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Jewish Journal

For German Teens, Shame Stirred Action

by Adam Deutsch

April 5, 2007 | 8:00 pm

When six German teenagers entered the beit midrash at YULA boys high school, there was an indescribable sense of tension in the air. The four girls and two boys seemed hesitant and slightly anxious as they faced 60 Jewish boys eager for discussion. As a natural skeptic, my personal attitude toward conversing with people of possible Nazi ancestry was not very optimistic.

But within a few moments, the Germans' anxiety visibly disappeared due to our welcoming disposition. And I must admit that by the end of the program I learned a beneficial lesson, which applies to every single Jew alive today.

Along with other German students, these visitors had participated in translating a German book, "Never Tell Anybody your Name is Rachmiel," by Rosine De Dijn. The book tells the story of a Polish Jewish single mother who managed to hide her son with a family in Belgium before she was deported to Auschwitz and killed.

Inspired by a visit from De Dijn, the teens began a project to translate the book into English so that the descendants of the rescuers and of the Holocaust survivor, two of whom live in California, could learn of their ancestors' story.

When the school contacted the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the museum extended an invitation to the students, a teacher and the author. The trip was funded by a German foundation called Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future.

As I learned of their story, my admiration for the noble actions of these students grew, and my pessimism began to slowly decline. However, the images of the atrocities of the Holocaust -- and the voices of my Holocaust-survivor grandparents -- constantly reverberated in my mind.

Following a brief description of the book, a question-and-answer session opened. With many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the audience, myself included, an array of hands propelled into the air. One of the many interesting questions posed to the German teens was, "Do you feel guilty?"

German student Hagen Verleger answered: "I do not feel guilty, however I feel greatly ashamed."

I was fascinated with that answer, because I realized that shame and guilt are directly connected, but they are far from synonymous.

While the Nazi story ends with shame, it began with an excess of pride. Hitler and the Nazi party exemplified the utmost arrogance in their stride to conquer the world and "ethnically cleanse" society. But after their defeat, surviving members of the Nazi party and the generation of Germans to follow them were internationally blacklisted.

The students explained to us that for a very long period of time not many people would openly admit to being "German" due to the stigma attached to the nationality. Germany went from being the superior race and nation to bearing a universal mark of Cain.

But things have changed for this generation. The students pointed out that the 2006 World Cup competition in Germany saw the German flag flown with pride at this international event, with black, red, gold and the eagle emblem appearing on shirts, signs and venues all over the country. Clearly, this generation of Germans has found a way to deal with their infamous past and appropriately display national pride once again.

Exemplifying this revolution in Germany's national attitude, the six visitors from Germany commendably presented a translated book -- a product of their stirring shame. Although Germany's actions cannot and will never be atoned for, the German students of my generation took ownership of this inherent guilt and utilized shame to spark a contribution to society.

By willingly encountering Jews, these German teens have exposed the wrongdoings of their fathers with the intent of setting the ethical standards for the generations to follow. It is their version of our "Never Again" slogan.

Hearing all of this, I started to think about what we, direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, can learn from the grandchildren of pre-1945 Germany. After recapping the issues discussed, I realized that what my generation and the German teens have in common is that we are the youth of our nations.

Obviously, nothing previous generations of Jews have done can be equated to the crimes of Nazi Germany on any level whatsoever. But every generation does have its faults. Moreover, it is every generation's responsibility to recognize and remedy the faults of their predecessors.

As a teen, I find it essential to look at our past and scrutinize Jewish history in order to improve or even attempt to improve my generation and set the tracks for future generations.

One issue that has always vexed me and continues to haunt the Jewish people is that of our lack of unity. Whether the issues are political, religious or moral, they cause serious divisions within our nation, which have devastating effects on our chances for success. Political differences, which resulted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a fellow Jew, and religious differences between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel not only split us internally but destroy our reputation in the eyes of the outside world.

Will we look back on our ancestors' mistakes with futile guilt, unproductively blaming ourselves? Or will we be stimulated by our shame and become motivated to possibly rectify those faults? Will we unify or continue to be fragmented and suffer our demise?

Adam Deustsch is a junior at YULA High School for boys.

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