past said: 'Get out of the way, you old Nazi.' But for most of them it's not important that I'm from Germany; they just want someone to talk to, and to have the feeling of being loved and accepted. "

Ina Kaiser is another volunteer at the home, working with residents suffering from Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Aged 21, she comes from a village in the west of Germany, and is convinced her generation should carry some of the burden of its country's terrible past, in order to prevent anything like it happening again.

"A lot of young people in Germany think we should forget the Holocaust, or not take responsibility for it," she says. "But people in other countries often read about Germans who desecrate Jewish cemetries, or burn down immigrants' homes. We want to show that most young Germans are not like that."

She's found the Jewish residents very appreciative of the work she does. "They realise that we are not personally guilty for the Holocaust, and I think my being here changes the way of thinking of some of the people I talk with. Our generation has to give a sign that we care and want to change things."

Similar motives have propelled Dirk Hagen, a volunteer at the Jewish Museum in Finchley, where he helps with administration and stewarding the galleries. Living in the Sternberg Centre for Judaism, in which the museum is based, he's had the opportunity to mix with Jews of all ages.

"A lot of older people in Germany try to ignore the Holocaust," he says. "I came here because I felt I had to do something, I wanted to open up a dialogue with people. Some of them here still fear the Germans, although I don't think they have to now. But it takes time to trust again, and I hope I can help them to do that."

Since ARSP was foun-ded, around l0,000 young volunteers have undertaken this type of work in countries that were occupied or attacked by Nazi Germany. This year's batch of 150 is spread around Belgium, France, Israel, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and the CIS, as well as the UK.

Many, including Dirk Hagen and Hans-Peter Kilguss, have opted to help disadvantaged groups or work with Jewish organisations as an alternative to military service, even though this may involve an extra eight months' commitment.

"It makes more sense to help people like this than to learn how to use weapons," Hans-Peter Kilguss says. "Anyway, I didn't want to lose my individuality in the army." The tradition of conscientious objection remains strong in Germany: last year 160,000, almost a quarter of the males eligible for military service, chose to do voluntary service instead.

The volunteers are mostly sons and daughters of teachers, priests, scientists and other professionals who revolted in the 1960s against the refusal of their parents to discuss the Holocaust.

Today the climate in Germany is very different. All the volunteers were taught about the Holocaust at school, and all have visited at least one former concentration camp - either with their parents, with their schools, or as part of the ARSP training they underwent before coming to the UK, Some have been to several camps, but still find it hard to grasp the enormity of what went on there. "At first I didn't feel anything, and that really shocked me," says Ina Kaiser, who has been to Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. "Later, when I thought about it more calmly, I realised it was just too big to understand. "

Judith Herfurth, who comes from Leipzig in the former East Germany, has also visited Buchenwald. "I was shocked and really moved, I couldn't understand how people could do things like that," she says. Even now she sometimes pretends that she's Swedish or Dutch when she's travelling.

Currently she is a play worker at the Log Cabin, an adventure playground in Ealing for children with special needs. Working there for more than a year has given her a particular interest in autistic children - a group whom the Nazis deemed unwertes leben: not fit to live. She now plans to train as a special-needs teacher.

"I just can't understand how the Nazis could label people like that," she says. "I know it's hard to bring up such children, but they have just as much right to live and be happy as anyone else. They may be different from others, but they still realise what is going on around them."

She and other ARSP volunteers, most of whom are based in London or the Midlands, have been pleasantly surprised at the friendly welcome they've received in England - although several felt uneasy during this summer's Euro 96 football tournament, when crude anti-German headlines were splashed across some tabloid newspapers. They've found it easy to make friends, both at work and outside, despite finding people more formal than in Germany. But they've also noticed other differences between the two countries - in 1evels of poverty, attitudes to the environment, and feelings about Europe.

"People have less money here, so their lifestyle is different; they spend more time in the pub getting rid of their frustrations," says Theo Rohle, who works in London. Henrike Werkentin, a student teacher from Berlin, agrees: "In Coventry the people seem poorer, there seem to be a lot of young mothers, and the buildings are so depressing," she says. Some volunteers feel there is less concern for the environment here than in their native country; recycling and buying environmentally-friendly products is taken more seriously in Germany.

They have also noticed more hostility to the European Union among young people in the UK. "The idea of Europe seems more popular among German young people than the British," Ina Kaiser says.

Such observations apart, the young volunteers bel-ieve their work is helping to break down stereotypes and prejudices in individuals. Judith Herfurth observes: "The staff here had never met a German before the first volunteer came. Now they realise that we are not that bad after all."

Similarly, they themselves have been affected by their stay in England. "I think I have become more sensitive to issues to do with the Third Reich, but also more aware of Jewish life and culture," Hans-Peter Kilguss says. "In Germany we missed out on that."

Ina Kaiser says: "In a small way I have made a step forward."

Hardy Kluge is confident that the project is having a cumulatively positive effect on attitudes to German people. "It's very small scale, but it does improve human relationships and mutual understanding," he says. Next year the scheme will expand to allow young British volunteers to work in Germany, in some cases on memorial sites.

Further information from Action ReconciliationServices for Peace, 7 Priory Row, Coventry CVl 5ES, Tel 01203 222 487

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today