“It is a critical moment right now”
Inspired by the stories of a holocaust survivor, five high school students wrote a book, started a foundation, and found a way to inspire other students.
On a school outing in 2003, a group of ninth-graders from Berlin met an elderly Jewish man who would change their lives. They were inspired to write a book about him, to bring Germany’s darkest history to life for other teenagers just like them. And eventually their efforts led them to found an award program and a related education initiative that each year encourage hundreds of other young people to develop meaningful connections with Germany’s Jewish history.
Of course, they didn’t know all that at the time. The students initially encountered Rolf Joseph on a visit to a century-old synagogue in the Charlottenburg neighborhood. He began recounting the story of how he lived through events that they had only learned about in the abstract.
Born in 1920, Joseph experienced the rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s and survived the Holocaust in a rag picker’s cellar in Berlin’s Wedding district. At times he subsisted on berries gathered from the forest outside the city. One time, the Gestapo caught Joseph, tortured him, and chained him to a small group of other prisoners bound for Auschwitz. On the drive to the train station, Joseph stole a pair of pliers from one of his captors and managed to hide them. In a rail car, he and other prisoners used the tool to cut their way through the car and jump from the moving train. Time and time again, Joseph managed to escape or avoid certain death.
Students Fabian Herbst, Dorothea Ludwig, Pia Sösemann, Simon Strauss, and Simon Warnach, along with their teacher, Albrecht Hoppe, were captivated by Joseph’s story. “We were really shocked by what he told us,” recalls Herbst, who was 15 at the time. “He made the history vivid for us, and we decided we wanted to get to know him better.”
For many years, Joseph had been visiting schools, sharing his experiences and educating students about the Holocaust; one such visit was to the five students’ school, Berlin’s Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster (Evangelical Gymnasium of the Gray Monastery). Eventually, the ve teenagers decided to do something no one else had done: document Joseph’s story.
“We had meetings with him every other month, and we put everything on tape,” Herbst says.
Strauss adds, “Then at some point someone said, ‘Let’s just write it down,’ and eventually we said, ‘Now we have to get this book done.’ We wanted to give the book to Joseph to show him that it meant something to us.” Four years later, in 2007, the group succeeded in collectively writing and publishing Rolf Joseph’s biography, a 90-page book titled I Must Go On (Ich muss weitermachen). By then, the students were calling themselves the Joseph Group.
“We wanted to make a book written by students, for students,” Herbst says. One of the other authors, Pia Sösemann, later attended university in Florida and translated the book into English. After Rolf Joseph died in late 2012, the group was debating what to do with the money they had earned through book sales. They considered building a memorial in Joseph’s name or donating the funds. Finally, they settled on a different idea: They would create a prize to inspire other students to learn about topics relating to Jewish history in Germany, much as Joseph had inspired them. The Rolf Joseph Prize was born the next year. “Especially for the young people who Rolf Joseph liked to talk to, the 13- to 16-year-olds, we wanted to get them in touch with the material, with the history,” Herbst says.
The prize honors students who engage in a meaningful way with Jewish history in Germany, through writing or imagery. Projects focus on a range of topics, from early Jewish history to the experiences of Jewish communities under the Nazis, to Stolpersteine (memorial plaques) or explorations of Jewish street names. For example, in 2017, one award-winner was a class of eighth-graders from Hemsbach in Baden-Württemberg. Their video project focused on Jewish families that once lived there and asked, “How would Hemsbach look today if the families were still there?” A second award went to a group of Berlin high school students who were inspired by a plan to place Stolpersteine for deported members of the Lipski family. The students made a video investigating the life of the family. They tracked down one of the family’s descendants in Israel and invited her to Berlin for the ceremony to dedicate the stone.
Each year, the award ceremony is part of a weekend of events that are meant to educate young people about aspects of Jewish life and history in Germany, as well as the life of Rolf Joseph. The ceremony itself is hosted by the Jewish Museum Berlin. The award has been covered extensively in the German press and achieved such recognition that the ceremony now attracts several hundred attendees.
“What makes the work of the Joseph Group so special is that their work contributes in two ways to the research of Jewish history: on the one hand through the writing and publication of the moving life of Rolf Joseph,” says Gideon Joffe, chairman of the Jewish Community of Berlin, “and on the other hand, the Rolf Joseph Prize seeks to motivate young people to deal with Jewish history as well as Jewish culture in modern times.”
Through their 14 years of work together, a strong bond has formed between the group’s members, who have since settled on a variety of careers—Herbst, Ludwig, and Sösmann study law while Strauss is a journalist and Warnach is a doctoral student in environmental physics. With busy lives to lead, sustaining the prize has become hard work; the group’s members must not only judge all entries but also reach out to schools and teachers, encouraging them to integrate the prize into their curricula. The urgency of their task, and the memory of Rolf Joseph, is what keeps them going.
“It is a critical moment right now because the last eyewitnesses of the Holocaust period won’t be around much longer,” says Strauss, a published novelist who writes for the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). “Our group had the privilege and great opportunity—and for all of us, a life-changing experience—to actually meet and have contact with someone who helped us understand what happened between 1933 and 1945 in Germany. This firs-thand knowledge is now coming to an end.”
Students “have the memorials, school books, movies, and maybe reports from their parents,” he continues, “but they don’t have the opportunity to meet someone face to face who actually experienced it.”
In an effort to broaden its impact, the Joseph Group is collaborating with the FAZ, which provides space for students to publish articles and reports about Jewish topics. The group hopes that other young people will engage with their country’s Jewish past and carry the prize forward, keeping it firmly established in Germany for years to come. “This is very much a story about binding people together,” Strauss says. “We have a duty to move this forward—to get other younger people to feel and share with this sense of active experience, forming a bridge between historical events and our times.”