“I think of this person because...”
Most walls are built to separate. This school has spent More than two decades building one to bring people together.
When Christa Niclasen came to teach at the Löcknitz primary school in 1986, she thumbed through the hand-written log of a former principal. When she came to the entry following Kristallnacht in November 1938, what she read was chilling.
“He wrote that it was time to cleanse the school of the Jews because they are dangerous for the German race, and from this day on there will be no Jewish pupils allowed to attend our school,” she says. “And from that time on, there were no Jewish children in the school.”
The Löcknitz school is in a Berlin neighborhood that was then populated by 16,000 Jews. Albert Einstein, theologian Leo Baeck, sociologist Erich Fromm, and author Alfred Kantorowicz numbered among illustrious Jews who had lived there. The school was built on the site of a former synagogue.
Niclasen thought about how limited her own education in her hometown of Braunschweig was. Born in 1951, she remembers hearing tales from her grandfather. “He told me stories about the war and how terrible it was. In school, we only learned that the Second World War took place in 1939-1945.” She had to read books and see films if she wanted to know more.
She made up her mind to help her students learn about the thriving Jewish neighborhood and culture that had once surrounded the school.
When she became principal of the school in 1994, she and colleague Waltraud Hardtke devised an indelible teaching plan. They used a memorial book that listed more than 6,000 Jews that had lived in the neighborhood and been killed in concentration camps. The school’s sixth-graders were instructed to pick a person who interested them. Some chose people who had lived on their street or with whom they shared a birthday.
As it happened, a building was being constructed near NiClasen’s home with yellow bricks. She acquired a handful for her project. Students then wrote the name, birth date, and date and place of death on their bricks. Then they placed the bricks—27 in all—in the school yard, the start of a wall that would grow a bit each year. As each student presented a brick, he would say “I think of this person because…” and state some information about the person.
Today the project, called Denkmal an jüdische Mitbürger—a word play that literally means Memorial: Think about our Jewish neighbors, has become a highly anticipated tradition. Students have laid 1,500 bricks, and there’s plenty of room for more.
And unlike walls aimed at keeping people out, this one has attracted visitors from around the world interested in this unique project and the school’s approach to teaching Jewish history. Visitors have included school groups, politicians, and celebrities. Hannah Pick-Goslar, Anne Frank’s best friend, brought family members to the school on four different occasions over the years.
Among the most anticipated guests have been former Jewish students who returned to speak at the school they were expelled from in 1938. When they tell their stories, the children are spellbound. “I think even at the age of 11 or 12 children can understand how terrible it was without being directly confronted with all the facts,” NiClasen says. “When our 6th graders listen to witnesses, I see and I can feel how moved they are. I think it is important that the children know about it, so it will never happen again.” She tells the story of a boy who declined to participate. His family was Palestinian and he did not want to participate in an activity honoring Jews. But once he heard the stories of what had happened, she says, he quickly changed his mind and decided to lay a brick.
Judith Blumenheim’s grandmother, Helene, born in 1867, was one of those who never came back. Blumenheim learned of the Löcknitz school project after Niclasen helped organize the placement of a stumbling stone (Stolperstein), a memorial stone, outside her grandmother’s former home. In 2009, the 800th brick was set in the memorial wall— it bore the name of her own father, Ernst-Alfred Blumenheim. “I built a connection with the young sponsor of that name,” she said. “It was one of the happiest moments in my life, because I never had a gravesite for my father.”
Peter Zander, who was 11 when his family left Berlin for England in 1933, will never forget the first time he saw the wall. Local historian Gudrun Blankenburg took him on a walking tour and led him to the school.
“I had no idea what was about to hit me,” he recalled. “Frau Blankenburg had a key to the schoolyard and opened the gate… a few children were playing in the yard. I saw a long, yellow wall. I saw the bricks with black lettering, clearly written by children, some in old German script. I was stunned and broke out in tears.”
The wall, says Zander, is more than a memorial. “It’s a reminder of the good times, when Jews were simply German citizens, simply Berliners.”