Connecting USA & Germany
Project Report on LJCDS-Bewegte Grundshule Collaboration on The Butterfly Project
Event dates: January 20-27, 2019
By guest author Dr. Amy Parish, Educator at La Jolla Country Day School
This project continued the 2018 Butterfly project work at La Jolla Country Day School (LJCSD) by establishing a sister school relationship with a primary school in Cottbus, Germany (in the former East Germany). Amy Parish and Steve Schindler cooperated/collaborated with Cheryl Rattner Price of The Butterfly Project to raise the funds through crowd-sourcing and more than 50 donors supported the project. In Europe, our collaborator Nicole Nocon (journalist in Cottbus and a parent of a Bewegte Grundshule student) also raised funds through a grant proposal to a German government agency.
Bringing the project to Germany
The week started with a meeting with Ambassador Küchler who heads the German Federal Office of Foreign Relations and is the Special Representative for Relations with Jewish Organizations. She met with us to discuss German initiatives to support Jewish communities and holocaust education including a 5 million Euro initiative to be announced next week that will include 2 million Euros for holocaust education projects. She encouraged me to reach out again in the spring about applying for funding to support the US-German educational collaboration.
Our meeting at the Bundestag (parliament) was delayed until next week so Steve will take the meeting on Tuesday and describe the LJCDS-Bewegte Grundshule project. This will create a contact that I can work with as we (Cindy Santos Bravo, Jonathan Shulman, Dan Norland and I) plan the 2020 LJCDS Experiential Ed week trip to Berlin. Students benefits may include special access to the Reichstag (Parliamentary Building), meetings with politicians; special guided tours etc. I also visited the Reichstag building on this trip in preparation for the Berlin 2020 trip.
Our meeting with the US embassy was delayed due to the shutdown and will now take place on Tuesday. Steve will convey the story of The Butterfly Project and the LJCDS-BGS project and establish contacts.
We met with officials at the Brandenburgische Techniche Universität Cottbus and heard a talk titled “Die Kolonne Henneicke: Head-Money Hunters in the Occupied Netherlands” by esteemed Dutch historian and journalist Mr. Ad Van Liempt. He described the practice of paying Dutch people during WWII to hunt for and turn in Jewish people for a payment of 7.5 Gulden per head (about 45 euros per person in today’s money). This is a history that few Dutch people wanted to know about and that Mr. Van Liempt exposed through his journalism and his book. The talk related to the LJCDS focus on facing history and ourselves. The talk was deeply disturbing and shocking in terms of human capacity for evil and was also so important to understand and recognize the reluctance of the Dutch people to face this aspect of their history.
This talk was followed by a lecture by Prof. Dr. Kathinka Rebling who told her story of being a 10 month old in the Netherlands when a member of the Dutch Resistance sped up on a motorbike 10 minutes ahead of the Gestapo to remove her in time to be hidden in a Catholic family that already had 5 children. Kathinka’s parents were sent to Auschwitz both for being Jewish and for being communist. Her mother remembers Anne Frank arriving in Auschwitz with extreme illness and dying shortly thereafter. Kathinka’s parents managed to survive and reunite with their young daughter after the war. They chose to move to East Germany (given their communist politics) and became the DDR’s most famous Yiddish music group. Dr. Rebling is now a music professor at the university in Cottbus. She spoke about the importance of optimism and hope even in the darkest times as a conduit to survival. She also talked about the importance of solidarity with friends and family as the key to her parents’ survival in the camps.
The Schindler Family’s history in Cottbus
Steve spoke next about his father Max’s experience growing up in Cottbus as a typical German boy (see photo in his lederhosen) and the experience of being arrested in school in third grade by the Gestapo and taken to prison before being deported with his family to Poland in 1938. Max’s brother Alfred was a pupil at LJCDS sister school Bewegte Grundschule (BGS) and was similarly arrested. Steve spoke about the growing intolerance and nationalism in the world, the murder of his grandparents and aunt, the incredible story of the survival of his father and uncle through 6 forced labor camps, a death march to Dresden, and incarceration in Theresienstadt. He talked about what it meant to his father to be welcomed back in Cottbus during his visit to the family stolperstein (memorial stumbling blocks) in 2015 when the then-mayor invited him to sign the golden book (an official ceremony for visiting dignitaries). Steve explored the importance to reconciliation and of working to make the world safe for all people.
The next day, we met with the Deputy Mayor of Cottbus Dr. Markus Niggemann who apologized on behalf of the city for what happened to Steve’s father’s family and expressed his deep gratitude that we have been willing to visit and work together on The Butterfly Project. He also explained the homogeneous history of the DDR. There were very few immigrants during the 40 year period of communism (some from Vietnam and occasionally a Cuban) and therefore the population in Cottbus today has very little experience with people who are different than them (in terms of culture, skin color, religion, etc.). So when German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the borders in 2015, it was a shock to the people of the city to see others who appeared to be different (mainly Syrians and Africans). Rumors rapidly spread that the refugees: build cooking fires in their living rooms; resolve conflicts with knife fights; are Islamic extremists disguised as refugees; get more governmental monetary help than the citizens receive, etc. Assimilation is very hard in Cottbus and the mayor is working to employ more Syrians in the city government so that the populace can see refugees in the same positions the citizens hold and hopefully see them in a more positive light. The Deputy Mayor also explained that the area of Cottbus had one of the highest voter percentages for the AfD (the “Alternative for Germany” extreme far-right party) in the last national election and that the proportion of the popular vote that the extreme right party is expected to win in city government in the upcoming May elections is 30% (!). The current mayoral leadership team has an 8 year term in office and is struggling to work to overcome racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and persecution of refugees against this backdrop. The Deputy Mayor also explained the legacy of the communist history in terms of city management: the city itself owns the power plants, many manufacturing plants, and 17,000 apartments in the city. This is a much different model than in the former West Germany. The Deputy Mayor expressed enthusiasm for meeting with our LJCDS students during the Berlin 2020 trip to explain the history of the region, the current problems with racism/nationalism, and the governing process of the city.
The next day, we organized a two hour Q and A with the 5th and 6th grade students at the Bewegte Grundshule where the students asked questions of me and Steve and his family. We identified areas of common interest and explored their ideas for what the experience of Steve’s father and family must have been like. They were really struck by the horror of being starved and living with the constant threat of being physically harmed. The students asked about our border wall and we discussed the problems we face in America with racism and anti-immigrant feeling. (As an interesting side note, one teacher told me that before meeting us, he couldn’t imagine sending their students on a visit to our school because “America is so dangerous and full of guns.” He said that meeting us changed his perception and led to the realization that there are good people everywhere and that we have to be careful about our assumptions and generalizations. This is a great example of the power of personal connections in influencing perceptions and perspectives.)
Sharing history with the Cottbus community
We also screened the film Not the Last Butterfly (with German subtitles) at the local cinema (the region’s oldest Art Deco theater). Members of the audience expressed their embarrassment that there are still Holocaust deniers in the world. The audience included teachers at other schools who are very interested in implementing the project and discussing pedagogical approaches. One teacher of 11th and 12th graders shared that there are a few students with Neo-Nazi tendencies in her classroom and she is highly motivated to address this issue. She will be emailing me to explore future collaborations.
The next day’s program included:
– An opening speech by the Lord Mayor (the Ober-Burgermeister) of Cottbus, Holger Kelch, who is an ardent supporter of the project. He came to the school in December to paint butterflies with the children and he opened his State of the City speech in recently by discussing the importance of this work. Some children knew who the mayor was and they all started nudging each other and looking at him when he was in the audience before his talk. I was impressed with their civic-mindedness and the celebrity status of the mayor among the school children.
– Media in attendance included the national #1 television station ARD, the regional television station RBB (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg), the national public television broadcaster ZDF, and a photographer from Getty Images (hyperlinks link to media coverage)(and more media coverage links are available to those who are interested).
– We arranged for a Rabbi to attend the ceremonies. For almost all of the children, this was their first encounter with a leader of the Jewish faith. He knelt on the ground and talked with them and explained his yamaka (see photo here).
– After speeches from the head of the Bewegte Grundshule Anja Lehnigk (who explained that the students, upon encountering a swastika on a wall in Cottbus exclaimed “Let’s turn it into a butterfly”) we moved outdoors where the installation of the butterflies was initially covered up. The students each came to the microphone and explained the history and experience of the Holocaust victim for whom they had painted a butterfly. The Rabbi gave a blessing. The installation was revealed. The school worked very hard to gain permission from the historic building commission to install the panels on the outside of the school (down to counting exactly how many screws they would affix to the mortar around the bricks). The words on the installation include: Mitmenschlichkeit (“humanity”); Hoffnung (“hope”); Frieden (“peace”); Gedenken (“commemoration”); and Toleranz (“tolerance”) (see it here).
– Back inside (it was 25 degrees that morning), the students read poems they had written in response to what they learned about the Holocaust (see some of the English translations on the screen behind them).
– Three faculty members sang a beautiful song in Hebrew: please see video Hevenu Shalom Alechem (“May there be peace in the world. Peace, peace. Peace, peace all over the world”).
– Sixth grade student Zepporah sang an incredible solo of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” (must see video here). Her parents told me that she had been asking for singing lessons and they were reluctant because she is already involved in may activities. After hearing this performance they are now going to find singing lessons for her to further hone her remarkable talent!
– Andrea Szönyi (note article includes coverage of our LJCDS Butterfly Project), USC Shoah Foundation’s head of programs for international education in Hungary spoke about using the power of story and visual testimony in education and efforts to combat hate and afterwards observed that “The Butterfly Project is a creative and constructive way to teach empathy and expose students to Holocaust education in a manner that is age-appropriate. It was inspiring to see such a heartfelt display of compassion by this group of students.”
– Next, Steve Schindler spoke about” Inspiring Empathy and Countering Hate: A Germany-USA Collaboration.” He beautifully conveyed LJCDS values about inspiring greatness for a better world (see this link).
– I read a letter from Dr. Gary Krahn to the Bewegte Grundshule and gave LJCDS medals of Gratitude on behalf of Drs. Gary Krahn and Joe Cox to: the Ambassador in Berlin; the BGS Head of School, Nicole Nocon (our co-collaborator in Cottbus); and the Mayor of Cottbus. We gave 50 LJCDS Athletics folders (thanks to Jeff Hutzler and to Katelyn Sigeti) plus and “inspiring greatness pencils” to the children of the school (the 25 kilo extra bag was valiantly carried on Steve’s back through the Berlin Central Railway Station on its way to Cottbus!).
– I presented the LJCDS plaque made by 11th grader Mary Beth Holland to the head of the Bewegete Grundshule (see it here) and received their plaque which will become part of our installation (see photo here). I also presented the selection of LJCDS butterflies that we gifted to their school (I will pick up the butterflies they will give to us in March).
– After the ceremony, the public was invited for lunch and of course, cake (daily afternoon cake-eating is the quintessential German cultural practice). This was followed by more butterfly painting.
The most exciting aspects of this program for me were:
– This was the first Butterfly Project ever conducted in Germany. To collaborate with Bewegte Grundshule, which is in the area of Germany most affected by rising nationalism and neo-nazism, is a testament to the triumph of good over evil and gives hope that the arc of the moral universe indeed bends towards justice. They embody the best of being an upstander and are leading by example for the citizens of Cottbus.
– Although there is a great deal of Holocaust education in Germany, this project delivered that education to a new, younger demographic (Holocaust education usually starts in 9th grade in Germany).
– The project also featured a forward-looking approach: rather than presenting horrifying facts and figures and focusing on the past, this project used art and creativity to bring awareness and create a desire to act in a creative, non-traumatic, effective and positive manner (Thank you Cheryl Rattner Price!)
– The children learned not only about Holocaust but also about: art; geography (the program began with a google flight from Cottbus across the Atlantic to San Diego)(see it here); Jewish culture and traditions (songs, dancing); poetry; art; history; empathy; compassion.
– The faculty staff and children at the school embody the best of being an upstander and are leading by example for the other citizens of Cottbus. The importance of upstanders in a part of the country where the popular vote for the ARD party in local politics is expected to rise to 30% in the next election cannot be overstated. Furthermore, Cottbus is the last city in former East Germany to have a synagogue again after WWII (2014). The timeliness and salience of this project is further accentuated by the fact that there was a major neo-Nazi demonstration and counter demonstration yesterday (Sunday) in Cottbus on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
– The children saw video testimonies from Holocaust survivors for the first time.
– Other German schools and teachers are now expressing interest in participating.
– There is potential to collaborate with the USC Shoah Foundation on educational initiatives.
– The project engaged the community, the teachers, the parents, the media (and also the building manager who had the idea to guild some of the butterflies to make the installation “pop”).
– The trip also allowed me to begin to plan a program for Berlin 2020 (e.g. contacts at Bundestag; ideas for politics, art and cultural trips; zoo; day trip to Cottbus).
– Many teachers and parents expressed interest in arranging an exchange program between our two schools.