View from here - A long, sad journey into history

9th July 2010 at 01:00
A travelling exhibition is just one of the ways German schools help children understand the Holocaust. Frances Mechan-Schmidt reports

Few trains take more than two years to reach their destinations. But the Zug der Erinnerung - or Remembrance Train - has now completed a journey across Germany and Poland, started in November 2007, having been visited by hundreds of children.

The train was a mobile exhibition commemorating the deportation of several hundred thousand children to Nazi concentration camps using German trains. The non-profit organisation behind the exhibition focused on children in order to make it easier for the younger generation to identify with the victims of the Shoah.

Schoolchildren have visited the exhibition to gaze at the photos, maps and other information charting the plight of those wrenched from their homes and herded into the trains which so often took them to their deaths.

The horrendous logistical aspect is also covered: the railway employees who prepared the trains, the accounting experts who calculated the costs as well as, of course, the SS men who, together with the Reichsverkehrsministerium (Reich Transport Ministry) and the Deutsche Reichsbahn (national rail company), were responsible for the deportation of more than a million children from all over Europe to death camps in Germany and Poland.

School classes have paid tribute to them by researching the fate of children deported from their own towns and cities and contributing the information to the exhibition.

Such initiatives reflect a growing interest within German schools in keeping the spirit of reconciliation alive. The Padagogischer Austauschdienst (educational exchange authority) oversees roughly 140 registered links under the aegis of the federal government. Some regional states are also active, such as the Bayerischer Jugendring, which promotes exchange programmes subsidised by the Bavarian education authorities, including around 20 links with schools across Israel, including Arab schools.

Other schools set up their own exchange, including the one between Carl von Ossietzky school in Hesse (named after the Nobel Peace Prize-winning German journalist, who died in 1938 after imprisonment in Esterwegen concentration camp for openly criticising the Nazi regime) and the Galili High School in Kfar Saba in Israel.

Originally set up by mayors of these twinned towns, the exchange is now into its 20th year and still going strong, says headteacher Helmut Nehrba, despite some periods when the conflict between Arabs and Jews made travelling dangerous.

The Remembrance Train was meant to end its journey in Oswiecim in Poland, the location of Auschwitz, on May 8, 2008 - the anniversary of the end of the Second World War fighting in Europe. But following the overwhelming response to the exhibition, reflected in the 390,000 visitors to date, the train started rolling again in March last year, travelling the length and breadth of Germany. It ended its journey in Berlin a few weeks ago.

Now stationary, it continues to attract throngs of visitors, including many schoolchildren, bringing flowers in remembrance of their dead counterparts.

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