Meeting ‘the Other’ Through Your Own History

Yonathan Bar-On is a historian (specializations: French Jewry, anti-Semitism, and migrants in Europe) and an English teacher at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa. He emigrated to Israel from the Netherlands in 1995. At his school, which takes part in and is responsible for a wide range of international and multicultural activities, Yonathan has joined or initiated various projects that involve cooperation with German or Palestinian colleagues and students.

Four years ago, when I was still a very new teacher, I attended the Centropa Summer Academy in Berlin. Centropa is a Vienna-based NGO working to preserve the oral and visual history of elderly Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, from Greece and Turkey to Estonia. Led by Edward Serotta, a journalist and filmmaker, Centropa staff members and volunteers collect people’s life stories and their family pictures. All this material is made available online, and forms the basis of a broad educational program, and of an ever-expanding series of videos, exhibitions, and publications. Every year Centropa, which is funded by a variety of private and government supporters, brings together a large group of teachers from Europe, the United States and Israel to share ideas and come up with projects for their respective classes. The organization encourages what it calls border jumping: working on a project with one or more parallel classes abroad, and sharing the results.

The seminar in Berlin was an eye-opening event for me. Ever since that summer, I have used Centropa material in my classes. As I am first a historian and only then an English teacher, I have most of my classes work on at least one history-based project a year. Two of those projects I will describe here: “We, Ourselves & Human Rights”, and the Kindertransport mini-project.

The Kindertransport – What does it mean to be a refugee?

In this mini-project (it can be done in 3–6 lessons, depending on how much class time you want to spend on it), my students become familiar with a part of the history of the Holocaust that many of them did not know much – if anything – about before.  The Kindertransport is the story of approximately 10,000 Jewish children and teenagers from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland whose parents sent them between November 1938 and September 1939 to safety in foster homes and families in Great Britain. Most of my students are Jewish. For them it is relatively easy to identify with Jewish youngsters who had to flee for their lives eighty years ago. But then I ask them about the problems these children faced: being on your own, without your loved ones; having to build a new life from scratch; learning a new language; finding new friends, and so on. And suddenly but slowly they realize what we are talking about: refugees. The students begin to understand that many of today’s refugees are facing problems that are similar to the issues that those Jewish kids had to deal with in the 1930s. We discuss those problems, and how we could help friends and peers that find themselves in such a situation, we talk about immigrants and refugees, differences and similarities between them, reasons why people would immigrate, and so on.

Kindertransport Libi
Drawing by Libi Liubovich

In addition to at least two Centropa videos in which the Kindertransport plays a role, I use poems, e.g. ‘We Refugees’ by Benjamin Zephaniah (who many students mistakenly assume to be Jewish) and ‘Exodus’ by Lotte Kramer, herself a Kindertransport child, and relevant articles, including an ‘authorless’ piece which I wrote myself in 2007. In that article for the Jerusalem Report, through the life stories of Nobel Prize winners, I point at the link between a country’s openness and hospitality on the one hand, and its prosperity and economic success on the other. As a final, creative assignment, I tell the students to express what they felt during the lessons, what they have learnt, what they see as the project’s message, etc. They can use whatever medium they choose. Most go for drawings or creative writing (e.g. haikus or other poems), but some students have chosen dance, video art, Photoshop, or music to express themselves. I have added two drawings as illustration.

Two years ago, Ruth Ash (my school’s librarian, and a history teacher) and Ruthie Almog (an English teacher and professional translator) initiated a translation project based on the book I Came Alone: The Stories of the Kindertransport. Students translated portions of the book, did research on the stories that they had translated, and met some of the former Kindertransport children. The translations, plus additional information and links related to the Kindertransport, can be found online at http://icamealone.leobaeck.net/home. For this project, and for a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony that was partly based on Kindertransport stories, the Leo Baeck high school received the 2015–2016 Yad Vashem Prize for Educational Programs in Holocaust Education.

Kindertransport - Timur Guralnik
Drawing by Timur Guralnik

Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Human Rights

The human rights project is the final project for the oral exam that my students have to take in 12th grade. The introduction I do frontally in class, but most of the actual work on the project is done in groups of up to three students, both in class and at home. I start the project by telling the students – using two Centropa videos, El Otro Camino and Survival in Sarajevo – about how in the 1990s the Jews of Sarajevo chose to help Jews, Muslims, Croatian Catholics, Serbian Orthodox, in short everybody in their city, survive the city’s siege by Serbian forces. After the Jews had suffered from religious intolerance and persecution (from the 1492 expulsion of their forefathers from Spain until the Holocaust), they decided to choose ‘a different road’. Referring to this story, my students and I talk about the ‘Jewish connection’ to human rights (including the coming about of the UDHR, three years after the Shoah, and the fact that one of its main authors was René Cassin, president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle) and about how human rights are important for all of us, but for minorities in particular. Their project consists of a paper on one or two human rights that they choose, plus an NGO or an individual that (has) worked to promote that/those specific right(s). The students then have to present their paper in class, as a group, and, individually, in front of a teacher from another school. So far, I have received papers on, for example, the Jerusalem YMCA, Aletta Jacobs (a Dutch-Jewish physician and women’s rights activists in the 19–20th century), Hawa Abdi (a Somalian physician and HR activist), Cosplay (freedom of expression), Rabbis for Human Rights, Raoul Wallenberg, and LGBT rights.

Empathy for ‘the Other’

Based on the feedback that I have received from my students, I think I can say that these two projects help most students to learn about realities that they did not know existed before. They come across histories and personal stories that are very relevant to their daily lives but which they would not have thought about without these projects. Students come to understand that it does not take too much effort to identify with ‘the other’, and that teenagers in totally different situations often face problems that are very similar. As one student told me after we had finished the Kindertransport mini-project: “I never realized that those refugees in Europa have so much in common with my great-grandparents who had to flee for their lives during the war. I can almost see their problems through my own eyes.” In my humble opinion, if a project such as this manages to make at least some of my students sincerely identify and empathize with someone else who finds himself in a difficult situation, it has achieved its main goal. Anything beyond that (learning English and/or history, for example) I will gladly accept as “collateral” benefits.

If you want more information, or you are interested in the material for one or both of my projects, you can always contact me, either via ConAct (they have my e-mail address) or through Facebook. I recommend visiting the Centropa website: www.centropa.org.

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