24/25 June, Eisenach and Friedland
The staff at TOP who put together our itinerary worked hard to give us a variety of experiences in Germany. On our way to a different bundesland, we had a quick, one night stop in the town of Eisenach where most of us had an authentic dinner of Thuringian sausage and local bier near Bach’s birthplace and childhood home. After dinner, some of us climbed a mountain (okay…a pretty big hill) to reach Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Latin to German. We happened upon a concert at the castle, complete with strobe lights and German rap; it was unexpected to say the least.
After our night in Eisenach, we were on our way to one of the most anticipated stops on our trip. We figured out early into our time together that our group, TOP 2, had largely written on the same essay topic in our application. Of four given topics, nearly all of us wrote on this prompt:
Article 16a of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (Das Grundgesetz) reads, “Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum.”
After we returned from our trip, while reflecting on how to use what I experienced in my classroom, I actually went back to my essay to see what I had written. Though focused largely on how I would take what I could learned about refugees and asylum back to my classroom, I also had the chance to write about America’s current immigration crisis and compare it to the responsibilities that social democracies carry. It seems fairly obvious that European countries are dealing with Syrian immigration in varying ways and with varying degrees of success, but also that Germany is bearing more than its fair share of the weight of the Syrian refugee situation. We were all eager to find out more about how Germany was meaningfully integrating refugees into its society, and take the opportunity to humanize the crisis by meeting some of the displaced Syrians currently awaiting placement in Germany.
We stopped in the town of Friedland for the day, which became notable following World War II because of its geography, as a city located on the border between the American zone (Hesse) and the Russian zone (Thuringia). Here, following World War II, a camp was built for German prisoners of war as they were returned from Russia, other returning soldiers, and people who had been displaced from their homes as a result of the war. During the Cold War, ethnic Germans from Eastern Bloc countries also came through Friedland, hoping to escape Soviet Oppression. Today, the former train station serves as a new museum that documents flight, expulsion, migration, and integration. Fluchtpunkt Friedland, or the Friedland Museum, was an eye-opening experience for many of us, as it provided context for the migration happening into Germany today. In addition to providing insights into the refugee situation in Germany today, it also chronicles the plight of other refugees post-WWII, with memorable portions of exhibits that focused on Cambodia and Vietnam. If you’re interested, the museum provides a brief video tour. The audio is in German, but the visuals are still powerful.
We also had the chance to visit the present-day Friedland resettlement camp, Grenzdurchgangslager Friedland, which is a transitory camp for people who are being placed more permanently in other locations in Germany. Mostly used for Syrian refugees in transit, the day we visited, we met many kids who were eager for the German-language coloring book and colored pencils brought as gifts by two very thoughtful members of our group.
During a unique and enlightening lunch experience in which not one but two restaurants weren’t able to accommodate us (it was a very small town after all…), and we ended up eating outside a grocery store (which provided a surprisingly fun cultural experience), we ran into an American from Ohio who worked for Caritas, a non-profit organization that actively works with the youth in the camp. She and our pre-arranged guides, who are also volunteers at the camp, were gracious enough to give us some of their time to walk us around, introduce us to some of the people at the camp, and show us the facilities.
I didn’t (and probably still don’t) fully realize the impact of this day. A little bit of clarity came just a few weeks later though, as my focus in this school year, and really, life in general was identified as I experienced a perfectly-timed reading of the Alchemist in Vienna:
“When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too…love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World…because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are.”
Our time in Friedland was full of experiences none of us will soon forget, and put faces to the situation that so many will only hear about on the news. I’m constantly reminded of the comment the immigration lawyer we met with made our first day in Passau; “We need to help these people because they need help.” It really isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds, but who doesn’t wish this and so many other situations could be dealt with using a bit more compassion and understanding? I was glad to have been reminded of that on this day, and so many others since; continually working on becoming better and loving more.