PROJECT JÜDISCHES LEBEN IN FRANKFURT
Angelika Rieber

F
rankfurt, Hesse
2017

In its nearly four decades of work, the non-profit Projekt Jüdisches Leben in Frankfurt (Jewish Life Project in Frankfurt) has brought thousands of Frankfurt high school students in contact with the city’s former Jewish residents and their descendants, enriching historical understanding on both sides. Founded by a group of young teachers who wanted to foster a more personal approach to Frankfurt’s reckoning with its Nazi past, the Project introduced a unique, interdisciplinary method to Holocaust learning that combines research, education and an expanding global network of Jewish families who have reconnected with the city and its history.

The project researches the life story of Jews from Frankfurt, organizes meetings with former Jewish citizens who had to flee from their homes during the Nazi period, supports them in their search for family roots in Germany and publishes the results of their work. For today’s young people, “the life stories of these people create a link between their personal experiences and the experiences of the people they meet,” says Angelika Rieber, Chairperson and co-founder of the Project. By carefully preparing and organizing the visits of Holocaust survivors and their relatives to Frankfurt, she says, students learn not only about their city and its people’s history—they also embrace a new, courageous type of communication through which to explore and understand their own identity, both as individuals and across generational lines. “Students of German origin often have a problem when they get the feeling that they are personally blamed. [But] when they meet people who tell them about their traumatic experiences, it means that they are accepted as people, as dialog partners. It’s important for them because if you have the feeling that you are only blamed, you will push the past away, but if you have the feeling that you are respected, then you get involved. The answer is dialogue.”

Born in 1951 near Frankfurt, Rieber herself came from a family that shows the different facets of behavior during the Nazi period: One of her grandfathers was in the Nazi Party. But her other grandfather was a Protestant minister and member of the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) who stood in staunch opposition to the Nazi regime. Both of her parents had been members of the Hitler Youth. When she was 12, Rieber watched der Auschwitz-Prozess (Frankfurt Auschwitz trials) on television and saw, for the first time, films showing the liberation of concentration camps, which made a deep impression on her.

Rieber studied history and politics at Frankfurt University and found her calling as a high school teacher—one committed specifically to helping students understand and reconcile with Germany’s fascist past. Rieber felt that school books presented Nazi history inappropriately, so she got involved with a trade union group that challenged the burgeoning neo-Nazism more directly. Some members of this group had been active in the resistance. “This was my real start with the subject,” she says. By the late 1970s, Rieber was inviting former anti-Nazi resistors to speak to her students about discrimination, racism and terror. Around this time she and a few colleagues also started a small working group, collecting documents, organizing training courses for teachers and presenting school projects about the Jewish legacy of Frankfurt.

At first the group was called “Spuren jüdischen Lebens” (Traces of Jewish History), which published a booklet, “The Everyday Life of Jews in Frankfurt,” which focused on anti-Semitic laws during the Nazi era. In the visiting program of the city of Frankfurt, which started in 1980, inviting expelled, former Jewish residents, Rieber and her group saw an opportunity. “We sought the connection to the people who had to flee the city, wanted to know about their life in Frankfurt and what it had meant for them to leave their home town. We realized that this was something very positive: people who came from the city where we live today, who we could ask about the past,” she says. The organization, renamed Jewish Life Project in Frankfurt, has been researching the life stories of Frankfurt’s Jews and educating and impacting the lives of Jewish survivors, their descendants and Frankfurt high school students ever since.

At the start, students were doing interviews with people whose experience they knew little about, conducting “historical research with the aim to remember the former Jewish life and to develop instructive teaching material”, says Rieber. Since 1989, the group also organizes meetings between the visitors and students, in close cooperation with the city of Frankfurt and building on a large network of schools, history initiatives and archives. The group contacts visitors well ahead of their arrival to not only confirm their interest in talking with the students, but to prepare the students with plenty of background about their life and experience.

The Project has evolved significantly from its origins, with 15 Frankfurt schools now participating and some 15 to 20 visitors returning annually to the city to speak with them, and 10.000 students having had the chance to meet Jewish former citizens of Frankfurt and their descendants.

“Everyone in the group, the members of the project, we all have the feeling that we personally benefit from the visits,” says Rieber. “When we have that contact, we still feel as learners: we learn something about the people who had to leave Frankfurt, but we’re also learning something about ourselves. The teachers are thankful because they feel that these are very relevant lessons for the young people.”

The Project has produced numerous publications, e.g. Unsere Wurzeln sind hier in Frankfurt (Our Roots are Here in Frankfurt), in addition to articles, films, books and online media featuring the biographies of Frankfurt’s former Jewish residents. Its website, www.
juedisches-leben-frankfurt.de
, facilitates teacher in-service training seminars to help educators with the organization of meetings and local research at archives and museums. The Project, which is composed of about 15 people, mostly retired and working fully voluntarily, also coaches teachers on how to handle such a difficult topic. Rieber says the goal is “not only to teach them how to teach about the Holocaust, but to teach them about themselves so they’re aware of their own feelings and emotions. Because if you’re not aware of yourself, this may cause problems.”

In more recent years, Frankfurt has been inviting the second and third generation descendants of former Jewish residents—some of whom have stayed away for decades, or never known Germany except in stories. For many survivors, “they have fears that Germany did not change since the Nazi time, and for them it is very important to see all these young people who want to know their story,” says Rieber. “One visitor even asked his rabbi if he should follow the invitation to Frankfurt, and the rabbi said, ‘Go, but talk to the young people.’ This way the visitors do not only accept the invitation of the city and the offers by the project group but also have something to give: their life and family stories. It’s very important for them to see that their background, and the fate of their family members, is known in Germany.”

The Project offers specific guidelines for preparing and responding to interviews and discussions at school, and includes a series of questions to be answered after the meetings, including: What did you find especially remarkable about the person? What was new or surprising? Was there something that made you angry or irritated? What questions did you not dare to ask, and what new questions came up for you? This level of self-reflection helps students recognize their own images and stereotypes, reflect and look at the effect the discussions may have on the visitors. “We correspond with people for as long as possible in advance so they know who we are, our aims, and what we want. They need to know the people with whom they speak because many come with fear. And then they are surprised when they meet people who are interested in their stories,” says Rieber.

The Project has received widespread praise, including from Hesse’s Minister of Education, for its important role bringing Frankfurt history to life and keeping the memory alive of those who once inhabited the city. For the descendants themselves, the organization “has evolved over the past 40 years to become an integral part of the City of Frankfurt’s efforts to bridge the understanding of the broader history of Jewish life in Frankfurt before World War II, and the individual family histories of those displaced by the Nazi regime,” say New York City residents Harriet Mayer and Natalie Green Giles, both of whose families came from Frankfurt. “The mission to educate the future generations by delving into the past to ensure history does not repeat itself could not be more relevant today.”

Nominated by: Natalie Green Giles, Brooklyn, NY, USA; Harriet Mayer, New York, NY, USA