Max Schell, a young German, was volunteering at a senior living facility in Jerusalem when he casually asked a Holocaust survivor if she had ever been to his hometown of Freiburg. She said she had, to which Schell responded, “Oh, wonderful.”
But the woman’s memory of the city was associated with the Third Reich and she responded to Schell, “No it wasn’t wonderful; my sister was there two years in a labor camp.” She said goodbye and ended the conversation.
The interaction between Schell and the survivor remained icy for two weeks until she approached him and said, “Max, thank you very much for the heart beating in your chest.”
This is one of the stories told in the book Reconciling Lives, the product of Gladwyne photographer Alvin Gilens. He spent parts of 2009 and 2010 in four countries documenting young Germans who develop relationships with Holocaust survivors while volunteering with Action Reconciliation Service for Peace.
The organization, founded in the 1960s by German Protestants feeling guilty in the aftermath of the war, sends young German volunteers to 13 countries each year where they work with nonprofit organizations. They help the kind of people who were persecuted during the war — Jews, minority groups, the disabled, homosexuals — in an effort to atone for the genocide committed by the Nazis.
Along the way, the hope is that distinct generations and cultures become less isolated from one another. As told in Gilens’ book, conversations often consist of older Jews sharing their experiences during the war with volunteers, and young Germans nervously revealing that they had family members who were Nazis.
“ARSP is really committed to helping young Germans confront the past, to try and learn from that and build a more positive future both here in the United States and back home in Germany. And that remains the core of what we do,” said Mark McGuigan, U.S. program director.
There are currently 22 volunteers from the program serving in the United States, nine of whom work directly with Holocaust survivors. Action Reconciliation, whose U.S. office is located in Philadelphia, has made fostering such relationships a higher priority in recent years, with the knowledge that opportunities for younger generations to learn from those who suffered during the war continually diminish, said McGuigan.
“We’re very interested in expanding our outreach with survivors because we are sort of in a window. In 10 years, that population will be passing — it already is passing,” he said.
The organization provided Gilens with accomodations while in Jerusalem working on the book and some financial support, but he received much of his funding from local philanthropist Philip Lindy as well as from Allianz, a German insurance company that has acknowledged its connections to the Nazi regime and has paid more than $300 million in recent years to thousands of claimants for Holocaust-era insurance policies.
On April 7, Gilens will join a Holocaust survivor and two young German volunteers working in the area, among others, in a panel discussion as part of a Yom Hashoah program at Germantown Jewish Centre. (For details, visit: Germantownjewishcentre.org ). The photographer will discuss his book, and, with other panelists, assess the impact of Action Reconciliation.
Gilens, 79, said he became interested in the organization about a decade ago when he heard a German volunteer in the United States talk about developing a relationship with a Holocaust survivor who had never met a young German after the war.
“There was a lot of tension at the beginning, but at the end of a year, they hugged and exchanged tears, and I realized that that was probably a story that was happening hundreds and probably thousands of times,” said Gilens, whose past photographic work has been exhibited at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
There are five Germans currently volunteering with Action Reconciliation in the Philadelphia area; only one volunteer works directly with older Jewish adults, none of whom is a Holocaust survivor. The other volunteers serve in a variety of roles, which include working at a day shelter for the homeless in Camden, N.J., and with the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Northwest Philadelphia to help homeless families. The organizations partner with Action Reconciliation and pay for the volunteers’ housing and provide them with small stipends.
McGuigan said his organization has had difficulty placing volunteers in positions to work with survivors because many of them are now in too poor health to benefit from the volunteers.
He said Action Reconciliation is trying to increase its outreach to survivors through educational programs like the one at Germantown Jewish Centre and an upcoming event in Miami. The group has also received funding for two additional positions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where volunteers will work with survivors.
One of the locally based volunteers, Zeno Fickenscher, had never met a Holocaust survivor before participating in an Action Reconcilation orientation program in Berlin. He grew up in a tiny village near Heilbronn in southern Germany where there is a synagogue but little of the Jewish community that existed before the war.
“It was more just teaching in school and not like living culture, and that’s what I like about coming here,” said Fickenscher, 20, who came to the United States in September. “It’s the first time I really experienced Jewish culture, people who eat kosher and people who go to synagogue.”
In Philadelphia, he spends part of his time helping in the Action Reconciliation office and the rest with Jewish and Family Children’s Service, primarily helping homebound clients with tasks like buying groceries or just keeping them company.
“Working with elderly people gives me more calmness. It shows me how much time I have and how much I can do with my future,” he said.
Unlike earlier volunteers from Germany, the prospect of having to serve in the military was not a factor in Fickenscher’s participation in Action Reconciliation; the country discontinued its draft in 2011. But Fickenscher had other reasons for volunteering.
He is gay and said he thinks about the fact that he could have been killed under the Nazis. Then there is his family history.
He learned from his mother growing up that his grandfather, who died before he was born, had been a soldier and a member of the Nazi party. She said he was not someone who just silently consented to the Nazi regime but had been out of work for 12 years and was an ardent supporter of Hitler’s plan for rebuilding a collapsed economy. Fickenscher’s mother told him that until the grandfather’s death, he was convinced that the regime’s small steps — measures to emerge from an economic depression — were good and that its large steps — concentration camps and the other components of genocide — were bad.
Fickenscher told his clients about his family’s history and recalls that there was some awkwardness in the first moments, but they told him not to worry. He’s also met Holocaust survivors and was struck by how open they were to him. “They told me, ‘We don’t blame you for what happened to us,’ ” he said.
One such local survivor whom he has spent time with is Manya Frydman Perel, who will tell her story at the Germantown event.
Born in Radom, Poland, in 1924, Perel was one of 10 children. Family members became separated after the Nazis invaded her city in 1939. She was moved from the Radom ghetto to camps such as Ravensbrück, Plaszow and Auschwitz. She narrowly survived a death march from Auschwitz by running with a friend into a forest and then spent several years recuperating in a hospital after the war. She moved to Montreal and, eventually, to Philadelphia.
A mother of two and a grandmother, Perel is 88 and lives in Northeast Philadelphia and regularly speaks at schools and community events about her Holocaust experience. She receives help from Jewish organizations but has only met Action Reconciliation volunteers at educational events. For the volunteers, she said, the service is like an apology.
“They come to say thank God that those few survivors survived,” she said. “They just want to show the world that they are sorry.” l
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