A Weekend to Remember
Thirty-two Tufts students – with the support of Hillel and alumni – flew to Germany over President's Day weekend for the "Berlin Experience."
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.17.09] "Emotional,""intense" and "profound," are some of the words Tufts students used to describe a whirlwind President's Day weekend in Berlin, Germany, the highlight of a year-long Hillel-led initiative called the "Berlin Experience."
This program aims to teach Tufts students how Berlin, the city with the world's fastest growing Jewish population, is confronting the past while moving toward the future.
"We did an intensive examination of the way that Berlin as a city and Germany as a country have, through architecture and memorials and museums and public space, responded to the legacy of the Holocaust," explains Hillel Rabbi Jeffrey Summit. "Together with that, we met with some amazing educators,and activists and government officials who have also been addressing the same question."
The idea for the program-which included pre-trip educational lectures, the journey to Berlin and post-trip programming-was that of alumnus and co-sponsor Peter Bendetson (A'71, M'77).
"I had an amazing experience there a couple of times, and obviously Berlin is one of the great historical cities of the world. I thought it would be something that would be very nice to share with a group of Tufts students," says Bendetson.
Bendetson brought the idea to his cousin and Tufts alum Andy Bendetson, who agreed to co-sponsor the trip and pre-trip education; later, Anne Heyman and her husband Seth Merrin (A'82) provided additional funding for post-trip programming.
For Hillel, the proposal fit well with established programs, such as Moral Voices, which have addressed topics like genocide, as well as its belief in immersion education.
"Part of our philosophy is that if you can go away with a group of students and really have a deeper, more immersive experience, you could do more profound education," says Summit.
A student and staff planning committee oversaw the application process, with nearly 100 students-Jewish and non-Jewish alike-applying for 32 spots. With more eligible candidates than spaces, applicants were assigned a number and selected from a lottery categorized by school year and gender to ensure even distribution.
Those selected then attended pre-trip educational talks, including a lecture by University Professor Sol Gittleman on the history of Jews in Germany and a discussion led by Summit about the importance of Holocaust education. In addition, educator Thorsten Wagner visited Tufts from Germany to speak on the nation's current attitude toward its past. He also served as the Tufts contingent's guide in Berlin.
The group made the most of challenging circumstances, turning travel and weather delays into bonding opportunities while still managing to hit all the stops on their itinerary. Included were poignant historical sites such as the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and the Wannsee villa where "The Final Solution" was conceived. Public memorials also showed how modern-day Germany is confronting the legacy of the Holocaust.
Thousands of "stumbling blocks," slightly raised sidewalk stones engraved with the information of Jewish families who inhabited nearby homes, as well as commemorative artwork with German captions (rather than English captions for tourists) demonstrated the extent to which the country is addressing its heritage through citizen education.
"I think that for a lot of us it was really important to go and see that Germany, out of all European societies, is actually doing the best with regards to Holocaust education and making it very public in everyday life," says senior Naomi Berlin. "It's a very complex city."
The group placed a priority on dialogue, with the program featuring a discussion with Dr. Hilde Schramm, the daughter of prominent Nazi Albert Speer. Schramm now sells inherited art stolen during the Holocaust to fund projects for Jewish women artists.
"It reinforced the fact that you cannot blame future generations for what their parents or grandparents did," says Hillel President Nathan Render (A'09), noting the moral questions the trip raised. "I think there are so many people [who] sort of got sucked into this vacuum of destruction and devastation, and it was so important for me to go and see that."
Overall, the experience left a great impact on its participants.
"It was a whirlwind trip, but it was still powerful nonetheless," says Render. "Every interaction I had there was so positive, [especially regarding] the things that the country has done both publicly and privately to try and reconcile what happened."
"The students were just amazing," adds Summit. "People were serious and thoughtful, and had tremendous energy and were willing to engage deeply in this even though the time was short."
Now back at Tufts, the group is focused on post-trip programming, including planning a three-part program series during April's Holocaust remembrance week that will feature panels on remembering the Holocaust, creating current dialogue and preventing future genocide.
There is already talk about another trip, potentially as part of an Experimental College class taught by Wagner. In the meantime, the goal of the program has been successfully realized.
"We wanted to share a very unique experience with as many Tufts students as we could," says Bendetson. "It was our feeling that you can read about World War II, you can read about the Holocaust, but it's another thing to experience it."
Story by Molly Frizzell (A'09). Photos courtesy of Nathan Render (A'09).