02/02/2016 Report

Report about my first months as a volunteer at Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial

My name is Olga, I come from Moscow, Russia. In 2015 I graduated from university and decided to dedicate a year to do something important.

My path to this volunteering program began in January 2015. Or even earlier, to be precise, it began when I took part in the International Youth Meeting in Dachau as a participant in 2014. The very name of this town is strongly associated with the concentration camp that was located nearby from 1936 to 1945. Perhaps this proximity to the historically important place changed me the most. It brought me to an idea to participate in passing on the stories of survivors to the next generations.

In January 2015 I braced myself and completed all the application forms for the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP) program (https://www.asf-ev.de/en/start.html). It took me several weeks of writing and rewriting my motivation essay in the attempt to express all my thoughts on the paper. The email was sent in time and moreover in only few days I received a reply from the Russian coordinator of ARSP. She was inviting me for an interview! I cannot describe how excited and scared I felt the moment I knocked on the door. I had thousands of whats and ifs in my head. For example: What if my knowledge of history is not enough? What if she tests my German and I am so anxious that I will forget everything? None of my fears came true, it was an atmosphere of comfort in the air, we talked for several hours, discussing my expectations from the service, how could I contribute in my opinion. I was asked to rank the top three projects I wanted to apply to. I based my preferences on tasks, trying to understand where I could make the most impact, where could I contribute the most. After several weeks of waiting I was invited to work for a combined project in Hamburg of Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial and Solidarische Hilfe (http://www.solihilfe.de/).

Although I was afraid that it would not work out, everything went smoothly and on 2nd of September I was Berlin where the service began with a 10-days seminar. 18 volunteers from different countries and with different background stories came together to discuss their past, history of their countries and encounters with the National Socialism. It was amazing time, filled with truly deep discussions and conversations in the frame of workshops and also beyond it in the free time. It was a great experience that helped to transform us from a bunch people who just met into great friends.

First day in the Neuengamme Memorial was a bit confusing; we two volunteers were drawn from one room to another, desperately trying to remember names. Nevertheless it was interesting to get to know our new colleagues, see the memorial. First week I spent going from one exhibition to another and reading the information. It is amazing how big the memorial site is and how many different interesting materials there are to study.

Approximately after a month of working in the memorial site I was asked if I could do a guided tour in English because a tour guide, who was supposed to do it, was sick. I was not sure if I was ready but it is not in my rules to give up opportunities to learn so I agreed. It was a really nice group from Great Britain, two different age groups 12 to 14 and 14 to 16, we had a three-hours walk around the memorial and a number of deep conversations. I felt so proud afterwards, that I managed to find the right words to reach their hearts and minds. Two days later I faced an even more challenging task - now I had to do a tour in German! I remember this uncertainty I felt about my skills and knowledge, but the moment I met the group all of my doubts disappeared. I had a clear task to do and the only thing I was focused on was to do it as good as I could. In general, I enjoy this opportunity to encounter pupils and talk about the events of the past and get to know their perspectives. Among my other duties are such things as correspondence exchange with Russian-speaking former prisoners, translation of interviews from Russian into German and supporting different projects.

My volunteering experience is not only valuable for me because of people I meet, but also because of stories I hear. I met several examples of indeed stunning humanity. One story which moved me was the story of Fritz Bringmann who was a German political prisoner, who worked in the medical barrack as a sanitary. One day he was given an order to kill a group of Sowjet prisioners with heart injections. He rejected thereby putting his own life in danger. This kind of stories builds my faith into humanity. For me it is important to know that even in such impossible, inhuman conditions people were still able to find consolation in each other. For me this is a representation of the best parts of human nature.

So far in my volunteering service I get everything I counted on: I met a lot of interesting people, learned a lot about history of the World War II and got to know something about myself. I hope that next months will bring even more challenges and interesting tasks.