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American and German students take cross-ocean class on the Holocaust

Students at Vassar College in the US and the University of Potsdam in Germany share ideas – and cultural differences – on Germany's 'darkest hour.'

By Correspondent / May 7, 2008

History lesson: Ruth Klüger, a Holocaust survivor, discusses her experiences with German student Christopher Kasten at Vassar College.

patrick watson/special to the christian science monitor

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New York

On a dreary afternoon in Manhattan's Lower East Side, Ulrike Kollodzeiski walks pensively through the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first grand house of worship built by Eastern European immigrants more than 100 years ago, back when this area of New York had been one of the most burgeoning Jewish communities in America.

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Along with 14 other students from the University of Potsdam in Germany, Ms. Kollodzeiski has come to learn more about Jewish culture and to reflect on the enduring legacy of what she calls the "darkest hour" of her country's history.

She was intrigued by the Moorish architecture of the synagogue a style common for those built in the 19th century and the original ornate Tzedakah alms box, with its seven separate slots for various community causes. The synagogue has been restored in the last decade and now holds a museum as well as the usual weekly Orthodox services. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the synagogue's activities.]

"I really learned nothing about Jewish culture in general at [high school]," says Kollodzeiski, who is now studying history and religion at Potsdam. "I'd taken part in an excursion to Krakau, to the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau ... [but] Jews seemed to exist only as victims during the time of National Socialism."

Kollodzeiski and her fellow students are participating in an ocean-crossing class developed at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., by history professor Maria Höhn and German professor Silke von der Emde. In March, a group of American students had traveled to Berlin, visiting its synagogues and Holocaust memorials.

While it is billed as simply a multidisciplinary, multicountry course exploring how the Holocaust is variously remembered and memorialized in these countries, the class offers a prism into the different ways Americans and Germans bear the atrocities of the past and how this informs their understanding of conflicts today.

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From each side, they are a select group of students, with interests perhaps not typical of most. But, as many of the German students note, their country has been going through a dizzying cultural upheaval since reunification. In 1990, fewer than 30,000 Jews lived in the combined East and West Germany – a fraction of the number in Manhattan alone.

Today, however, the Jewish presence is once again visible in Germany: nearly 200,000 now reside there, making it again one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. In addition, Germany, like many other European countries, is grappling with a growing Muslim population, immigrant workers who provide cheap labor but remain, for the most part, culturally isolated and stigmatized by the specter of terrorism.

"Germans are just beginning to see themselves as a multicultural society, but they still see it as ordered – other people who act like them," says Professor Höhn. "And in many ways, as the students explore these questions, America is seen – right or wrong – as the representative of the victims."

Indeed, for many of the German students, two generations removed from the horrors of the mid-20th century, questions of cultural identity and pride often evoke an uneasy ambivalence.