Jewish reconciliation scheme for German teens builds lifelong bonds

The charity has been offering Germans educational programmes for 65 years


Growing up in Tübingen in southern Germany, Clara Burger learnt about the Holocaust in school and visited concentration camps, but she came across very few Jewish people.

By contrast, she has just completed 12 months in the UK, working with the Association of Jewish Refugees, where she regularly met and talked in depth with Holocaust survivors and learned about Jewish culture. 

“My experiences over the last months have forced me to confront the sheer devastation the Nazi regime brought to individuals and the responsibility for the past we, as young German people, must face within ourselves,” the 19-year-old told the JC.

Clara was a volunteer on a programme run by Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP). Founded in 1958 by the German Evangelical Church, its one-year programme enables 180 young people to volunteer in Jewish communities, museums and social projects in 14 countries that were occupied by the Nazis during the war, and in Israel. 

One of the highlights was meeting weekly with a 98-year-old refugee, who came to the UK on the Kindertransport. “My encounters with her will always stay with me. I built a connection with her, and I am deeply inspired by her courage and her joy for life,” said Clara.

While education on the Holocaust and the Second World War forms an “essential and broad part of the curriculum” in schools in Germany, Clara said: “It is only when you are in the presence of a survivor and hear their story, often told in my own native German, that it transports the Shoah out of school textbooks and into real life”.

“You realise that this horrific part of history was made up of many stories of personal loss. In many cases, it was a complete violation of the rights of German citizens, who had belonged to German society for centuries and whose descendants might still be living there if it weren’t for the Shoah.” 

A conversation Clara had with AJR member Rolf Penzias when she attended his 100th birthday had a particularly strong impact on her. “He said that you can be asked to forgive, but you can never be asked to forget.” 

“This experience couldn’t have been made possible without the support and patience of the AJR,” Clara said.

Embarking on a degree in history and politics at university in the Black Forest in October, Clara said that she felt “a strong obligation to keep the memories and testimonies of the victims of Nazi persecution alive, both to honour those who perished and to create a world free from antisemitism for future generations.”

Fran Horwich, head of volunteer services at AJR, said that the benefits of their partnership with ARSP was two-way. “The volunteers learn about the lived experience of our members, who have personally suffered Nazi persecution, and our members have the opportunity to interact with vibrant and engaged young people, often speaking in their German mother tongue.”

Fran added that AJR provides ARSP volunteers with “training in the Jewish religion and culture” through regular events and invitations to the homes of AJR staff to experience Shabbat and Jewish festivals.

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