Frances Mechan-Schmidt is moved by the bond the teenagers formed during the exchange
A flurry of snow whirls around a group of teenagers and the cold air rings with the sound of their laughter. A boy flings a snowball and they play for a moment in a wide expanse of snow-covered ground. They could be anywhere, except this is the memorial site at Buchenwald, Nazi Germany's notorious concentration camp, next to Weimar in eastern Germany. The boys are 17-year-old Israeli pupils on a school exchange in the Rhine-Main city of Wiesbaden.
In Buchenwald, a quarter of a million people from 32 countries were imprisoned on religious and racial grounds between 1937 and 1945. Many Jews met their deaths here, as did Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, communists and socialists. It's thought that 56,000 people died before the camp was liberated in April 1945.
The atmosphere has not yet engulfed the Israelis, still fascinated by the wintry surroundings; back home in Kefar Sava, 25 miles north-east of Tel Aviv, the temperature is 20C. "We never see this where we come from," says Nizan Gabay of Galili high school, a colourful figure wearing a kipa and a red Arsenal scarf.
"All the pupils are in good spirits and there's a positive atmosphere," says Heide Mauss, the German teacher from Carl-von-Ossietzky school in Wiesbaden who is in charge of the group of 17 to 18-year-olds. Around 300 exchanges take place each year between German and Israeli schools, more than half of them subsidised by the PAdagogischer Austauschdienst (educational exchange authorities), which promotes links on behalf of the 16 federal states. Others are funded by independent foundations, private enterprise or local authorities in both countries.
The cities of Wiesbaden and Kefar Sava started an exchange programme between Carl-von-Ossietzky school and Galili high in 1990 on the initiative of both mayors. Visits are organised alternately in the cities each year, comprising groups of 20 boys and girls aged 17-18, accompanied by two teachers. Each group spends 10 days with host families and takes part in a programme organised by the host school and city authorities.
Buchenwald is an important feature of the Wiesbaden school exchange programme, which visiting Israelis are experiencing for the first time, in contrast to many German pupils. "I've been to Buchenwald before, I know what to expect," says Fiona Stappmanns. "But I still find it oppressive. It shocks me every time."
As the site tour begins, the guide welcomes everyone in German and Hebrew.
The atmosphere becomes subdued as she outlines conditions in the camp whose purpose was "extermination through labour". The first signs of tension appear as she goes on to describe the medical experiments carried out in the "infirmaries", mainly on Jewish prisoners: infecting them with diseases such as TB, trying new serums on them, and giving them lethal injections if they didn't work. "It's hard to believe people were capable of doing such things," says Matti Kuehn, a German pupil, struggling with his feelings.
Mixed groups of pupils stand close, stricken and silent, when they tour the "Bunker", where prisoners spent their final hours. Several prison cells bear commemorative plaques written in German. There is a lot of murmuring as the Germans translate into English for the Israelis.
Idan Limony is overwhelmed by it all. "Camps are a big theme in Israel and present all the time on television and in the press," he says. His grandparents perished under the Nazis in wartime Poland, but he still thinks it's important to strengthen bonds between modern-day Germany and Israel. Dominik Hempel, 17, thinks so too, though being half German and half Israeli his feelings are mixed. "I feel torn in two," says the 17-year-old who spent 10 years in Berlin before emigrating to Israel. "I just don't know where I belong." He is sitting contemplating a scale model of the camp grounds while the guide explains about the prison hierarchy and the deliberate strategy to divide prisoners and keep up prejudices. The Jews, she explains, were always last in line for everything, despised by other prisoners as well as the Nazis themselves.
The group moves on to the crematorium. There is total silence. Teachers, pupils and guides simply gaze at the machinery. Some boys and girls start to cry and hug each other. A huge picture on the wall depicts piles of emaciated bodies photographed by US soldiers at the camp's liberation.
"It's terrifying to see a life-size picture in the place where it happened and not to be able to get away from it," says Robert Havemann, a German pupil. "Normally you look at a picture and walk on. Here, that's not possible."
Walking sombrely through the camp grounds, full of memorials commemorating those who died, the teenagers stop at a large metal plaque inserted in the ground. It bears the names of 50 nations in memory of all camp inmates.
Hands reach out to touch the middle section, which is kept at a constant 37C, in tribute to the temperature of the living body.
"It's good both sets of pupils got to know each other and spend time together before this," says Diana Finzl, the Israeli teacher. "It drew them close and fortified them for the Buchenwald ordeal." One reason the groups work well, she feels, is because they're carefully prepared beforehand. The Israelis, for instance, must have good English, social aptitude and a general curiosity about Germany.
As a final gesture to the dead, the pupils light candles and lay wreaths; there are poems, songs and recitals in English, German and Hebrew. An icy wind cuts across the grounds and the pupils, emotionally and physically exhausted, cling to each other and stand in silence. After a while they turn to go, arms wrapped around each other, and head for the waiting bus.
That night in the youth hostel, feelings run high during discussions about the camp visit. "The atmosphere was very tense," says Heide Mauss. Both Israelis and Germans want to show how anxious they are to support and be reconciled with each other after this difficult experience. Their common fear is that something like Buchenwald could happen again.
Helmut Nehrbass, programme co-ordinator of Carl-von-Ossietzky school, Wiesbaden, can be contacted at email@example.com