German Volunteer Joann Chmell: “I’m not afraid to stand with Israel”

At first glance, 19 year-old Joann Chmell appears to be just another cheery young volunteer at ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran’s early intervention kindergarten. But her radiant smile veils the deep pain of knowing the bitter truth about her German roots and her ongoing struggle to stand with Israel at all costs.

For five years, Joann has been involved with ‘March of Life’, an initiative founded by Jobst and Charlotte Bittner and TOS Ministries in Tübingen, Germany, to transform the descendants of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers into the loudest voices against today’s anti-Semitism. With the help of March of Life, Joann was able to find definitive answers to the uncomfortable questions that her family aggressively avoided for decades.

While her cousins regard both of her maternal great-grandfathers as “honest men with desk jobs,” the truth is far more nefarious. One worked at the train station just outside Auschwitz and was actively involved in the final selection process that took place before each car entered the infamous concentration camp. The other was a police officer who, as a proud member of the Nazi party, took part in Kristallnacht, helped search Jewish houses and orchestrated death marches towards the end of WWII.

On her father’s side, another great grandfather worked directly for the ‘Wehrmacht,’ the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany, from their office in Antwerp, Belgium.

“No one in my family ever talks about how these men were complicit in acts of pure evil. They make excuses and find ways to praise them for the good they did for German society. I knew that if I couldn’t make my own family see the truth about the past, I needed to do something drastic to change the future,” asserts Joann.

“One of the largest Nazi euthanasia camps was located just outside my hometown of Tübingen. Thousands of people with disabilities were murdered at this camp, and it is devastating that my great grandfather was part of the selection process. For me, it’s very special to work and live at ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran and do the polar opposite, to embrace my humanity and see what can happen when you give people with disabilities endless love and the tools and opportunities to grow and thrive.”

By the time she leaves Israel at the end of May, Joann will have spent six months volunteering in Israel: four months at ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran and two months working with Holocaust survivors in Caesarea.

“It’s surreal doing this important work here in Israel and watching my peers in Germany, the US and other countries embrace the same hateful ideology as my great grandfathers. It is clear that many people have not learned anything from history, so I must do my part and speak up. All Germans my age need to ask more questions and uncover the truth, and I urge them to follow my lead, even if I lose friends in the process. I’m not ashamed to wear my Israel pendant, and I’m not afraid to lose friends or paint a target on my back. I stand for humanity. I stand with Israel.”

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