'These were the history lessons we were never taught in school,' said Mr Bert, a student from Hamburg and one of a group of young Germans who had made the pilgrimage to the Polish city of Lodz to confront the horrific legacy of their country's past. 'We had all read and heard about the Holocaust, but had never met people who had experienced it directly. In two weeks here we have learnt more than we ever could from books.'
It will not be long before such trips, organised through the German Protestant church, will no longer be possible. In Lodz, once the home to more than 200,000 Jews - one-third of the city's population - the Jewish community has shrunk to just 200. The youngest member of the community is Lajb Praskier, 72. 'In 10 or 20 years, there will be no more Jews left here at all,' said Mr Bert. 'That is why it is important we come now, before it is too late.'
Unlike many young Germans, today, who increasingly no longer want to think or feel guilty about the past, Mr Bert and his colleagues feel a burning sense of shame over the crimes committed by the Nazis and, in particular, the extermination of 6 million Jews. Dissatisfied by the silences of relatives who lived through it, they came to Lodz to discover more and, if possible, to make partial amends - to atone for the sins of their grandfathers by offering practical help to some of the victims.
In Lodz, that help has taken the form of contributing to the restoration of the city's Jewish cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. For the past two weeks, members of the group, all in their late teens or early twenties, have been hacking away at weeds over-running the graves in the section of the cemetery dedicated to the some 50,000 Jews who perished in the Lodz ghetto alone.
Their work has been warmly welcomed by members of the Jewish community, most of whom have been astonished and delighted at the gesture, the first of its kind in Lodz. 'It is a wonderful thing what these young people are doing,' said Leon Pomorski, 87, a survivor of Buchenwald, during a get-together at the community's headquarters at which the Germans were treated to what for many of them was their first kosher meal.
Not surprisingly, conversation proves difficult. First, there is the huge divide of age and cultures. But that is nothing compared to the barrier of the past. Although uppermost in everybody's minds, nobody wants to mention the war. The Germans clearly feel awkward, ashamed, unsure what to ask. On the Jewish side, there is reluctance to reopen old wounds. 'Please don't ask me about what happened in Buchenwald,' says Mr Pomorski. 'If once I start to remember, I know there will be a sleepless night ahead.'
Instead, Mr Pomorski, a fluent German-speaker, talks of Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Bach - the positive sides to German culture. From the group, for its part, Dietlind Starke, a theology student from Berlin, comes out with some of the Hebrew she has learnt at university - and even, to general delight, some Yiddish. There are smiles all round; they sing a Yiddish song together; talk turns to pre-war Lodz, birthplace of, among others, the pianist Artur Rubinstein and once a booming centre for the textile industry, the 'Manchester of Poland'. For a while, the mood is almost relaxed. But then, inevitably, it gets more personal. Mr Pomorski brings out a black and white photograph of the wife he lost. And he weeps.
'Seeing such pain makes a lasting impression,' said Hendrik Siewert, 21, a student from Leipzig. 'Of course we can never atone for what happened, but instead of trying to bury the past, it is important to repeat the experience of learning - and to try to ensure that history does not repeat itself.'
Like the others, Mr Siewert's guilt over the past is augmented by shame and disgust at the waves of xenophobic violence that have swept through Germany since reunification in 1990. He chose to give up two weeks of his summer holiday to join the Lodz project, in part, to show that not all Germans hate foreigners. 'There are racist tendencies in all countries, but somehow it is much much worse when they come to the fore in Germany,' he said. 'No matter what we do we are judged by our history. Like it or not, we cannot escape the consequences.'
The trip to Lodz was one of several organised by Action Reconciliation, a Berlin-based organisation under the umbrella of the Protestant church. Set up in 1958 and for many years split into East and West German components, Action Reconciliation seeks to keep alive the lessons from the past and to help victims of the Nazi regime. Other projects, which also attract Catholics and participants from various East European countries, have included renovation work at former concentration camps in Poland and Germany and help at homes for the blind and handicapped in Europe, Israel, the United States and, more recently, the former Soviet Union.
'Building bridges over graves,' says a leaflet explaining the work of Action Reconciliation. In the Jewish cemetery of Lodz that aim appeared to have been achieved over the past two weeks. While the Germans clearly seemed relieved that, at last, they had been able to look in the eye those who had suffered so horrifically, the Jews appeared pleased to have struck up some sort of dialogue with the grandchildren of their tormentors. 'We cannot blame them for what happened, they were not even born then,' said Lajb Praskier. 'That was another generation, those were different times.'
Different times, indeed. Or are they? At the back of the Jewish community building in Lodz, recent graffiti by Polish anti-Semites show a hangman's gallows and, in place of a noose, a Star of David. Elsewhere in the city, walls bear the German words: 'Juden raus]'
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