A version of this article first appeared in Yiddish in the Forverts.
In Hamburg, Germany, a group of five 14-year old girls, most of them from Muslim Turkish homes, recently interviewed a Yiddish folksinger and even learned a Yiddish song themselves.
The activity was part of Geschichtomat, a project that encourages eighth-graders in this north German port city to research a topic related to the history and culture of the Jews who once lived there, and to produce a short video about it. None of the students are Jewish.
Since Geschichtomat – a project funded by the Institute for the History of German Jews – was launched in 2013, more than 300 students in 17 public schools have participated, and more than 60 videos produced, Carmen Smiatacz, the director of the program, told the Forverts.
Funding for Geschichtomat comes from the Senate Chancellery of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg and the Reinhard Frank Foundation. Before the Holocaust, approximately 19,900 Jews lived in Hamburg; today the Jewish community counts only 3,000.
At all the schools that voluntarily participate in Geschichtomat, each eighth-grader selects one of five topics pertaining to the Jewish past in Hamburg. Smiatacz, who provides the topics, changes it from school to school. Under the guidance of experts in history and media education, the students have one week to interview cultural mavens on the topic; visit museums and archives, collect photographs and create a video. All films are then uploaded onto the Geschichtomat.de website, gradually creating a digital map of Jewish life from the perspective of contemporary teens.
The Geschichtomat team recently came to the Goethe School in the neighborhood of Harburg, southern Hamburg. It was there that Smiatacz included Jewish Music as one of the five topics to choose from. Five girls, almost all from immigrant Muslim homes, signed up.
The students interviewed Inge Mandos, a German singer of old Yiddish folksongs, who explained what klezmer music was, demonstrating the sound of the wedding music from a CD.
Afterwards, Mandos taught them a Sabbath song, “Volt ikh gehat koyekh” (If I had the strength), but with one stark difference. Instead of the original words: If I had the strength, I would run through the streets and would shout loudly: Shabes, holy shabes!” Mandos replaced the last line with “sholem, sholem, sholem!” (peace, peace, peace!).
Inge said that she enjoyed having the girls interview her. “They stayed for about an hour,” she said. “Most of their families are from Turkey, so I asked them if they had folksongs in their own families. About one or two of them knew some folksongs from their country.”
As the girls filmed Mandos’ lecture, she explained what klezmer music, or Jewish wedding music, sounded like, the instruments that were used, and played excerpts of the genre on her CD player. One of the girls asked the folksinger why she sang in Yiddish, since she herself isn’t Jewish.
“I told them that I live in an old Jewish house, in what used to be a Jewish neighborhood, and that my former husband was Jewish,” Mandos explained. “When I moved in, there was still an old woman who spoke Yiddish, and that was one of the things that inspired me to learn Yiddish folksongs.”
The video which the girls produced is in German. To hear them singing “If I had the strength”, go to 5:26.
The eighth grade in the Goethe School truly is a melting pot. According to their teacher, Natalya Wohlgemuht, the students’ families come from Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Albania, Latvia, Russia, Morocco, Chile and Holland. 50% of them are Muslim, and the other half are Christian.
“My pupils were enthusiastic about klezmer,” Wohlgemuth said. One girl told her teacher that her Muslim family enjoyed dancing to the klezmer music, and another one said that the Jewish music “was very inspiring for us and a lot of fun”.
The remaining eighth graders at Goethe spent the week studying other aspects of local Jewish history. One group produced a film about the last rabbi of the Harburg Jewish community, Alfred Gordon, who was deported and perished in the Lodz Ghetto. A second group researched the history of the Harburg Jeiwsh cemetery (there are actually 15 Jewish cemeteries throughout the city, one of which is still being used). Others learned about a local business, “Phöenixwerke”, whose founders were two Jewish brothers called Cohen. The last group researched the history of the Harburg Monument Against Fascism.
“Normally, the students here don’t know anything about Jewish history,” Smiatacz remarked. “I’m always surprised to see how open-minded they are to learn about it.”