Forgetting Hitler

A growing number of young German Muslims lash out against Holocaust studies

| Utne Reader September / October 2007

In a noisy stretch of Maybachufer Strasse, along a canal in the working-class neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Berlin's open-air Turkish market unfolds every Tuesday and Friday. Here in 'Little Istanbul,' spices, coffee, and grilled kebabs scent the streets. Blocks of white salted cheese, pyramids of cumin, and mounds of olives are sold under tented stalls. All along the canal, the sounds of Turkish and some Arabic drown out whatever German can be heard. Men and women casually dressed in jeans, as well as women modestly covered in hijab, jostle and shop among the selection of toys, cutlery, fabric, and head scarves.

Progressive Germans like to point to districts such as Kreuzberg and the quaint scene of Turkish coffeehouses, halal butchers, and Anatolian travel agencies as examples of their modern, multicultural society. But another sort of reality can be found along these streets and on the graffiti-scarred buildings. The writing on some of these walls, and on fliers distributed in the area, broadcasts hostility toward Israel and the kind of virulent anti-Semitism that was once considered unthinkable in postwar Germany-at least in public. In addition to politically charged messages such as 'Zionists out of Palestine,' there are stark proclamations-'Death to Jews,' 'Death to Israel'-and an occasional swastika.

But perhaps nowhere is anti-Semitism more evident than in the mandatory Holocaust studies classes in high schools. The classes, taught all across Germany as part of the history curriculum, are part of a national project, launched after World War II, and specifically since the 1960s, to institutionalize the memory of the Holocaust. Government and academic institutions dedicate entire archives to the Nazi regime, and there is an abundance of films, television documentary programs, newspaper articles, and books on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Former concentration camps are now memorials, museums, and education sites that scores of German students visit on field trips.

But now a growing number of Germany's young Muslims are questioning, resisting, and even rejecting Holocaust studies. They bitterly denounce Jews and Israel and lionize Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some disrupt efforts to teach them about the Holocaust and refuse to partake in official Holocaust commemorations. And teachers, increasingly, are throwing up their hands in despair.

It's a phenomenon that is as troubling as it is knotty. The surge in anti-Semitic behavior is taking place among third- and fourth-generation immigrant children, mostly of Arab or Palestinian backgrounds, but also of Turkish descent. Among these youth, the word Jew, once decorously silenced in this country, is regularly used as an insult. Many of them talk about the Holocaust as a falsehood, an exaggeration, or a justification for Israel. Many simply do not identify with this chapter of German history, especially amid their own galaxy of national conflicts and internecine struggles.

'I was doing a workshop once,' says Elif Kayi, who works with Berlin's Arab, Turkish, and Muslim youth at the grassroots organization Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, 'and I heard a student say that Jews should be gassed. ' Kayi watched as the teacher stood by in silence. When she asked the instructor later why he didn't respond, 'he said that he'd heard such things before, but that he didn't react in order to avoid a conflict,' she recalls. That's a shocking observation in a country that has made the Holocaust and confrontation of its Nazi past something of a national assignment. It's a shift that reveals a tangle of social issues.

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