‘Young people are the only ones who can ensure we continue living in a democracy’
When Margot Friedländer entered the music room at Phorms Secondary School in Berlin Mitte, she was greeted with loud applause from students on the year 10 and 11 history course. Now 96, the contemporary witness had already visited the Phorms location in 2015 to talk about what she had experienced and witnessed during National Socialism.
The students listened enthralled as she began to read from her autobiography. The book’s title – ‘Try to Make Your Life: A Jewish Girl Hiding in Nazi Berlin’ – reflects the last words of her mother, who left behind this note before accompanying Margot’s brother to the Nazi collection point. This sentence has shaped Margot Friedländer’s life ever since: ‘I tried to be a good person and to continue living. I managed it – so I have made my life.’ During the reading, she showed memorabilia, such as her mother’s amber necklace and a Star of David. After the reading, she explained why she goes from school to school, week after week, untiringly talking about her Holocaust experiences, and why she went to New York at the time, yet a few years ago returned to Berlin.
‘At the time, I couldn’t forgive and I couldn’t trust anybody anymore, so I went to the United States. Now I speak on behalf of everyone who can no longer speak, and I would like to help schoolchildren to gain a better understanding of the past. Because young people are the only ones who can ensure we continue living in a democracy,’ says Friedländer. After the reading, the students had the opportunity to ask questions. It was a very special event for the students: ‘It was amazingly interesting to listen to Margot Friedländer. Her book is very exciting, and she gave very detailed answers to our questions. When the person is actually sitting in front of you, you get to hear a lot more information and details, which I thought was very good. For example, the fact that she was separated as a young woman from her mother and brother without saying goodbye. I found that very moving,’ says 16-year-old Lisa from year 10. The meeting also moved her fellow student, Joaquim, aged 16. ‘It brought history very close to us because she’d experienced National Socialism herself. Lessons and history books just can’t provide this personal touch and detail. I was fascinated by her whole life history and the fact that despite being very afraid and left on her own, she carried on.’ The reading made a profound impression on the students, who left the room deeply moved. And they took with them two important realisations for the future from meeting with a contemporary witness: antiracism and courage.