An American civil rights activist whose life is the subject of a new Hollywood film has told how he was inspired by a little known Holocaust memorial built by German primary school children.
Bryan Stevenson, whose struggle against racism has been turned into the movie Just Mercy, told how a simple wall of yellow bricks built by 11-year-old German children inspired him to build his own memorial to the victims of lynching in the US.
The wall at Löcknitz primary school in Berlin is not the city’s most famous memorial, but it is one of the most moving. Each brick bears the name of a Holocaust victim, written in hand by one of the children.
The school has been building the wall since 1994. Today there are more than 1,400 bricks.
“My time in Berlin was transformational,” Mr Stevenson told the annual Obermayer awards ceremony for those who preserve Jewish culture and history in Germany.
“It became clear to me that you can’t go very far in Berlin without seeing memorials that are designed to make sure that we never forget.
“I had the extraordinary experience to encounter this simple but powerful wall of yellow bricks put together by children. It was the hopefulness of a generation of young people feeling the need to express their grief, their sorrow, but their hope that we never again tolerate the bigotry and bias that gave rise to the Holocaust.”
Mr Stevenson said the wall had served as an “inspiration” for his work against racism, and for his decision to build the first memorial to the victims of lynching in the American south.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a six-acre site dedicated to the memory of thousands of African American victims of lynching.
Although it is on a far grander scale than the Berlin primary school wall, the parallels between the monuments are clear. Both feature the names of victims simply inscribed on blocks.
The Löcknitz primary school wall was started by Christa Niclasen, a former headmistress who died last year. The school lies on the site of a former synagogue and Ms Niclasen asked her pupils to research the stories of the Jewish people who had lived in the neighbourhood, most of whom died in the Holocaust.
On her way to work one day she saw a pile of yellow bricks at a building site and decided to make a memorial.
Each year children at the school are asked to choose a name from the list of former Jewish residents and research their history. If the person they chose died in the Holocaust, they lay another brick on the wall.
“There are more than 6,000 names on the list, so we could be building this wall for another 50 years,” says Robert Bittner, a history teacher at the school who continues Ms Niclasen’s work.
The connection between the school memorial and Mr Stevenson was uncovered by Joel Obermayer of Widen the Circle, an NGO that works to heal the wounds of historic conflicts and promote understanding between former adversaries.
Mr Obermayer met Ms Niclasen when the school memorial won one of the Obermayer awards, which were founded by his father.
“I was telling my cousin about this amazing wall I saw at a school in Berlin and she said ‘Stop, I’ve heard this before, from Bryan Stevenson’,” Mr Obermayer says.
“My dream was to bring Christa to Alabama to see what Bryan did after he visited her school. But I couldn’t make that happen. Christa got sick a little over a year ago, things got worse in the spring, and she died in July.”
There are those who argue that the Holocaust was so unique it should never be linked to other atrocities, but Mr Obermayer disagrees.
“The Holocaust was singular but every genocide is singular. We shouldn’t be comparing genocides,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it not to go down that path again.”
At the Löcknitz primary school, Mr Bittner says he is happy the memorial wall has inspired Mr Stevenson’s work in the US.
“But we are not proud. This memorial is not something any German can be proud of. It is about recognising what Germany did, and ensuring that it never happens again.”