Sarah Hüttenberend

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Germany
Fellow since 2020
This description of Sarah Hüttenberend's work was prepared when Sarah Hüttenberend was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2020 .

Introduction

In Germany, the number of both Anti-Semitic and xenophobic hate crimes is on the rise, while at the same time societal awareness of the particular history of Anti-Semitism and the dangers of racism more generally is in decline, especially among young people. Sarah Hüttenberend uses personal accounts of firsthand witnesses of the Holocaust to build an emotional bridge between the past events and current societal shifts within Germany, thereby turning young people into second witnesses that are sensitized to the origins of prejudices and discrimination and empowered to become proactive contributors to a tolerant and diverse society.

The New Idea

Understanding that factual learning about historic events does not empower youth to learn from the past and transfer learnings into today and the future, Sarah has introduced the concept of “second witnessing”. With it, she allows young people starting in elementary school to not only understand the serious consequences of discrimination and prejudice, but also encourages them to become informed ambassadors for purposeful civic action against discrimination and social exclusion in their own environment. Within her empathy-based learning approach she uses the personal accounts of Holocaust survivors and passes them on to young people. Children live through the lives of survivors of the Holocaust, creating a transformative experience of deeply connecting with the personal narrative of their counterpart. This deep connection induces youth to think critically about their own prejudices and frame of reference, while simultaneously fostering a set of behaviors that emphasize tolerance and respect towards others. Thus, she is equipping them with the tools to see the past as an important learning space for today and the future. To anchor their learnings from the eyewitness encounters she assigns them the role as witness to the witness – the second witness. Second witnesses become ambassadors of the survivors’ testimonies who take on the responsibility and legacy of the firsthand accounts to pass them on in behalf of the victims and stand up for those affected by discriminatory behavior.

The backbone of Sarah’s organization is a network of over 120 trained volunteers who all act as multipliers themselves. Many of these core volunteers are students or members of pedagogical faculties, (future) teachers of history, which allows Sarah to influence the educational system from within. Apart from the public-school system, Sarah cooperates with famous sports and football clubs in Germany to mobilize members and players against racism. Moreover, she is piloting with city councils to implement a holistic strategy on turning whole cities into “second witness-cities" across Germany. HEIMATSUCHER e.V. has already reached over 8,500 children who have all become second witnesses. Sarah works towards a society where everyone bears witness to the shared past to spur civic engagement and public responsibility for upholding democratic values.

The Problem

Expressions of intolerance, hate and racism are on the rise all over Europe and beyond . In Germany, anti-Semitic crimes soared between 2017 and 2018 by 19.6% , with 60% of Jews in Germany stating that they regularly experience anti-Semitic attitudes. All over Germany, Jewish institutions such as schools or synagogues, are guarded by the police, as they often become targets of anti-Semitic attacks. In a most recent attack, two people were killed.

Germany’s history of the Holocaust provides an extreme example of the consequences of racism, intolerance and prejudice in society. However, with growing temporal and generational distance, both awareness and knowledge of the historical events are dwindling. This is particularly relevant among young people. With the rapidly declining number of survivors who can speak as eyewitnesses about the Holocaust, schools become the primary source for the young generation to learn about the horrific events. At the same time schools increasingly report a rise in anti-Semitic bullying incidents . This is especially important as children form their prejudices at a very young age and have very often already adopted racial attitudes and prejudices from their parental home when entering elementary school .

Holocaust education appears in the German curriculum only in high school. However, due to structural inconsistencies in the education system and the lack of standardized or specific Holocaust education requirements, the depth and quality to which the topic is presented varies significantly amongst federal states and educational levels. When discussed at school, Holocaust education is loaded with facts that are written in content heavy books, lack the usage of modern media and is treated as a dark event from the past that ultimately ended in 1945. Moreover, teachers are not receiving adequate and consistent training in how to effectively and sensitively present the Holocaust as an event of contemporary relevance, thereby missing the opportunity to use it as an important tool to engage students in discussions on the promotion of human rights, on the nature and dynamics of atrocity crimes, and how they can be prevented. Consequently, instead of displaying an interest in this aspect of history, students manifest defensive attitudes regarding the topic and express a certain level of “Holocaust fatigue”. The consequence thereof is that kids do not realize in what way the Holocaust is a relevant topic today but see it as an abstract topic that started and ended in the past. Therefore, they do not build bridges between the past and the present and do not question the effects of prejudices and anti-Semitic bullying, unreflectingly taking over prejudices and knowledge of their parents or other peers. At the same time, however, one in four people in Germany believes that something like the Holocaust could happen again .

The Strategy

To turn everyone into second witnesses, Sarah promotes an emotional learning approach following the methodology of the “heart, head and hands” teaching principle: 1) Understanding and empathizing with survivors’ lives by creating a deep personal connection to the survivors’ stories for the children (“learning with the heart”), 2) Exploring the past to understand what happened in the Holocaust and realizing its relevance for today (“learning with the head”), and 3) Taking action in response (“learning with the hands”).

Each educational intervention is jointly prepared with the teachers in order to appropriately tailor the lesson to the particular makeup of the class and potential experiences that classes had with anti-Semitism, racism and hate. The individual stories of the Holocaust survivors are always chosen to suit students’ ages where the eyewitness is the same age as the students at the beginning of the story, allowing to build an instant connection. Furthermore, as the multifaceted stories of the Holocaust victims address various themes, they can link to multiple subject areas: the loss of one's homeland, (re)construction of a new homeland, finding one's way in a foreign/new country/society, regaining trust in one's fellow human beings and much more. This way, Sarah creates a personalized and inclusive learning experiences where students can draw on their own personal experience and recognize parallels to their own life, regardless of their educational or migration biography. Photographs, short videos and booklets reinforce their personal encounters. (“Learning with the heart”).

HEIMATSUCHER e.V. emphasizes the specificity and singularity of the individual experiences. By retelling their experiences before, during and after the Holocaust, the organization allows children to chronologically follow the survivor’s life story until today. The humanization of the story of the Holocaust gives students contextualized access to the historical events and enables them to recognize its relevance for today. Additionally, the personal and emotional learning experience fosters a cognitive understanding of the root causes of the events that is prerequisite in the development of a critical awareness of one’s own prejudices and stereotypes (“Learning with the head”).

Recognizing that the strongest lever for influencing value formation in the long-term perspective is working with very young children, Sarah chooses to introduce the topic earlier than anticipated by the regular curriculum, namely at the elementary school level where implicit prejudices are not yet fully solidified and can be more easily overcome, while at the same time children still possess a pronounced sense of justice and compassion for their peers and their environment. Confronting children with their own stereotypes and biases at this early age provides a powerful leverage point to break the vicious cycle of prejudicial behavior and create the foundation for long-lasting positive change.

All workshops end with self-reflective activities where students reflect and process what they have learned and heard and examine the relation of the knowledge to the present day and themselves. As a group, they discuss examples of current-day intolerance towards Jews and other groups that face discrimination and connect it to the historical context of the prejudices and their similarities and differences. This tangible understanding builds students’ capacity to engage reflectively and critically with intolerant attitudes in society and helps build their capacity to express their personal thoughts and formulate independent opinions. Students are also given the opportunity to write their thoughts, feelings and compassion in the form of letters to the survivors or survivors’ relatives. Linking their emotional experience to concrete actions activates and empowers students to recognize their potential of standing up against discrimination and injustices that they experience and see occurring to others (“Learning with the hand”).

Giving every child a role as a second witness further substantiates their role as ambassadors and change agents. Actively transferring the legacy of the survivors’ life stories on to the young people ensures that, on the one hand, the memory of the Holocaust is preserved and, on the other hand, comes with a concrete call to action to pass on their knowledge to their peers, thereby acting as multipliers themselves. As an effect of the deep personal encounter, the survival stories provide young people with inspirational role models for resilience, hope, and courage that remain with them for a very long time.

The entire journey is facilitated by Sarah and her team who have built deep relationships with survivors to fully capture their life stories and retell them appropriately to youth. For this, Sarah and her team are regularly traveling to the local contexts of the survivors. Unlike conventional memorial approaches that depict only excerpts of the life of Holocaust witnesses, Sarah integrates their current life circumstances into the documentation through portraits and pictures of their homes and souvenirs from the past. The interviews are often only the beginning of the relationship with the survivors. Sarah and the team are in constant exchange with them, as thought partners, mutual supporters, friends and human beings. So far, the organization has conducted 34 eyewitness interviews and exposed their life stories in 21 exhibitions with over 30,000 visitors that they regularly organize aside from their educational program.

Until today, HEIMATSUCHER e.V. is active in 10 federal states where it has collaborated with 70 schools of which 13 are long-term cooperation schools in which the organization offers regular and recurring workshops across all grades and trains teachers in the methodology. All schools can choose from different workshop formats, including a Peer-to-Peer learning where students are trained in the didactic methods and approaches to enable them to give workshops to younger peers themselves.

Since the organization’s foundation in 2014, Sarah has reached more than 8,500 schoolchildren and, in 2018 alone, sent out 1378 letters to the 34 witnesses written by children in reaction to the workshop. An analysis of the letters showed that 98% of the children express high levels of empathy and sympathy with the victims. In addition, an independent impact study conducted by University of Cologne showed the HEIMATSUCHER e.V. workshops have a clear and traceable emotionalizing effect on participants (higher levels of anger, outrage and thoughtfulness), suggesting this could be linked to greater self-reflection, readiness to act and victim sensitivity among the youth. Teachers and social workers report that HEIMATSUCHER e.V. fosters the overall group cohesion, better communication and more respectful interaction in the classroom. Moreover, teachers observe positive changes in class dynamics, such as students speaking out loud against racist insults being uttered in the classroom by peers.

Besides in schools, Sarah is working with actors in the public and private sector in order to expand and intensify the workshops and cooperation agreements to extracurricular learning facilities. Recognizing sports, and football in particular, as a lever for social change but also perpetrator of racism and prejudice, Sarah is now working with the three biggest football clubs in Germany to implement the HEIMATSUCHER e.V. education programs in football teams, youth clubs and with professional football players. Furthermore, she is closely working with the city council of Duesseldorf, to create a “second witness city” in which schools, Holocaust memorials, and government come together and create a HEIMATSUCHER e.V. branding for cities. This would inter alia include cities actively endorsing the HEIMATSUCHER e.V. education in the schools and permanent exhibitions around the stories of the witnesses. In addition to physical publications like books and magazines, she is now curating the stories into a digital experience that also conveys the heart, head, hand approach for a broader audience.

To be able to branch out into so many different spaces, Sarah has created a tight-knit, volunteer community of 120 people, who carry out many different functions at HEIMATSUCHER e.V. The volunteers build their own sub-groups covering different organizational functions, whilst Sarah can focus on strategically developing the organization. Additionally, these 120 volunteers act as multipliers and second witnesses that spread the Holocaust survivor’s stories into their own environments.

The Person

Sarah grew up in a Christian family with a strong commitment to the fundamental values of social justice and charity. She developed a strong sense of fairness at a very early age and felt the urge for immediate action when confronted with unjust, violent or inhuman behavior against others. As a child, she was very curious and became aware of Holocaust at a very young age. The subject captured her interest for many years, in which she read through many books about the individual stories of survivors. In school, however, when they discussed the Holocaust, she did not feel any interest, given how factual it was presented by her teachers.

Sarah decided to study communication science and design motivated to bridge the gap between information and people. During a study trip to Israel, Sarah had her first personal encounter with 10 Holocaust survivors. Deeply touched by the personal stories, Sarah was shocked and embarrassed by her very own ignorance about the destiny of those who had survived the end of World War II. Realizing that this unawareness could at least partly be attributed to the poor educational quality of Holocaust education she experienced during her school days, she felt a great responsibility and drive to share her experience with those at home.

Together with a friend as part of a school project, she organized an exhibition with photographs and portraits from her travels. At the exhibition, she enthusiastically told the personal stories of the Holocaust survivors - just as they were told to her –and found that the witnesses did not have to be present for their stories to blow people away. While everyone else in her degree was aiming for a career as brand or marketing managers, she was examining means of effecting social change through design processes. She then started to systemically organize exhibitions and lectures to retell the personal testimonies that she had documented in Israel. During this period, Sarah was continuously reflecting on her own moral obligation as a non-Jewish descendant to liberate Holocaust survivors and their relatives from the responsibility to preserve the memory. She recognized her potential to function as an intermediary and bridge builder between them and younger generations. In 2014, alongside a team of 4 co-founders, she founded the association HEIMATSUCHER e.V. which turned the loosely organized project of creative students into a legally established membership organization. In 2015, she completed her design studies, and since then fully focuses on HEIMATSUCHER e.V.