German youth, Jewish elders bridge history's gulf

By Sol Israel
Globe Correspondent / January 4, 2009
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In the hallways of the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, Gerrit Wiezoreck stands out. With strong features atop a thin, 6-foot-5 frame, Wiezoreck has to stoop over to push wheelchairs, and occasionally kneels down to talk to someone at eye level.

But the 20-year-old German volunteer seems perfectly at home speaking German with his Jewish friend Sarah Greenspan, despite the historical barriers that might otherwise divide them. Greenspan, 85, is a Holocaust survivor who lost her entire family, with the exception of a single brother, in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Yet she smiles as she praises Wiezoreck.

"He's diamonds - the best," gushes Greenspan of the young man who has taken an interest in recording her Holocaust story.

Wiezoreck demurs, teasing her, "But what about when I disbehave?"

Such rare linguistic missteps are the only sign that Wiezoreck has been working in geriatric care in America for a very brief period, having arrived in Boston this fall. He is one of 25 young Germans volunteering in the United States with Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a Berlin-based organization dedicated to addressing the repercussions of Nazism worldwide by working in Jewish communities and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Wiezoreck, who says he had never met a Jew before coming here, is living with a Jewish host family in Newton and volunteers full time at the rehabilitation center, on Centre Street in Roslindale. On his own and through the program, he is working to address a dark era of German history in a Jewish setting.

"In general, anybody can't just apologize . . . because it was too deep, it was too horrible," Wiezoreck says of the Holocaust. "We can't return it, it is a part of our history."

Wiezoreck is the fourth German volunteer to work at the facility since Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, director of religious and chaplaincy services for the Boston-area Hebrew SeniorLife facilities, first arranged to host the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace program in 2005. She says that some residents, particularly some Holocaust survivors, were initially upset by having a German citizen in their midst.

"I think when you have witnessed certain atrocities," says Paasche-Orlow, "it's too painful to go anywhere near that."

That dark history is painful for Wiezoreck, too. Like many young Germans, he is troubled by the thought that his country, and even his own family, could have been involved in Nazi atrocities. He is not only trying to reconcile with the Jewish people - he is trying to reconcile with his own.

"With this work, I started to ask my grandparents more things and more things, and to ask harder questions," says Wiezoreck of his struggle with the past. In his own family's case, he says, while no family members joined the Nazi party, one of his grandfathers attended an elite Nazi school and served in the military at age 16 for four months.

Greenspan, however, refuses to blame Wiezoreck, or the German people, for her suffering.

"This was not his fault," she says of Wiezoreck. "This was one bad man, Hitler."

In an interview later, Wiezoreck is less willing to see it that way.

"She keeps that attitude that she really thinks it was Hitler and the government, and that bothers me, because I know that's not true," he says.

Too many Germans, he believes, knew of Nazi atrocities and failed to act. "They just closed their eyes or did nothing to prevent that."

Although Greenspan and Wiezoreck may not agree about who is to blame for the Holocaust, it doesn't seem to affect their friendship.

"He's the best boy he can be," smiles Greenspan. "Very helpful, very intelligent."

Not all of the home's residents are warm toward him, however. Wiezoreck says that some won't talk to him, and one challenged him by asking what his grandfathers did during the war. But his personality seems to go a long way toward breaking down hostility.

"There's a lot of fantastic energy and warmth that he communicates, and people really respond well to him," says Paasche-Orlow. "It's powerful to witness him caring for people, some of whom are survivors, with genuine warmth and kindness."

Carol Rose, who heads the center's recreation therapy department, agrees.

"Gerrit just adds so much joy," says Rose. "He puts out positive energy. People just like being around him for that reason."

Under Rose's supervision, Wiezoreck helps to run a club for residents of German descent. Founded by a German staff member, the club gives its members an opportunity to talk and sing in their mother tongue.

Wiezoreck also helps with other recreational activities and clubs, in addition to administrative tasks and assisting with the everyday needs of residents.

Living with Claire and Daniel Caine of Newton Centre, his Jewish host family, has provided Wiezoreck with a chance to learn about a culture he had never known in Germany, he says.

"I'm a Christian, but I'm really interested to learn about Jewish culture," says Wiezoreck, adding that he and the Caines "celebrate Shabbat every Friday night, and I wear my kippah," or yarmulke, "out of respect."

In his spare time, Wiezoreck plays in an indoor soccer league and explores the area, although he is clear about his purpose for coming to America: "Work is my first priority."

Before he came here, Wiezoreck says that he was interested in studying international business. Now he is considering international relations and conflict resolution. But for the time being, there are Jewish songs to sing, Holocaust stories to record, and more than enough wheelchairs to push.

"They are busy here and they really need me," Wiezoreck says. "To support Jewish people - that's really important to me."

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