In the school where I teach, we read Night, Elie Wiesel’s first memoir of the Holocaust. For me, reading Night and having my students learn about the Holocaust amounts to a mission. Other teachers, though, find it a pain, a bother. They don’t understand all of the terms, which, I guess, means that they don’t want to learn concepts that are alien to them. I’m pretty sure they won’t be excommunicated from any church which they don’t attend if they learn what Shabbos means or what Kabbalah refers to. It seems that they want to stick to analyzing characters in a neat way as opposed to this small plunk of vicious reality that cannot be analyzed for character development.
It is so utterly wrong that the one Jewish member on the team (or the one who identifies as Jewish) is the one who finds true purpose in this unit. After all, do I teach because children need to know how to identify a metaphor, or do I teach because children need the tools to think and express themselves? It is so very wrong that people think, apparently, that since it didn’t happen to their people then they don’t need to relate to it. Or, worse yet, perhaps because it’s too much for them—too depressing, too horrifying, too outside of any comfort zone—they rush through it to fulfill a requirement but no more.
Generally, there is a research component to this unit. I have found it difficult to oversee this project because most kids want to find a single website that will give them answers to the questions they need to consider, yet I, I can’t help it, I want them to take it more seriously than the means to a grade. So this year I will try a different way to reach inside those teen walls of indifference. This year each student will be assigned an event or place, and then research it and—this is the change—read original source material from people who lived through “their” event. I’m hoping that these personal stories will bridge the gap between doing schoolwork and connecting to history.
At the same time, other teachers have decided that this year they are going to focus on German propaganda. They will focus on how the Nazis led the Germans to follow them, to believe them, to be captivated by their tales of how lovely it is to be us, Aryans, and how hateful it is to be them, the Jews, or anyone who does not look as we say they should or behave as we say they should or believe what we say they should. And that is good, but it feels wrong. Maybe they are right, since our focus is supposed to be on language and that, really, is what we teach. But really, doesn’t this make the students focus on the poor Germans who were manipulated by the evil Nazis. Where in this focus are the victims—the people who were defiled, tortured, shot, gassed by those who believed and those who were too cowardly to not believe? Where is space for the victims of the “mislead”? Will they learn that excuses are more powerful than actions?
I tell myself that any learning and thinking about what happened during the Holocaust is positive; that I should not think that there is anything wrong with their focus. And yet it makes me uncomfortable. Does it come down to these teachers not being Jewish and so not feeling, intrinsically, the honor/importance that they have been given to transmit this lesson to a generation of citizens of the world? Maybe I’m wrong. But it doesn’t feel that way.
How are we to ever get to “never again”—that violent acting out of group hatred or fear—if our teachers can’t put themselves in another person’s shoes, even if those shoes have been preserved in monstrous piles never to be forgotten?
Piles of shoes that belonged to prisoners killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Poland, wartime. — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum #0009