In the last three years, in light of Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015, there has been a “re-discovery” of historical events connected to refugees, with several individuals and media bodies pointing out “striking parallels between past and present.” Yet many of the existing educational materials touching on situations which resulted in seeking refuge – such as that of German and European Jews in the 1930s – were made in order to study about National-Socialism and its policies of persecution, and were not intended to provoke thought about the situation of refugees today. “Nowhere to Go” is a project offering online materials in English, German, and Hebrew on the topic of flight and escape – taking the situation of German and Austrian Jews in 1938-39 as a starting point for a reflection on the situation of refugees today.
Linking past and present
The online materials, “Nowhere to Go. Jewish Refugees 1938-39″ were produced in cooperation with educators from the Memorial and Educational Site House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin and from Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies in Israel through the funding of the German foundation EVZ (Remembrance, Responsibility Future). Together, we took the debate on the so-called European refugee crises as a starting point, and tried to examine the Evian Conference, the Kindertransport and the Voyage of the St. Louis. Since the specific aim is linking the past and present, historical documents were chosen that allow for reflection on analogies, parallels, and lines of continuity. The outcome is a designated website with educational materials in English, German and Hebrew – all can be easily downloaded as PDFs.
The materials are suitable for pupils of the 11th and 12th grade and for young adults. These materials, with an extensive guideline on how they can be used, consist of three comprehensive historical modules. Each module has three phases: an introduction, work groups with primary sources, and reflection. Following our educational standards and working principles, we do not directly compare experiences or contexts, but implicitly compare structures – of prejudice, exclusion, language, diplomatic interests, and the attitudes of governments. We also encourage the participants themselves to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of “learning from the past.” For this aim, we posed the question, “Is there anything that we can learn from the history of National-Socialism that is relevant for the debate on refugees today, and if so, what?“ to random visitors at the memorial and educational site House of the Wannsee Conference, creating a short clip which functions as a teaser for the project:
The Evian Conference of 1938
“The number of immigrants who intend to enter occupations that are already fully supplied with labor must not be allowed to exceed what is reasonable. Otherwise… opportunities for the employment of our own people would be reduced [and also] to the very immigrants whom we have already received.” – The Argentinian Delegation to Evian.
In this module, participants receive background information as well as the major points made by some of the delegations to the Evian Conference of 1938. Participants are asked to prepare and deliver a speech, for which they consider: Which arguments should be made public? Which are better kept hidden? In the reenactment of the conference, they deal with four core questions:
- To what extent am I responsible to help foreigners?
- What is the proper balance between self-concerns and international obligation for refugees?
- What are legitimate and non-legitimate concerns for rejecting refugees?
- To what extent is diplomacy effective or necessary to solve such problems?
The Kindertransport module reflects on the role of the media and language, and how the media is used to shape our perceptions of reality and of groups of people who are not our own. Unlike the other modules, this unit begins in the present and ends with an open discussion about the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of looking at the past in order to learn in the present. In small groups, participants also discuss the experience, characteristics, and challenges of child refugees based on various testimonies of children of the Kindertransport.
A deeper look into the Kindertransport module
This module is broken up into stages:
Stage 1: This stage acts as an introduction to the module. Core question: How do language and terms used by the media affect and influence our perception of refugees?
Stage 2.a: The participants will learn about the historical circumstances concerning the “Kindertransport”, reflect the differences between child and adult refugees, and analyze the complex situation of those children– their feelings, hopes, and dreams.
Stage 2.b: Reflection. Participants will reflect the different sources given to them for the Kindertransport and for Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015.
Stage 3: Based on a short excerpt warning about the comparison of historical events written by a scholar of modern European history, participants will be asked to look critically at this entire exercise and discuss the comparability of the Kindertransport and Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015.
Media coverage of the refugee crisis, as well as of other historical events, has a huge impact on how we perceive these events. In December 2015, a report by the UN Refugee Agency on the press coverage of the refugee and migrant crisis in the EU stated:
“It is impossible to ignore the role of the mass media in influencing public and elite political attitudes towards asylum and migration. The mass media can set agendas and frame debates. The research shows that in many countries, refugees and migrants have tended to be framed negative as a problem, rather than a benefit to host societies. However it is also true that, on occasion, media can have positive impacts on public attitude and policy.”
A Case Study: the media coverage of Aylan Kurdi
An example of the media’s positive impact was seen in the beginning of September 2015, as the front pages of newspapers across the world were dominated by images of a drowned three year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey after his family’s attempt to reach Greece ended in tragedy. Research done by Sheffield University showed that the image of Aylan Kurdi spread to 20 million screens around the world in just 12 hours. The Guardian reported a surge in donations to charities and NGO’s because of the publication of the images.
- Why do children turn into icons of historical events? Why is it easier to create sympathy for children? (Also here the facilitator can add reasons that were not named by the participants.)
- Can you think of other photos of children that had turn iconic for a specific historical event?
- Why is it perhaps easier to speak of child refugees rather than of adult refugees?
The Voyage of the St. Louis
“I let the question of guilt rest. How much nicer it is to talk about gratitude. Gratitude for everything good that we learn from others. That is why I have to thank countless people that helped me make the life of our passengers on the ‘St. Louis’ as pleasant as possible. Although, never forget the reminder, what the tragic fate of the passengers of the “emigrant ship” means for all mankind, so that cruelty and inhumanity, wherever they can be, can never again spread.” – the Captain of the St. Louis
This module deals with the voyage of the St. Louis from different perspectives: that of the refugees themselves, of the Cuban and American governments and of the captain of the ship. In small groups and based on different key questions, each group deals with one aspect of the story and eventually presents and discusses it with the other participants to create an overall picture of the St. Louis affair. One of the groups focuses on the topic of international responsibility for the situation of refugees – with regards to the existing international law. In the last phase of this module, participants are asked to formulate and convey a message they consider important in regard to the topic of flight and seeking refuge. In the form of a poster, collage, or a journal’s front page, they can either address the world of the 1930s or ours.
The historical modules stand completely on their own – they complement one another but can be used separately. An additional exercise can be used in all modules – either as an introduction or as an ending unit. Participants are asked to move on a scale of agreement or disagreement towards various quotations of politicians, artists, religious figures and scholars on the topic of refugees. They reflect critically on a range of positions on the subject and formulate and explain their own positions. They gain awareness of structural similarities (and differences) in relation to responses to refugees in the past and present and hopefully also recognize that a capacity for empathy is a central precondition for a humane society.
Aya Zarfati is a member of the Educational Department at the Memorial House of the Wannsee Conference, responsible for the conception of educational programs.
MEMORIAL HOUSE OF THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE
Massuah International Institute for Holocaust Studies was designed to evoke discourse on the significance of the Holocaust in our contemporary society and culture. Massuah comprises a central school, permanent exhibitions, multimedia centers, archives, conference halls, dormitories, and an amphitheater. Throughout the year the Grossman School provides seminars for tens of thousands young people including high school students units of the Israel Defense Forces, the security services, and domestic and foreign organizations. The seminars are in various languages including Hebrew, English, Spanish, Polish, and Russian.