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  • Centropa: Old Stories New Meanings in Confronting Europe’s Past

    Posted on July 25th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 6 comments
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    Memorial where the bima stood at the Heidelberger Synagoge in Heidelberg, Germany.

    Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.

    I love stories.  I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history.  Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level.  I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter.  Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA.  Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean.  Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees.  Centropa’s goals include:  connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking.  I have heard this before.  But Centropa is different.  Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war.  For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies.  After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways.  Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone.  In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history.  I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves.  When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels.  I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt.  I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm.  We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning.  We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom.  I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning.  The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.

    Author, Melissa Cohavi

    The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me.  I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about.  Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews.  It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students.  I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II.  I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels.  I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well.  But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right.  There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere.  It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government.  There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin.  The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest.  Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that.  Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.

    Centropa Summer Seminar 2012

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    6 responses to “Centropa: Old Stories New Meanings in Confronting Europe’s Past”

    1. Thanks for this lovely piece, Melissa. It was great having you with us and great getting to know you. Best of luck with your lesson plans and projects and let’s stay in touch.
      Ed Serotta
      Director
      Centropa

    2. Dear Melissa,
      What a wonderful piece about your experiences learning with the Centropa Summer Seminer. I learned so much from the stories you shared. It is such a gift for us, Jewish educators, to be able to continue our own learning and then to be able to inspire others to continue their learning.

      Thanks for sharing this with me.
      Jo Kay

    3. Melissa Cohavi

      Jo and Ed,

      Thank you so much for your beautiful comments. The trip was so meaningful for me, and as a learner at heart having the opportunity to travel with Centropa and expand my knowledge base was amazing!

      Ed and Lauren — thanks again!

      –Melissa

    4. Hi Melissa,

      I always love reading about your adventures–as I always learn something.

      Best,
      Carol

    5. Hi Melissa,

      it was a pleasure to get to know you at the summer academy, and to read you as well.

      best,

      Ouriel

    6. Dear Melissa,
      … Remember the restaurant in Berlin, by the reformed Synagogue? Just came acorss it in my mind after seeing Ouriel’s message linked to your beautiful thoughts about the journey.
      Bless!

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