German activist builds bridges from Europe to Detroit
Detroit attracts a polyglot mix of artists, community organizers, would-be urban farmers and investors intrigued by the city’s reputation as a creative frontier with low-cost real estate. They come from several continents and many states to explore and sometimes settle in Detroit during its much-heralded struggle between decay and promise.
But Richard Bachmann, 29, a German graduate student, arrived in Southeast Michigan with a much different purpose. He was a volunteer assigned to the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) Zekelman Family Campus through the German Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP), established by the German Protestant Church in 1958. ARSP, which translates into Service for Peace in German, sends young German volunteers to promote positive connections and service within communities harmed by Nazi Germany. The organization seeks to fight racism and discrimination, promoting peace among all nationalities, races and religions.
Little did he know he would create a connection to the city of Detroit that would lead him to form Growing Together Detroit, a program that brings German and other volunteers to work and learn for two weeks from the members of the Eden Gardens Block Club on Detroit’s east side.
Bachmann was first inspired to seek an overseas volunteer post after an ARSP alternative summer break program at Terezin (site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia).
“In Terezin, we were an international group of people from various European countries who, for about two weeks, volunteered at the memorial, doing clean-up work and learning a lot about what happened in this place. I was very impressed that the people who organized all of this were two ARSP volunteers who just turned 20. I knew I wanted to get more involved,” Bachmann says.
In 2013, Bachmann began work as an ARSP fellow at the HMC in Farmington Hills, doing library research and translation as well as assisting Guy Stern, Ph.D., director of the Harry and Wanda Zekelman International Institute of the Righteous. He also spoke with visiting groups about his own family’s history during World War II and about social and political conditions in contemporary Germany. Bachmann was universally liked and appreciated by both HMC staff and volunteers. Bachmann also established relationships with local Holocaust survivors at Cafe Europa, a Jewish Senior Life program, and maintains contact with several of them.
When speaking to groups visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center, Bachmann explained he was motivated by a sense of responsibility for the past but also for the present.
“And, for me, this is not only about preventing things from happening because then you assign yourself the role of a reactionary — one who only reacts. It should also be about pushing things forward — emancipation instead of presentation. And I think this starts with a normal conversation, and it’s not just about Germany … because racism and xenophobia are global phenomena,” he says.
While working at the HMC, Bachmann met several young people affiliated with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit who invited him to community events in the city. These included visits to Eden Gardens, established by a local block club working to improve a neighborhood blighted with many abandoned houses and vacant lots.
Eden Gardens was created on three vacant lots in 2013 with financial help from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit and volunteer support from members of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. Chava Karen Knox, president of the Eden Gardens Block Club, who is African American and a Jewish convert, is a board member of the synagogue.
“When I first got in contact with Eden Gardens, I was very impressed by how, with the limited resources available, they are doing this great work, defying despair and hopelessness,” Bachmann says.
At the same time, he was disappointed with some of the Detroit community projects with which he participated. “We often were just dropped off, did our work and were picked up again … I felt no deeper engagement with the conditions of the places we worked in, and this tended to reinforce stereotypes and cliches rather than question them,” he explains.
Bachmann, following his commitment to social action, began talking to people about other approaches to community service. Out of that came Growing Together Detroit.
“In this program,” he explains, “contextualizing what we do is central. This is why we work closely with just one tiny project partner, doing various activities together with the people we work with. We meet Detroiters during these two weeks who can tell us about their take on the city, and try to also learn about the conditions our project partner and other Detroiters have to face.”
During the first summer program, held in 2015, Growing Together Detroit brought together 14 volunteers from Germany, Israel and the U.S. to work with Eden Gardens area residents and 25 students from the Detroit Public Schools. They cleaned up a 16-block area and prepared another vacant lot to become a children’s garden.
According to Knox, “It went very well. It was a great experience both for the adults and students. Richard is awesome. He wants to see change and is excited about Detroit. Richard wants to see healing between the Jews and Germans and bridge the separation between the Jewish and African-American communities.” She adds that members of the Eden Gardens Block Club hope to travel to Germany.
Bachmann was pleased that participants shed some of their preconceived and often negative perceptions about Detroit through their volunteer experience. Some participants told him they want to return to spend more time in Detroit — an unintended positive outcome of the program, he says.
Bachmann recently visited to Detroit to plan this summer’s ARSP Growing Together Detroit alternative summer break program, which will be held from July 23-Aug. 9. In conjunction with the work on the additional garden, he has planned group outings around the city as well as participation in community events including Shabbat dinner and services at the Downtown Synagogue.
Former Detroiter Cindy Jacobs met Bachmann during a Germany Close-Up fellowship facilitated by ARSP. This program provides an opportunity for young North American Jews to visit Germany, focusing on important World War II landmarks and engaging in dialogue with Germans. Bachmann guided Jacobs around Berlin and then spent time with Jacobs and her family in the Detroit area during Passover. “He is such an intelligent, compassionate man and such an asset to have on this program,” she says.
“As an additional element to this year’s program, we will also do a movie screening and discussion about the Afro-German experience, especially as it relates to German colonialism, the Holocaust and present developments,” Bachmann says. “We want to show the documentary Black Victims of the Holocaust. We felt the topic could be one that would connect us on another level, helping to build yet another bridge across the Atlantic.”
By Shari S. Cohen | Contributing Writer