Friedchen Fichtelberger was born Dec. 4, 1927 in Ermerhausen, Germany. But the date of his death is unknown, because Friedchen was lost to history, one of the 1.5 million children killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the Holocaust.
But now Friedchen’s story, and those of two dozen other German Jewish children and their families, has been resurrected thanks to a German high school librarian and teacher and their students, whose well- researched and tragic exhibit, “Vergissmeinnicht (Forget Me Not): What Children’s Stories can Teach Us About the Holocaust” is on display at Towson University’s Albert S. Cook Library.
The exhibit came to the attention of Towson University librarian for development Joyce Garczynski when the Jewish Museum of Maryland called.
“They thought we would be a good host for this exhibition related to children of the Holocaust,” Garczynski said. “Around the same time, we also were connected to Dr. Fred Katz, a survivor who is depicted in the exhibition.”
Ashley Todd-Diaz, head of special collections and university archives, said Katz had been in touch with the teacher and librarian/genealogist who were working with students on the exhibit.
“He had known that the exhibition was being created by a group of high school students in Germany and that he was going to be a part of it,” Todd-Diaz said. “And he really wanted to make it an international exhibit; he wanted to bring it to the United States. He had recently retired to the Towson area and thought of us as a possible collaborator.”
The exhibit consists of 23 panels telling the stories of 19 families and their 24 children. There are three types of panels. Blue panels are informational and set the context, explaining how the exhibit was created. Red panels depict the stories of the children who perished, and green panels tell the stories of the children who survived.
One such Holocaust survivor was Katz, 90, who now lives in a retirement community in Towson and was present at the exhibit opening last week.
“I knew about the exhibit for the better part of a year, while it was in preparation,” he said. “It was very moving because of the very specific and authentic material it covered. It was especially moving because it was prepared by children about children who became victims — who could have been the same age as they were. Enlisting children in the work made it especially moving and meaningful for me.”
The panels are about 7 feet tall, giving the subjects a life-size presentation.
“They are incredible. Most of them contain pictures of these children, and they are people- sized,” Garczynski said. “It really makes the Holocaust personal through these stories. They are told in the present tense, so it brings these children to life. It’s incredibly, incredibly moving.”
“And we thought it was going to be a really interesting leaning tool to bring to Towson that we could share with community high schools as well as Towson University students,” Todd-Diaz said.
The exhibit was originally researched and produced in the German language in 2016 by students of teacher Daniel Hess at Friedrich-Ruckert-Gymnasium, a school for grades 5-12 in Ebern, Germany. It was directed by librarian and genealogist Cordula Kappner. While working on the project, students discovered they had a “special connection” with the exhibit.
“In my view, the most important thing we could learn out of this project is that we have to fight against racism and anti-Semitism in our society to make sure that something like that will never happen again,” said Marie, 18. “The destinies of the children have proved where these views can lead to.”
Johanna, also 18, saw that the children’s futures were cut short. “When their lives ended, they were at our age. This creates a special connection,” she said. “You read about the life of a young boy or girl, and from the beginning you know, when his or her life ended. Murdered. Because he or she didn’t fit in a special ideology.”
Alina, 18, said reading the stories of the children was often disturbing.
“What happened is hard to understand. Once, we read the story of a young girl living in a concentration camp. Afterward, we couldn’t go on working for some time. Deeply moved by this, we were sitting there,” she said. “Moments like this we experienced nearly every time. But there also were those who survived. Their stories made the whole thing more bearable.”
Julian, 18, said he was pleased the exhibition was well-received in Germany.
“In the end we wanted to have something that remains. And we managed to do so,” he said. “We really hoped that the exhibition will be a great success, but, honestly, we didn’t expect that to happen. The feedback is awesome.”
Hess said 2,000 to 2,500 people have seen the exhibit in Germany, and it is slated to go to six other sites in 2018.
“It’s a great honor that the exhibition earns such a positive feedback,” he said. “There will be a Portuguese version as well in 2018. UNESCO Germany will show the exhibition on the official German website. In my view, the public reaction is absolutely awesome and not imaginable at the beginning.”
Todd-Diaz said what makes the exhibit special is “the peer-to-peer research that high school students in Germany were researching — about children their own age — and telling these incredible, poignant and emotional stories that really allow you to view the Holocaust and history from a very personal standpoint.”
“You see these children who range in age from probably less than 10 up to teenage years in almost life-size, and you’re reading their stories, which in many cases aren’t very long because they were so young,” she added. “But you get to see how they lived their very short lives through primary-source documents and the research that these students conducted. It’s really moving.”
The panels were translated from German, and Towson University reprinted the panels here, instead of having the English versions made in Germany and shipped to the U.S.
The exhibit, on the main floor of Towson University’s Albert S. Cook Library, runs through Nov. 28, but Garczynski said Towson is looking for other venues to host it.
“We are also working with a graduate student in Jewish education here at Towson to develop a curriculum, so we can take this into schools,” she said. “Our plan is, we really want this to continue to be a peer-to-peer learning opportunity, to get this into area schools and have them experience this exhibition.”