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.

MC Lean



Try to Make your Life

30 June, Berlin, Written 3 July on a train between Berlin and Prague


“How is it possible that something like this could have happened?”

Elie Wiesel died yesterday. We heard the news after we had just gotten back from a public viewing of the Germany-Italy soccer game at the Brandenburg Gate.

I’m a fatalist by nature, which is certainly inconvenient at times, but I couldn’t help but think about the coincidental timing of his passing. It was my last night in Germany, and after spending a significant amount of our week thinking about how humans remember and memorialize tragedy and inhumanity, this news seemed particularly poignant. This remarkable man has left an enduring legacy in so many ways, but certainly in the form of several books that millions of kids all over the world have read, and will continue to read.

Being in Germany, having just spent the better part of a week learning, re-learning, discussing, and contextualizing the Holocaust and the experience of Germany under National Socialism, Wiesel’s death seemed especially poignant, as we had just met with a survivor of the Holocaust, and had discussed in several conversations how important it was to tell these stories before those who lived them are gone. Afterward, we collectively, and strongly, felt an increased duty to be the conduits by which these stories reach broader society. We had previously discussed during our experiences that some things in the world around us are rapidly changing, and many believe we (people, educators, etc.) need to adapt to those changes or get left behind.

I believe that we, as social studies, humanities, and liberal arts teachers, will forever be story-tellers. The medium may change, the means may change, but we still tell stories, help kids contextualize stories, and help reinforce stories that are undertold. As the world around us is changing and the purposes of education are shifting, I believe it is implicitly the role of educators to help kids think and engage them in the world around us. Thinking deeper, broader, harder than they would otherwise, remembering that students are people first. People who will soon leave the safe bounds of school, and enter a world where they will be citizens, and consumers, and employees, and friends and family, but will remain, most importantly, humans.

We had the great fortune of meeting with Margot Friedlander, a Holocaust survivor who lived in the states for 64 years before her return to Germany in 2010. In addition to her chilling experiences in Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech), she also shared words of humanity to bring back to our students. During her unimaginable experiences, she shared that she had continually wondered, “How is it possible that something like this could have happened?” She told us that people needed to always use their own feelings, and avoid being influenced by politicians and public figures. She mentioned that students should focus on doing the right thing, and that though we can never love everyone, we can certainly respect everyone. Her book, Try to Make your Life, shares her experiences before, during, and after her time in Theresienstadt. An incredibly profound message, we had the chance to listen to her story, and ask her questions about her experiences.

Margot Friedlander 6

I couldn’t help but think about my experience at Oksan Seowan when she made her last comment in answering a question about what we should bring back to our students.

Be a human being. Be a feeling, thinking human being. A mensch.

71 years after she was freed from one of the most vile acts of inhumanity we’ve ever known, this woman is still actively sharing her message and encouraging us to be more fully human. The importance of her story, and the story of everyone affected by the Holocaust, and the War at large has not diminished, and as her generation passes, it’s left to all of us to work to ensure her story and the stories of others like her, are not forgotten, and the lessons that were learned are shared.


As a result of these two weeks, our conversation with this incredible woman, and my personal reflections on the importance of the loss of Elie Wiesel, I’m more convinced than I’ve ever been that teaching (in many, many shapes and forms) is one of the most profound expressions of humanity I have encountered. That’s a pretty incredible thing to start a school year with.


MC Lean