The program enables young people to enter into a critical examination of history. Transnational learning at historical sites of National Socialist persecution and extermination and also matters of European culture(s) of remembrance are at the center of the program. We followed up on projects that have already been completed: We delved into the biographies of heroes, visited the Naliboki Forest in Belarus, and learned astonishing things about forgotten memories.
Humanity in Action is breaking new ground in the field of education work with its Break the Vicious Circle project in Poland and Germany. An app created by the project lets school students and interested members of the public delve into the biographies of eleven heroes who took a stand during the Nazi era – and simultaneously raises awareness of group-focused enmity in our current times.
Katarzyna Filipek was a woman of extraordinary courage. When a Jewish family knocked on her door at her small farm in Tokarnia in the Polish region of Małopolska and asked for a place to hide from the Nazis, Katarzyna decided to help – knowing full well that she was risking her life by doing so. She hid the family of six in her barn. In 1944 she was denunciated, arrested by the Gestapo, and shot.
Katarzyna’s story is told by the app 10 STAGES, which was developed by Humanity in Action (HiA) in Poland and Germany as part of the Break the Vicious Circle project funded by the EVZ Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office.
In doing so, the project is living up to the purpose of the YOUNG PEOPLE remember international funding program, which aims to keep the memory of forgotten places and stories alive, open up well-established ways of accessing the history of National Socialism to young people, and encourage them to reflect on group-focused enmity in our society today.
The idea for the transnational project came up during the Corona pandemic, when students were not allowed to go to school, were not allowed to be in parks, and in some cases were not allowed to leave the country. They simply had to stay at home and so a big question mark hung over everything, including their education. “Our President of the Managing Board and Foundation's Director, Monika Mazur-Rafał, asked herself at the time how we could motivate these young people during lockdown and get them interested in history,” explains Larysa Michalska, Project Coordinator at HiA Poland. She says that not all students had the same access to resources in their families, and the process of digitalizing school classes was progressing slowly in many areas. The idea was to make the app a mobile, easy-to-access tool that teachers and young people could work with.
“The Holocaust, genocide, and World War II are vitally important but also very difficult topics. We asked ourselves how we could convey these topics to young people,” Michalska continues. “We know that many young people look for information by scrolling through their smartphones. The challenge was to convey historical knowledge via the app in an insightful and interesting way without oversimplifying information and just producing catchlines.”
The app incorporates a clear structure and is based on Gregory Stanton’s concept of The Ten Stages of Genocide. According to this concept, the path to extreme violence and genocide moves through ten stages step by step, and by simply swiping through the content, users can see how a pyramid of violence builds up from discrimination to dehumanization and culminates in extermination.
The app provides examples of each stage based on an historic individual who was persecuted and demonstrated resistance during the Second World War. Those using the app not only learn something about the stories of the protagonists, where they took place, and the respective stage; also included are targeted questions designed to help users draw connections to their own lives and reflect on similar situations – thereby learning to break the vicious circle of violence, just as described by the project’s name.
Katarzyna Filipek is also one of the heroes who give the escalation of violence a face and take a stand against it. The words “Stage 4: Dehumanization” stand as an admonition above her biography. At the end of the text describing her life and death, the app asks: Do you know what it means to make someone a scapegoat? Who is affected by this today? […] What do you think can be done about this?
The project aims to reach as many as possible
“The best way to teach about topics like National Socialism and the Holocaust is by presenting personal stories,” says Larysa Michalska. Constantly referring to the fact that it’s not just about numbers and data might sound like a cliché, she adds – but it is absolutely true. What’s more, “Finding and telling these stories is especially important today given that eyewitnesses are passing away and our opportunities to speak with them are decreasing.”
The team led by Monika Mazur-Rafał, Larysa Michalska, and Dr. Tomasz Cebulski was particularly focused on making the project as participative as possible. HiA Poland and Germany organized a competition that put out a call for the biographies to be included in the app. The public was later invited to vote on the submissions from Poland and Germany.
“We wanted to reach as many different groups as possible and step outside our own bubble. It was important to us that we also involve those people and locations that otherwise generally don’t take part in these types of education projects,” explains Michalska. She was especially surprised by the level of involvement she witnessed in relation to Katarzyna Filipek’s story: “The local community was really active here and absolutely wanted to share their story. The people of Tokarnia not only actively promoted our vote on the biographies but also took part in it in large numbers.”
Likewise, the story of Jakub Müller also goes back to outside involvement. The Sądecki Shtetl association in Nowy Sącz not only assisted HiA in creating the app and providing information on Jakub Müller. Two of the association’s members – Dr. Łukasz Połomski and Poland’s famed Olympic canoeist Dariusz Popiela – also share Jakub’s story in the app.
The project faced challenges when it came to the app’s technical implementation, a process where worlds collided: “As educators, we would have ideally wanted to share everything we had,” says Michalska. But it quickly became clear to the team that while technology makes many things possible, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to do them all. When it came to the app’s design, there were limits in regard to both the user experience and the balance that needed to be struck between entertainment and serious facts.
But there’s still the question of whether an app with its abbreviated way of presenting information is the right tool for talking about the Holocaust and Nazi injustices. Absolutely, says Michalska. “We have to trust young people more and stop demonizing social media and online tools. In my view the content is the top priority, and the tool that conveys it is only secondary.” In times that are changing so rapidly and producing new formats all the time, she says educators can’t afford to close themselves off to these changes anymore. Young people today get their information using different means. And Humanity in Action wants to reach these young people.
The organization appears to have chosen the right approach, given the positive feedback that HiA received during the international test phase and since the app’s launch. While most of the biographies are Polish, Michalska says, they have an impact outside the country as well. Even now, she still receives emails from teachers who use the app with their students and want to express their thanks. And the project has also had word from Tokarnia, where people are pleased that Katarzyna Filipek’s nearly forgotten story has been told.
The idea: In keeping with the name of the organization, Humanity in Action aims not only to share knowledge with young people but also to prompt them to take action. The 10 STAGES app is designed to provide information and motivate users to delve deeper into the topics it delivers. For teachers, the app serves as a useful tool for school lessons as well as preparing for and following up on visits to memorial sites. The project website offers even more materials and space for additional biographies.
The app: The 10 STAGES app is available for download free of charge for Android and iOS and comes in three languages (English, Polish, and German). In addition to the texts, the app also includes images and historical documents, integrates videos and audio clips, and uses questions and tests to encourage users to reflect. For example, archive images of the transshipment center in the Warsaw ghetto are found under Stefania Wilczyńska’s biography along with contemporary photos of the city – a connection between the past and present, expressed in pictures.
Project executing agency: Humanity in Action Poland, Warsaw, Poland
Cooperation partner: Humanity in Action Germany e.V., Berlin, Germany
Funding countries: Germany, Poland
Funding period: January 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022
Funding amount: EUR 92,914
Using art as a tool to critically examine history and establish a connection to our present times: This is the idea behind the Living Memorials project organized by partners in Belarus, Belgium, and Germany. Its participants conducted an unusual experiment in the Naliboki Forest in Belarus and at the House of the Wannsee Conference memorial and educational site.
The Naliboki Forest around the city of Navahrudak in Belarus is home to an extraordinary wealth of flora and fauna. Wolves, lynxes, otters, and bears still live in the nearly 2,000 square kilometer forest, which is interspersed with swamps. This is a peaceful place – but one that also witnessed the Jewish population’s resistance and will to survive during the Second World War.
Somewhere in the solitude of the forest wilderness, Tamara Vershitskaya, a specialist for Jewish cultural heritage, says, “We are in the center of the former camp of the Bielski partisans here. This is where more than a thousand Jewish people came together every day, or went walking alone, met up with girls, or visited their friends in the various huts.” In the safety of the forest, Jews from Navahrudak and surrounding towns who had fled the war and the Holocaust and joined the Bielski partisans - including elderly people, women and children - survived.
Today, Vershitskaya is giving a tour to participants in the Living Memorials project funded by the EVZ Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office and showing them the former camp of the Jewish partisan group set up by brothers Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski. From 1943 to 1944, the brothers actively resisted the German occupiers from their hideout in the Naliboki Forest and, according to estimates, saved the lives of 1,200 Jewish people.
Today’s tour group is taking part in an unusual experiment. The aim is for the participants to find very personal ways of accessing the story of the Bielski partisans here in the midst of the Naliboki Forest and breathe life into the location and its history – through their own works of art. To do so, they are to use what is available to them in the forest. A second group is taking part in the same experiment at the House of the Wannsee Conference memorial and educational site in Germany.
“Museums present a wide range of facts, documents, and images. But they don’t really work with the visitors in a way that brings history to life for them, that lets them feel how it was,” Vershitskaya says later. “Our project demonstrated that there is another way of letting visitors interact with a location. The participants here were not an audience who were simply told something. They were protagonists, creators, makers. I would say this was the first time the participants had experienced something like this, especially in the Belarusian group.”
Living Memorials is a project in which three experts who come from Belarus, Belgium, and Germany and work in different disciplines explore new educational approaches in the field of remembrance work and teaching history – by moving away from traditional education formats and toward participative ones. The three organizers are Holocaust education expert Tamara Vershitskaya, artist Roman Kroke, and filmmaker André Bossuroy, who filmed and documented the project’s progress.
“I am convinced that when it comes to helping young people critically examine history, we have to establish a connection to our current times and the world they actually live in. This is exactly what art can do,” explains artist Roman Kroke, who worked as a lawyer once upon a time. Frustrated at conventional ways of sharing knowledge, he turned his focus to art. And that’s where he stayed. “I don’t tell the participants what kind of artwork they should make. Neither the form of presentation nor the topic is prescribed. Instead, I urge them to trust their own creativity and discover something in history that speaks to them on a personal level.”
But why Berlin, and why the Naliboki Forest around Navahrudak?
When it came to implementing their project, the trio deliberately chose two locations that could hardly be more different and yet were intertwined with one another. The House of the Wannsee Conference is the place occupied by the perpetrators, where the extermination of Europe’s Jews was planned. And the former camp of the Bielski partisans in the Naliboki Forest represents a place for those who were persecuted, but also Jewish resistance.
“The former camp of the Bielski partisans in the Naliboki Forest is an almost pristine space in the midst of wild nature. We are essentially standing in front of a virgin canvas,” says Kroke. He says that after the introductory talks about the history of the location, there was a great deal of silence and emptiness to start with. “By contrast, the House of the Wannsee Conference is a well-known educational and memorial site that has been established for decades; it’s a busy place where the participants found it especially challenging to find free space for their creative process.”
One example of how these challenges were overcome was demonstrated by Belgian teacher Manon Roeland in Berlin. She worked under a tree in the garden in front of the House of the Wannsee Conference, depicting rotten apples and a picture of the building in loud pop art colors. “We wanted to show the disparity between the outer appearance and something else on the inside,” she later explained. She adds that working with the biography of Josef Bühler, a proponent of a particularly rapid “Final Solution” in Poland, is what prompted her to address this question.
André Bossuroy knows the power that participative and interdisciplinary projects like Living Memorials can have: “Ever since our first historical project 15 years ago about Etty Hillesum, who was an extraordinary person, I keep hearing from participants who say that the project changed them; that they experienced a major transformation inside themselves – and I saw the same was true for the staff working on the video technology side,” explains the documentary filmmaker. “This is exactly the authentic experience that we create with these projects. But it’s also down to the historical events that we work on and the personalities that we discover through this project.”
Tamara Vershitskaya agrees. “Once you’ve had an emotional experience like this, it also helps you to live your life differently in the here and now and react differently to certain situations.” She adds that while we might forget names, dates, and facts – the emotional experience remains.
But these changes aren’t limited to the participants. Roman Kroke reports: “It’s very moving when you listen to the participants’ presentations. These people are explaining something that has never been shared in quite the same way before. There’s something incredibly fragile about it. This is the moment when we as experts become learners ourselves.” Kroke notes that these new, fresh voices help them avoid becoming hardened in the face of difficult topics.
Mutual trust among those in charge is also key when carrying out sensitive transnational projects: “We faced challenges together with the participants as well. Our project’s strength is that we have known each other for many years and have a great deal of trust in each other. So, whenever any difficulties came up, we knew we could rely on each other and that we would find a solution together.”
A school in Paderborn now bears witness to the fact that the idea of a living memorial shouldn’t be understood in the figurative sense alone: One of the participants and her students have planted a “Remembrance Flowerbed” here – with flower seeds from the Naliboki Forest.
The idea: In keeping with the idea behind the YOUNG PEOPLE remember international funding program at the EVZ Foundation, the international team of project participants including activists, students, teachers, educators, and travel guides developed innovative methods of historical and political education at two locations where Nazi persecution took place. In doing so, they not only addressed the question of how a “living memorial” is to be understood but also how a concept of this type could enrich educational work for international youth encounters in the future.
Because the two groups could not meet in person as planned due to the COVID pandemic, participants sent seeds, berries, and other objects to the other group. In addition, the participants interacted with an international group of experts ("External Digital Contributors") who enriched the exchange at both sites with their expertise and gave them specific tasks.
The results: The project’s results were not only documented on the project website and in a project film but were also showcased at an exhibition in Berlin, Minsk, and Navahrudak. In addition, educators can now refer back to the work that was done in advance of the project. A publicly accessible set of pedagogical tools is designed to offer inspiration and assistance for further youth encounters at historical locations.
Project executing agency: Mediel asbl, Wavre, Belgium
Funding countries: Germany, Belarus
Funding period: December 1, 2020 to June 30, 2022
Funding amount: EUR 76,028
Hillersche Villa chose to implement MAZEWA, its transnational youth project, in an unusual place: the Jewish cemetery in Zittau. Working with a team of international volunteers, it has now made the cemetery accessible from anywhere in the world using a digital tour. By taking this step, the project also aims to commemorate the forgotten history of the Jews in the border area between Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany.
The Jewish cemetery in Zittau, a small city in the far southeast of Saxony, occupies a rather unassuming location outside the city center in what is now the city’s industrial area. A sign at the entrance reads: “The key for the gate is located in the cemetery office at Zittau Municipal Administration, Görlitzer Strasse 55b.” However, very few visitors tend to come here anyway.
Nonetheless, the grounds of this small cemetery are more than just a resting place and memorial. This place can tell the nearly forgotten story of Zittau’s Jewish community, gravestone by gravestone. And this is exactly what the MAZEWA – mapping Jewish life and death in the Zittau region project funded by the EVZ Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office has done in the form of a digital tour, the construction of a tactile model of the mourning hall that was blown up in 1938, and the erection of interpretive signs. Initiated by Hillersche Villa in Zittau, the transnational youth project has reawakened an awareness of a piece of Jewish history in the border area between Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic and preserved it for generations to come – in keeping with the aims of the YOUNG PEOPLE remember international funding program.
“Zittau essentially has only one place left that commemorates Jewish life, and that is this cemetery,” says Felix Pankonin, who oversees Netzwerkstatt, the project area for historical and political education at Hillersche Villa. “That’s why this location has a special significance for Netzwerkstatt’s work. It offers a very rich point of access to Zittau’s Jewish history, which has otherwise been largely forgotten.”
The fact that anyone in the world can now explore the Jewish cemetery in Zittau on a multilingual virtual tour and, with just a few clicks, learn a bit about its history, Jewish culture, and the lives and deaths of those buried here is thanks to the work of around 30 young people from over 15 countries. As part of the MAZEWA project, a group of international volunteers reconstructed biographies, locations, and historical events connected with the cemetery and used digital technologies to map the site, creating a digital place of remembrance. A second group came together for a two-week work camp where they recreated the outlines of the mortuary that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. The bronze tactile model they made now allows users to see and feel the former mortuary in detail.
MAZEWA not only aims to spark (young) people’s enthusiasm for local history and draw attention to forgotten places that played a role in Jewish life and National Socialist injustices, but also to make the Jewish cemetery in Zittau accessible to an international audience. “There are a great number of people scattered around the world who have some connection or another to this Jewish community in Zittau – even if it was three or four generations ago. But these people don’t have any way of traveling to Zittau and accessing the cemetery in person,” says Felix Pankonin, describing the idea behind the project.
But what does working with adolescents and young adults on a cemetery look like? “Most of the young volunteers were less biased than you would expect. This might also have something to do with the fact that they had neither a strong personal connection to the topic of Judaism nor a firm idea of how they should approach the topic,” Pankonin explains. He notes that the project particularly benefited from the different perspectives the participants had of the cemetery and the region, with the majority of them not having any geographical connection with the area.
“It’s really mind-blowing to be here, to be able to touch the location and do the practical work,” one of the participants said later of her experience. “You can read about these things in articles and books, but it’s a completely different experience to be on site at a historical location yourself.”
In order to make the results as accessible as possible, the Hillersche Villa, together with its project partner Simon Reuter, a freelance consultant for tourism destinations, relied on the method of so-called cultural heritage interpretation - a concept from the tourism sector, according to which visitors should be better addressed through a personal approach. In addition, the Hillersche Villa worked closely with the Jewish communities in the region. This also resulted in the talk show "Ask a Rabbi. What you always wanted to know about Jewish life but never dared to ask!", whose name says it all: listeners learn more about Jewish life in an entertaining way.
Anne Kleinbauer, historian and project manager at the time, reports in a podcast: "The point of MAZEWA was to make the Jewish history of the region accessible not just through facts, but through stories, i.e. interpretation. That has the effect of reaching people emotionally, so they can link the place they visited with their own experience."
But the question of whether there might be a certain amount of risk involved in using a method from the tourism sector still needed to be discussed. “Something we’re seeing at many locations in Europe is that Jewish cultural heritage is being romanticized more and more. This can result in extreme touristification of these Jewish historical locations, while actual Jewish life doesn’t play any role in people’s perceptions anymore.”
Felix Pankonin also warns: “Being emotionally affected shouldn’t result in people dealing with the topic in a superficial way, which we often see at memorial events.” Pankonin says that MAZEWA also addresses people on a creative level; however, in doing so the participants focused on making sure the facts were correct and conclusions weren’t arrived at from the context alone. “The project only conveys things that we really know, so we are telling a story that is authentic, profound, and coherent.”
One of the participants expressed the impact the project had on the adolescents and young adults involved: “I felt like I was delivering messages and stories that had been buried and forgotten in the cemetery.”
MAZEWA laid a key foundation for efforts to make Jewish life in the border region more tangible. But Pankonin believes there’s still work to be done in the future: “Projects in the area of virtual remembrance and memorial work are applying innovative approaches. But many institutions and multipliers are still grappling with the question of how the results can be integrated into their education work. I think the next step is still missing there.” He says the local population also needs to be even more closely involved – particularly in a region where there is little interest in Jewish history and culture.
Plans are already underway to implement a similar project with the Jewish cemetery in Görlitz, Pankonin reports. “There are still many old synagogues, cemeteries, and other Jewish historical locations that aren’t recognizable for what they once were anymore. We are working on ideas to make these accessible in the virtual space.”
The idea: “Mazewa” is a Jewish word that can be translated as “gravestone” (plural: Mazewot). The project aims to attract more attention to Jewish cultural heritage in the region and to make the Jewish cemetery in Zittau a place of education and remembrance. A digital tour sharing information on Jewish life and death in the border area between Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic has now made the cemetery accessible in the digital space.
The participants not only actively worked with the cemetery; before starting they were also given an introduction to the history of the region and the cemetery as well as various burial traditions, particularly Jewish German ones, and visited other locations that played a role in Jewish life in Görlitz, Liberec in the Czech Republic, and Sieniawka in Poland. The results will now be incorporated into Netzwerkstatt’s ongoing education work.
The cemetery: The Jewish cemetery is located at the northeastern edge of Zittau on Görlitzer Strasse. It was inaugurated in 1887 and partially destroyed during the National Socialist era. In 1938, the Nazis blew up the mortuary now commemorated by the tactile model created by MAZEWA. The last burial in the cemetery was held in 1967. The cemetery has been desecrated six times since the end of World War II. The most recent incident took place in 2003 and was discovered only weeks later – a circumstance, according to Anne Kleinbauer und Felix Pankonin, “that was characteristic of the manner in which the city and its society had approached its Jewish heritage up until that point.”
Project executing agency: Hillersche Villa gGmbH, Grosshennersdorf, Germany
Funding countries: Germany
Funding period: August 15, 2020 to September 30, 2022
Funding amount: EUR 39,909