As countries, the United States and Germany have had a complicated relationship since the end of World War I, when the Allies used their victory over Germany to impose the Treaty of Versailles, crushing the country economically, politically and socially. People from both nations bear the scars of an ongoing struggle to understand and come to terms with the past, while somehow finding a way to move forward. For the older generation, it’s difficult. Our grandparents can remember the horrors of World War II vividly. My grandmother often shares stories of how she had to evacuate London, leaving her parents and going to live with strangers for the majority of the war. For the younger generation- our generation- it’s different. We don’t have memories of rations, air raid alerts, or receiving news that a loved one was killed in action. Unlike our parents who lived in the era of the Berlin Wall, we didn’t experience what it was like to witness or live in a country that was divided. What we do have is an awareness of the pain both countries have suffered, and will continue to suffer, until the rift between them is healed. This young perspective, free of the prejudices of the past, is what might be able to finally set the world on a course to healing and understanding.
The GSS Germany project was the second step on a journey for young people of both countries to understand each other. The first step began last year, in Normandy, with students from America, France and Germany.
That was the beginning, but by no means was it the end. The bonds formed during that project led to the creation of the Germany Project, which focused specifically on German-American relations post-WWII.
The first part of this project began in March, when sixteen German students from the Bergschule St. Elizabeth came to America. Most of us were strangers- only four American students from the Normandy Project took part in this second project- but it never felt that way. Every single member of the group leaned in from the beginning, allowing the connections to be formed immediately. We pushed ourselves, asking questions that were painful or difficult, putting our personal histories out into the open. We had to deal with weighty topics, such as the Holocaust, the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union’s treatment of Eastern German citizens. And it wasn’t easy. The script for the first performance focused on questions- what is the price of freedom? What does it mean to be American? To be German? To be Jewish, and to have a family history deeply rooted in the events of the Holocaust? How do we connect across linguistic and cultural borders? How do we form friendships when our countries have a history of hatred and hostility towards each other?
The second part of the project began in June, when the sixteen American students traveled to Germany. To quote a line from the script, “It was like coming home after years.” This time, we focused on ourselves- the connections we have with each other, the bonds that were formed. This time it wasn’t about questioning the world about what they would do to achieve peace and freedom. We asked ourselves what we could do to make a difference, digging deep into our personal histories and feelings about the subject matter. The second script felt like it came from our hearts. Each time we performed it, we weren’t acting as characters, telling another person’s story. It was our story- the incredible story of how thirty-five students were brave enough to get into the room and start the conversation about peace between America and Germany.
This project was about getting people from different cultures, countries and continents in the same room, to get us to connect across all those boundaries. But we did more than connect- we formed lifelong friendships that run deeper than the arbitrary borders set out by political leaders. If 35 students can do this work, other people in the world can. All it takes is courage and an open heart.