Discussing Jewish history

What do Jewish history and Bismarck have to do with newcomers from Syria or Afghanistan? A great deal in Schönhausen an der Elbe, as it’s where the Otto von Bismarck Foundation (a political memorial foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany) and its Jewish History for Refugees project are based.

von Andrea Hopp


Foto: Otto v. Bismarck Stiftung
A group of refugees taking part at a guided tour through the exhibition. Photo: Otto von Bismarck Foundation

In Schönhausen, in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, there’s a small museum with an exhibition on the first Imperial Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck, who was born in Schönhausen, and an opportunity to look at Jewish history. Many displaced people have already heard about Bismarck and Jewish history. However, history teaching in their countries of origin have left them with an image of 19th and 20th century German and European history that not only leads to misunderstandings but is also incompatible with our democratic understanding of history today. This is particularly the case with aspects of Jewish history and the history of the State of Israel, and with the topic of anti-Semitism.

Shared knowledge of the past is a prerequisite for successful social participation. It supports orientation and is a key building block in the shaping of a liberal-democratic present and future.

A display case during the exhibition at the Museum Schönhausen in Sachsen-Anhalt. Photo: Otto von Bismarck Foundation

The Jewish History for Refugees project is financed by the academic working group of the Leo Baeck Institute. Participants to date have been people from Afghanistan, Syria and other countries who are living at the reception centre in Klietz near Schönhausen. Tying in with refugees’ own experiences, there’s emphasis on Jewish history as a history of migration as well as one of confrontation with prejudice and persecution based on ethnic origin or religion. The programme also includes an introduction to the history, content and importance of the constitution with the legal rights and responsibilities embodied in it.

Integrated into meet-your-neighbour and advisory/counselling events, such as coffee mornings with people in the village or study guidance service for newcomers, combined exhibition tours – of the museum and a travelling exhibition by the Centre for Anti-Semitic Research at the Technical University of Berlin called Angezettelt. Antisemitische Aufkleber und Gegenwehr (Instigated. Anti-Semitic Stickers and Resistance) – provide an opportunity to discuss historical topics. The first part of the TU exhibition deals with aspects of 19th century German and European history generally: war and peace, the authoritarian state and democracy, internal and external unity, affiliation and rejection. The second part looks at how all this affected the fate of Germany’s Jewish minority, documenting everyday anti-Jewish actions since the 19th century.

The focus is also on new enemy stereotypes, such as clichéd notions of Islam and refugees, and what can be done to counter them. There’s plenty to discuss – in German, English and the languages participants use to translate the topics among themselves.

“It’s good that everything is preserved here so that you can learn so many important things for the future from the past,” said one young man from Afghanistan recently.

Further interactive projects with small groups of refugees, e.g. on the 1938 refugee conference in Évian-les-Bains, France, are planned.

Foto: Otto von Bismarck Stiftung
Many refugees of the region embraced the offer. Photo: Otto von Bismarck Foundation