War in the classroom: The elephant in the classroom

For seven months, schools have been faced with the question of how to address the war in Ukraine. A visit to a German-Russian European school.

Two boys and a girl at a school desk, the girl is wearing a floral blouse and pigtails

6-year-old Yeva from the Ukraine at her enrollment in Berlin-Tempelhof Photo: Christoph Soeder / dpa

BERLIN taz | The Lew Tolstoy elementary school made a big splash for the anniversary: ​​In the foyer of the new building, guests are welcomed with sparkling wine, and they can taste Russian specialties in the school garden. For the younger ones there is a bouncy castle with palm trees in the playground.

As the district mayor of the Berlin district Lichtenberg brought his congratulations in the auditorium last Friday, it is also about the 30th anniversary of the school. But he also speaks of war and peace and the responsibility of the European Schools: “Peaceful coexistence is learned at school. It has to succeed on a small scale as well as in large-scale politics,” warns the local politician of the Left Party.

For almost seven months now since Russia attacked all of Ukraine, the German-Russian school feels pressed into a need for explanation that is incomprehensible to them. “Of course we are against the war. We are pursuing peace education in the classroom,” emphasizes Rector Helene Hartmann. After all, the school has no connection to the Russian government, says Hartmann, only the Russian language is taught here. Leo Tolstoy Elementary School is one State European School. Here children learn in Russian and in German.

Helene Hartmann, Principal of Lew Tolstoy Elementary School

"Only now are they being divided from the outside"

The concept of European Schools has existed for 30 years. The Lew Tolstoy School has been part of it from the start. Parents from all countries that belonged to the former Soviet Union send their children here. There are currently around 650 students, and twelve classes are taught bilingually. "Here, Ukrainian, Russian and Kazakh children have always studied together," says Hartmann. "Only now are they being divided from the outside."

To be on the safe side, don't say anything

A few days before the ceremony with champagne and bouncy castle, Hartmann invited the taz to an interview. Not a matter of course. The Russian European schools don't necessarily want to go public at the moment. The other two with a focus on Russian do not want to comment on the current situation in Ukraine.

Even the Berlin Senate does not answer any questions about help and possible conflicts in the schools. In her office, the principal of the Tolstoy elementary school explains the reluctance as follows: “We want to protect the children. The children have top priority here.” Shortly after Russia attacked all of Ukraine, parents advised their children not to speak Russian on the way to school. Hartmann chooses her sentences with care, the topic is sensitive from her point of view.

There have been repeated attacks in Germany in connection with the war in Ukraine. Just a few weeks ago, an attempt was made in Leipzig to set fire to a daycare center that looked after Ukrainian children. In March there was an arson attack on the Russian-oriented Lomonosov School in Berlin. After the incident, police patrolled the Lev Tolstoy Elementary School for several weeks.

According to the federal anti-discrimination agency, 284 people with Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian roots have contacted her in the past six months. The ethnic origin is not actually asked. Here, those affected gave it voluntarily. A spokesman emphasizes, however, that many of the inquiries were not about discrimination that they had experienced themselves, but about cases described on the Internet. These could not be verified. The Federal Ministry of the Interior reports a total of around 4,300 criminally relevant events in connection with the war in Ukraine, including over 400 violent crimes.

The war affects teaching

The war in Ukraine has had an impact on school life in Germany. In many cases, families with Ukrainian roots have taken in relatives who have fled. On the other hand, teachers suddenly have to explain to children with Russian roots that they are not to blame for the war. At the Tolstoy school, too, there are different positions on how to deal with the war. That became clear during parent consultation hours, says class teacher Claudia Zimmermann. "The parents from the regular classes wanted more, they wanted to position themselves strongly to the outside world - until a mother who comes from the Ukraine started crying and said that the children don't have to be confronted with the war every day."

Once there was an incident in class, remembers Zimmermann, who teaches German and English in the sixth grade and also speaks Russian. "I don't know why the student wanted to provoke. He painted tanks, scenes of war,” says the teacher. Classmates cried and complained.

Rector Hartmann emphasizes that such incidents only occur occasionally. In the teaching staff, everyone stands behind the school's peace policy. “The school is neutral ground. When the children talk about the war in Ukraine, we talk about it and try to explain it. We act in accordance with the needs and, above all, the age of the children,” explains Hartmann, who grew up in Kazakhstan and came to Germany at the age of 16. After the incident in Zimmermann's class, the school immediately sought dialogue with the students and parents. In addition, the class did a War and Peace lesson with the school social worker to remind everyone that here they can live and talk together in peace. That helped.

Direct positioning against the war

Other schools have had similar experiences in dealing with the war in Ukraine. At the Johann-Gottfried-Herder-Gymnasium in Berlin, which also has students with a Russian background, a seventh grader drew the Z symbol in his pencil case before the summer holidays. That's what a parent told the taz. According to his own statement, Director Martin Wagner has heard nothing of this specific incident. According to him, there were also no comparable cases at high school.

Right from the start, the school took a clear position against the war. On the phone, Wagner assures that the politics and history teachers informed about the war from the beginning. "It is important that the teachers help the young people to classify media reports and information from the Internet, so that the children do not have to be afraid here." In the classes where children have parents from countries that belonged to the former Soviet Union, they are been particularly careful with handling. But nobody would object to the peace position at the Herder Gymnasium, says Wagner. The parents said they felt comfortable with it.

30 Ukrainian children admitted

In the Lew Tolstoy elementary school, too, the staff rarely have to intervene in class. Peace education works. The school doesn't want to engage in symbolic politics, it really wants to help where it can. In April 2022, the school accepted voluntarily 30 Ukrainian children on. You learn in all six grade levels. “It makes sense that we take in so many children. Here we know how integration works, after all we do that every day,” says Hartmann, who herself has taken in a family from Odessa. There was a small welcome party for the new Ukrainian school children, the parents were able to network with each other and with other parents and exchange tips. The children received fully equipped starter sets for school, for which all parents of the school generously donated.

The vice-principal Evelyn Tonk got the materials personally: "My husband and I drove to all the shops for a day." Tonk teaches the first and second grades himself. With very young children, you have to be very sensitive to the subject of war. When a Ukrainian boy was admitted to Tonk's second grade, she cautiously declared war, gently preparing the children for their new classmate. What happened after that still almost moves the teacher to tears: "When the boy introduced himself, someone from the class went ahead, shook his hand and welcomed him in Russian." In this class, the children usually speak no Russian.

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