by Mark Friedman, Community Service and Round Square Director
Greetings from Hamburg, Germany! Athenian’s delegation to the Round Square Conference in Germany flew from SFO to Copenhagen and then on to Hamburg. I always find it exciting and unsettling to get on a plane one day and get off the next day on the far side of the planet. In the short time we have been here, we have reconnected with friends, eaten delicious food, and had moving experiences learning about WWII at a historical church and concentration camp.
As we were finishing breakfast at our hostel yesterday, we were met by Franzi. Franzi lives in Hamburg and attends the Round Square school that is hosting the conference. She came to Athenian on exchange last year. Franzi liked Athenian so much she wanted to transfer, but her parents said it was too far away. So she has enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program because she is interested in coming to the USA for college. We had Franzi as a tour guide for half of the day, which was a huge treat. (Franzi is second from the left in the photo, which was taken at the front door of Hamburg’s Town Hall.)
Yesterday was a national holiday in Germany, Unity Day, so Franzi had the day off from school. The town was deserted and the shops closed when we headed out at 9:00 AM. We wandered the streets and waterways of Hamburg, visited the historic warehouse district, and took a boat tour. We visited what remains of Saint Nicolai church. It’s tower is still the second highest structure in Hamburg. Almost all of the church was destroyed in the Allied bombing of Hamburg during World War I. The ruins have been left as a memorial to the horrors of war. We went up the tower, which was a scary elevator ride. We also went into the crypt, which is a museum that focuses on the Nazi bombing of the English city of Coventry in 1940 and the Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943. The Germans introduced the concept of saturation bombing of cities, along with innovations such as incendiary bombs. Later in the war, the Allies used these same techniques to bomb many German cities, including Hamburg. Over 900,000 people in Hamburg lost their homes due to the bombing, code-named Operation Gomorrah.
Our day ended with a little help from another friend. Athenian 12th grader, Kiana Amir-Kabirian, lived in Hamburg for 11 years. We ate dinner at a pasta/pizza restaurant she recommended, Vapiano. We ordered our dinner from the cook and watched with them as they made it—or chatted with them if we were feeling really friendly.
This morning, we took an hour-long train and bus ride into the countryside east of Hamburg to visit the Neuengamme concentration camp. Our group had a three-hour guided tour. I didn’t know anything about this concentration camp before this trip, but it was the largest camp in western Germany and had 84 satellite camps. It wasn’t an extermination camp like Dachau or Auschwitz. Our guide called it a “death through work” camp. Half of the 100,000 prisoners who worked in the brick and munitions factories here died. It was a profound experience to walk around the almost deserted grounds and imagine the horrors that took place here.
There are different exhibits for the prisoners and for the perpetrators in their respective barracks. The many drawings by former prisoners of the camp powerfully conveyed their fear and terror. Our guide explained that in designing the memorial they made a conscious choice to put information about the conviction of SS troops as the first thing you see when you enter the perpetrators building. No flags with swastikas. No pictures of confident SS soldiers. If any supporters of the Nazis visit the museum, the folks at the memorial didn’t want them to find anything to make them proud. Only 14 of the 4,500 SS guards at Neuengamme faced trial.
Early tomorrow we have a six-hour train ride to Southwest Germany and Birkelhof School, where we’ll meet up with delegations from Round Square schools in South Africa and Australia.