'It's about their school, their street, their neighborhood'

German students research fates of their school’s Jews to bring Nazi-era horrors home

Against backdrop of October 7 massacres and surge in global antisemitism, US consultant Terry Mandel visits Germany to expand award-winning Holocaust memory project based in Cologne

Reporter at The Times of Israel

At the Königin Luise Schule in Cologne, Germany, students watch as 'Stumbling Stone' memorials are installed for Holocaust victims who were expelled by the school during Nazi rule (courtesy)
At the Königin Luise Schule in Cologne, Germany, students watch as 'Stumbling Stone' memorials are installed for Holocaust victims who were expelled by the school during Nazi rule (courtesy)

While standing in Auschwitz on a school field trip, history teacher Dirk Erkelenz envisioned a project in which students at his high school in Cologne, Germany, would research the fate of its Jewish students, the last of whom were expelled by the school during National Socialist rule.

Since 2015, more than 150 students at the Königin-Luise-Schule have taken Erkelenz’s yearlong Special History elective. The acclaimed project includes students reaching out to relatives of the Jewish girls they researched.

“What students are doing is meaningful — they have the feeling that they can do something themselves,” Erkelenz told The Times of Israel.

The project culminates with students placing “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine) in the school courtyard for girls who were murdered in the Holocaust or otherwise victimized by the Nazis. Students also add to the memorial book on the school website and hold public events about the project.

In the past three decades, small memorial Stolpersteine have been placed outside the former homes of more than 100,000 victims of the Nazis. In Berlin, for example, close to 6,000 shiny inscribed gold bricks fill city sidewalks, many placed in large clusters because multiple Jewish families lived in the building.

“The students are doing something against antisemitism, racism and Holocaust denial. This is all the more true as they contact relatives of the Jewish girls who they researched,” Erkelenz said.

Dirk Erkelenz, originator of a curriculum that has students in Cologne, Germany, research the fates of Jewish girls who were expelled by the school under the Nazis (courtesy)

Earlier in 2024, Erkelenz was honored with the prestigious Obermayer Award for his project and related book, published in German. The book is called “Jewish Grammar School Pupils in Cologne: Their Stories Between Integration, Exclusion & Persecution.” Seven of his students’ essays are included in the volume.

While researching, students in Erkelenz’s class use the city of Cologne’s vast archive. They also make extensive use of the database of the NS Documentation Centre and the Visual History Archive of the USC Shoah Foundation.

“It’s about their school, their street, their neighborhood. They do not deal abstractly with the immense and incomprehensible number of 6 million victims. Instead, they experience and feel a concrete fate, in the best case with a picture, a photograph,” said Erkelenz.

‘A profound act of unerasure’

One of the students researched by Erkelenz’s class was the mother of Terry Mandel, an American leadership and organization consultant. Mandel is now collaborating with Erkelenz to bring the project to scale in Germany through a charitable organization she founded in 2023 called “The Unerasure Projekt.”

Anna Eith (left) and Terry Mandel in Cologne, Germany, 2023 (courtesy: Terry Mandel)

Erkelenz told The Times of Israel he welcomes Mandel’s commitment to sharing his pedagogy through her project as widely as possible.

“Dirk teaches kids to ask questions and helps them learn where to go to find answers. That pedagogy is extremely powerful,” said Mandel.

Based in Berkeley, California, Mandel became aware of Erkelenz’s course in 2021, when one of his students reached out to her in cyberspace. Sixteen-year-old Anna Eith wrote to Mandel through ancestry.com, not yet knowing that Mandel was the daughter of her assigned student, Ingelore Silberbach.

After fleeing to Britain in 1938, Silberbach and her older sister immigrated to North America, where they joined their parents and grandparents in 1939.

Ingelore Silberbach (courtesy: Terry Mandel)

During her lifetime, Silberbach relayed almost nothing of the past to her daughter, said Mandel.

“Before Anna’s email, I’d never even heard the name of the school my mother attended in Cologne,” wrote Mandel.

Eith’s essay on Silberbach — whose family fled Germany the day after Kristallnacht — appears in Erkelenz’s book.

Mandel was so moved by Erkelenz’s project that she dedicated the rest of her life to “celebrating, advocating, and facilitating similar actions,” she wrote in the foreword to Erkelenz’s book.

“This is a profound act of unerasure,” said Mandel.

‘It came up in every conversation’

The day before the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Mandel landed in Germany for several months of meetings about the project. Until then, talking about Israel had not been on her agenda.

“I realized immediately, though, that now I have to talk about it,” said Mandel, regarding the Hamas massacre in which 1,200 Israelis were murdered and 253 people kidnapped into Gaza.

“It came up in every conversation,” said Mandel.

Terry Mandel with 7th grade students who sponsored her mother’s ‘Stumbling Stone’ in Cologne, Germany, 2022 (courtesy: Terry Mandel)

Following the global surge of antisemitism after the attacks, Mandel said she and her Jewish friends “felt extremely isolated. It’s devastating and lonely to be a Jew now,” she said.

“I’d never felt afraid in my life as a Jew until that moment. But it wasn’t because I was in Germany. I actually felt safer in Germany than I would have in Berkeley,” said Mandel.

“There’s generally more discernment about and sensitivity to antisemitism in postwar Germany than in the US,” said Mandel.

At age 25, Mandel founded a marketing, advertising and PR firm in Portland, Oregon. In the decades since, she’s been focused on leadership development, strategic planning, and systemic change in organizations.

Königin Luise Schule in Cologne, Germany (courtesy)

“I came into this project with a big blank around my own family history,” said Mandel. “A lot of descendants — and we’re all descendents of some deep suffering — don’t know anything about what happened in our families. We may not know it, but we live with it.”

Visiting Germany to find partners, sponsors, and funders interested in disseminating Erkelenz’s pedagogy, Mandel also met with German students from 5th to 12th grade. She shared stories about her family’s past and invited them to consider the relevance of this history to their lives.

Throughout her tour, Mandel said Germans she met were receptive and committed to remembering the past.

“But this project also has to be made accessible to teachers where there are no Jews,” said Mandel.

‘To gain emotional access’

There are three elements in The Unerasure Projekt’s school programs. Teachers can bring them into classrooms one by one, or as a whole, said Mandel.

Devastation caused by Allied air-raids in Cologne, Germany, 1944 (public domain)

First, “Experiential Dialogues” are led by trained conversation starters — descendants of victims, perpetrators, and refugees — whose stories and questions help students discuss painful heritage issues.

The second part, “Remembrance Research & Tikkun Olam,” is based on the curriculum Erkelenz developed. Students learn about the Holocaust in a personal way while developing research skills needed to live in a world increasingly threatened by disinformation, said Mandel.

“Teachers will be able to adopt Erkelenz’s original yearlong curriculum or reframe it to fit their settings,” said Mandel. For example, teachers outside of Germany could focus on their local, national, or cultural histories.

“Perhaps through researching their own ancestral histories of displacement and erasure, even students with no strong familial, national, or cultural ties to the Holocaust can learn to conduct reliable research, strengthen their critical thinking, build empathy for all who suffer tremendous loss, and shape lifelong commitments to a more just world for all,” said Mandel.

Posed in front of “Stumbling Stones’ placed outside the school, Terry Mandel joins 5th grade students in the Königin Luise Schule courtyard, Nov. 20, 2023 (courtesy: Terry Mandel)

Through the project’s third component, called “Expressive Arts,” students connect the dots between what they learned and self-expression. Using drama, poetry, film, music, dance, or other media, students are encouraged to create art that encapsulates their research.

“Writing an essay is not the only way to share what a student researcher learns by studying, or unerasing, a victim’s life,” Mandel said.

The project plans to provide videos of Erkelenz orienting teachers to the material, including how to guide students in writing biographical essays, said Mandel.

“The emotional impact on the students enables others who read these biographies to gain emotional access themselves,” said Erkelenz.

Dirk Erkelenz’s Special History students researching at the Cologne city archive, October 2023 (courtesy: Terry Mandel)

So far, schools in 20 countries have expressed interest in the project, which is in the process of becoming a tax-exempt association in Germany, said Mandel.

In Mandel’s assessment, the “guilt, shame, and horror” felt by descendants of Holocaust survivors is also felt by many descendants of German Nazis.

“Our project is trying to make this history alive, meaningful, and relevant today,” Mandel said.

For his part, Holocaust educator Erkelenz believes his Special History course offers students an appropriate lens to examine current events in which far-right parties are rising throughout much of Europe.

“Anyone who is informed by historical events must know why certain political forces must not only not be voted for today, but must be opposed immediately,” said Erkelenz. “The effect is similar, of course, if you look at the stories of other persecuted groups, or currently at the individual fates of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.”

Most Popular
read more: