Young German volunteers make amends for Holocaust
16 April 2007
by Ben Winograd
"As a German, it's part of my history whether I want it or not," Muller said.
Last summer, he and nearly two dozen other German volunteers arrived in Israel for a year of service through a group called Ot Hakapara, Hebrew for "Sign of Atonement," working at libraries, nursing homes and community centers around the country.
Beginning at sundown Sunday, they will join Israelis in commemorating the country's annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, attending the official ceremony at Yad Vashem — Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum — and speaking with Jewish students about the Nazis' crimes during World War II.
For Muller, his time in Israel has brought him powerful experiences. At the nursing home where he volunteers, he said, one 90-year-old woman ignored him for weeks, until one day she struck up a conversation with him — in German.
She said she hadn't spoken German to anybody in 60 years. She just stopped speaking it after the Shoah," Muller said, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.
Ot Hakapara was founded in 1958 by German Protestants who believed they had not done enough to stop the Holocaust, Katharina Vonmuster, the group's executive director, told The Associated Press. Each year, the group sends around 180 volunteers to help the needy around the world, she said. Two dozen of those come to Israel.
"As an East German I feel a special responsibility, because East Germany did almost nothing during its 40 years of existence" to recognize the Holocaust, Vonmuster said. While democratic West Germany accepted responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime and paid reparations, the Communist East refused to accept any blame for the events of the war.
Another volunteer, Rebecca Goermann, is volunteering at a children's library in the northern city of Haifa. When she arrived, Goermann said, she expected to face some hostility from Israelis because of her nationality.
In the end, though, the 19-year-old said she hadn't met any negative reactions. She was surprised, though, by the black humor of Israelis she heard joking about the Holocaust.
"They prefer to laugh about it," Goermann said. "We always say, 'No, we can't laugh about this topic.'"
Holocaust remembrance day lasts from sundown Sunday to sundown Monday. Every year bars, clubs and other entertainment venues close and Holocaust programming fills the airwaves. Air-raid sirens sound throughout the country for two minutes, marking a nationwide moment of silence for the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. Traffic comes to a halt, even on busy highways.
Foreign diplomats traditionally attend the remembrance ceremony at Yad Vashem. But on Thursday, the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, Monsignor Antonio Franco, said he would not attend this year because he objects to a Yad Vashem display that criticizes the wartime pope, Pius Xll, for remaining silent during the Nazi genocide.
The Vatican says Pius Xll engaged in discreet diplomacy to save thousands of Jews.
While the country officially pays respect to the Holocaust's victims, some survivors' groups have criticized the Israeli government for not providing sufficient aid to the nearly 250,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel. According to one prominent group, the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, as many as 30 percent of Israeli survivors face economic difficulties.
Many problems rooted in the Holocaust have surfaced only now that the survivors are elderly, said Dubby Arbel, the foundation's director.
Survivors often have psychological problems caused by trauma they underwent in their youth, Arbel said, and malnutrition at that time manifests itself now in a much higher rate of disease for elderly survivors than for the population at large. While elderly people generally rely on extended family for help, he said, many survivors are alone, having lost their relatives in the Holocaust.
Thirty survivors pass away every day, Arbel said, and "if we don't help them now, within five to seven years we won't have many people left to help."