'Schindler's List' stirs German teens

March 18, 1994|By Boston Globe

BERLIN -- As a showing of the movie "Schindler's List" drew to a close the other night, the audience of high school pupils had this question:

Why had no one ever told before about Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save the Jews from the Nazi Holocaust?

"My parents and grandparents always told me there was nothing you could do about the Jews, but this movie shows that something could be done," said a bewildered Axel Kortschak, 19, as he tugged at his shoulder-length blond hair. "Why have I never heard of Schindler until now?"

As the Steven Spielberg movie about Schindler, a German industrialist, and the Jewish workers he sheltered prompts renewed self-examination here, it is this country's teen-agers who are asking some of the most painful and probing questions.

For them, the second generation to be born since World War II, the war and its associated horrors are a dull, required part of their education. But "Schindler's List" has sparked many of them into questioning that education and its content for the first time.

Some teen-agers asked why they must learn so much about the German past when they are not responsible for it. Others wonder why they were never taught about Schindler or other unsung German heroes of an otherwise dark era of history.

But many interviewed after Wednesday's showing said they now question what they have been taught: that the reason so few Germans intervened to stop the Holocaust is that the majority of Germany knew nothing about it.

"I have an aunt who still thinks Hitler is a great guy but says she is shocked about what happened to the Jews," said Anna Kuester, 17. "After seeing such a movie, I'm not sure I can believe her."

Not surprisingly, the film has touched off debate about how teen-agers are taught about the Holocaust. Many argue that the film -- playing in sold-out theaters -- brings the past into the present in a medium that teen-agers can understand and should be made part of the school curriculum.

German pupils typically study the World War II era twice, once in about the equivalent of fifth grade and again in high school.

"It's amazing how much time is devoted to this period," said George Kamp, an American who teaches at the John F. Kennedy School in Berlin, for German and international students. "In the U.S., I don't think kids get more than 10 minutes of it."

Many schools also supplement the required curriculum with field trips to concentration camps, exhibitions and Holocaust memorials. The subject is also in the news, particularly in light of renewed violence by right-wing extremists.

But the quality of teaching about the Holocaust can vary widely. Because education is regulated not on the national level but on the state level -- a move made in response to Germany's fascist past -- the 12 federal states have different curricula, although they must meet some federal standards.

"About 75 percent do it well," said Andreas Nachama, director of Topography of Terror, a permanent Holocaust exhibit in Berlin. "But if you have such a bad history, you can never do it well enough."

For teen-agers, the film clearly struck a nerve Wednesday. When the brutal SS commandant tells his young housemaid, Helen, he won't seduce her because, "you are not a proper human being," many in the audience gasped.

When Schindler laments whether he should have sold additional possessions in order to save "one more" person, handkerchiefs came out across the theater.

Such responses are one reason why Ignatz Bubis, the head of the Jewish community in Germany, advocates the film as a valuable teaching device. " 'Schindler's List' should be shown to students, but not without teachers and students discussing it," Mr. Bubis said.

Indeed, at such a discussion Wednesday, pupils peppered Mr. Bubis with questions -- and got some interesting responses. How did he, as a Jew, feel about the movie? Why isn't Schindler better known, and why didn't more Germans do something?

"Schindler had this chance because he was close to the Nazi bigwigs," Mr. Bubis told the pupils. "In the early years of Nazism, there were some silent saviors, but their figures were low. Too few people helped in the beginning. Later on, when the killing machine was at full speed, it was not possible."

Not all of the pupils believe they should learn more about the Holocaust.

Some -- while stressing that the Holocaust was a horrible period in German history -- said they are tired of being constantly reminded of the Nazi past.

"Yes, I'm ashamed, I don't want it to happen again," said Frank Malek, 20, referring to the Holocaust. But he added it was time for Hollywood to look elsewhere: "Spielberg is trying to make money out of this situation in Germany, just as so many others do."

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