Monthly Archives: July 2008

The Sins of the Father

One of the most profoundly moving experiences I had at the Shoah fellowship had little to do with history or politics or even disturbing images of Holocaust victims. It had to do with a connection I felt to a man I’d only seen once before in my life, but who resonates on almost the same frequency I do about something difficult and heartbreaking.

I saw this man at a symposium at Local U. a few years ago, when he came to talk about the experiences of someone growing up on the “German” side of the “German/Jewish” experience in Nazi Germany. I remember being intrigued by him, and I was both surprised and delighted to see that he’d come to speak to the fellows at this conference.

This man, Martin, grew up in Germany during the second world war and came to find out that his father was a Nazi. Not only was his father a Nazi, but he was an active member of the party to the extent that he participated in the establishment and maintenance of a concentration camp.

He utilized slave labor.

He enabled atrocities.

Though Martin doesn’t know for sure that his father was directly responsible for anyone’s death – he never indicated that he knew his father pulled a trigger – he does know for certain that his father was complicit in the suffering of concentration camp prisoners, and this is a burden that he’s carried with him, in an almost palpable way, for a great many years.

During a conversation that was had as part of a workshop, Martin admitted, baldly and with a tortured feeling of uncertainty, that he’s never told his now-grown children about what their grandfather did. He says that every time he talks about his family publicly, he moves a little closer to finding whatever strength he requires to be able to have this conversation with his kids, but he’s not quite there yet. He suspects that his three adult children already know – or, at least, suspect – that their grandfather had an unseemly past, but Martin hasn’t worked up whatever it would take for him to speak of it out loud and, perhaps, to be responsible for the dashing of whatever happy memories the kids have of their grandfather.

It tore my heart out.

It was just about here that someone stood up and had the unmitigated gall to berate Martin for this choice. “What right,” she actually said that – what RIGHT – “do you have to keep the truth from your children? They need to know the truth, and it is wrong for you to keep it from them.”

I was appalled. First of all, there was NO need for this kind of disrespect. Martin was entirely vulnerable, and it was clear to everyone in the room that this is something that keeps him up at night (well, perhaps it wasn’t obvious to the boor who stood up to pass judgment, but whatever). He was offering us a gift in his story, and we had an obligation to respect and honor that.

Second, no one – NO ONE – has ANY right to judge another’s decisions when it comes to something like this. Unless we’ve walked in similar shoes, we ought to be mindful that we don’t know the whole story and that this kind of condemnation isn’t going to serve anyone.

I fumed about this for a while, then went to bed. As I was lying there, I was trying to figure out what it was about Martin that resonated with me so strongly.

Then it hit me.

I saw him the next morning, sitting off to the side of the circle the fellows had made in preparation for the day’s workshops in the common room of the dorm. I knelt down next to him, put my hands over his in his lap, and apologized for the way he was treated the day before. “I think I understand, in a small way, the way you feel about telling your children about what your father did,” I told him. “I was abused as a child. As a result, I have no contact whatsoever with my biological parents; I’m not even sure where they are. I made the choice to keep my children from my parents, and people have come to me to tell me, blatantly and to my face, that I have no right to do that – that it’s wrong of me to keep my children and their grandparents apart because their relationship has nothing to do with me. People say that it’s likely that my parents would be just fine with my children, and that I’m selfish and petty to keep them from exploring that relationship. I, however, have no regrets about my decision, but I understand how difficult your position is. You’re trapped in an impossible place – either way, someone loses.”

He looked down at me with such kindness in his eyes and said “Yes, you do understand. We are approaching the same problem from opposite sides.” Then he thanked me for telling him my story (imagine! My story is nothing!) and squeezed my hand. I got up and found my place at the workshop feeling like I’d done something important – that we’d connected in a real and meaningful way. It was the most important moment of the entire week for me.

It turns out that Martin lives in my general neighborhood. I’m going to try to spend some time with him. I want to get to know him better; his work in theology the burden of memory intrigues me, and I genuinely like him. Though we’re generations apart, we have something very important in common.

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Filed under admiration, compassion and cooperation, ethics, Holocaust fellowship, Learning, out in the real world, Questions, self-analysis, success!

Grammar Wednesday

Alternately titled; “What Do You Do With the Other 80%?

I saw this sign last Sunday on my way in to the town where the Shoah seminar was held, and I told myself that I would be sure to get a picture on my way out of town a week later so I could post it for you.

Now, I know that it’s entirely possible that a letter fell off – that happens all the time – and I was fully ready to allow that as an explanation… until I saw that the sign was exactly the same on both sides.

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An Important Disclaimer

I will, with no hesitation or second thought, delete any and all comments made here by anyone who actively denies the Holocaust.

I am a staunch believer in the First Amendment; I truly believe that everyone has the right to express an opinion without censorship or harassment.  That being said, I also have an obligation to stand up against hate speech, and I can think of nothing more hateful than denying that the Holocaust ever took place.  You may express such opinions in your own environments; I will not tolerate it in mine.

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Unexpected Consequences

Alternately titled; Weeping During a Kids’ Movie

Mr. Chili and Punkin’ Pie rented The Seeker late last week, and we sat down together to watch it on Sunday afternoon when I came home from the fellowship.

About 3/4 of the way through the film, though, I almost had to leave. There’s a scene in the film where the manipulator of the forces of darkness is trying to get the Seeker to relinquish his signs (I’m not going to go into plot details here; they’re unimportant to my story) by freezing him and all of his village out of the manor in which they’ve sought shelter. There are thousands of icicles on the ceiling, and the Darkness steps off of his horse and sets off a tremor that shakes the icicles loose. They start raining down on all of the frightened people below.

Saturday afternoon, Tom had delivered a presentation about the genocide in Darfur. He made special mention of things called fleschettes, which are essentially nails with fins on them that are shot out of aircraft. The fins make sure that the nails fly point-down, and they shred the helpless people on the ground.

I felt as though I were a little post-tramatic stressed when I watched the acted panic and terror on the screen, and I found myself unable to choke back tears because I know that, in this case, art really IS imitating life.

Or, rather, death.

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She Gets It

I was talking yesterday with Beanie (who, for those of you who may not know or remember, is my nine-year-old daughter), while Daddy and Punkin’ (my eleven-year-old) were out renting a movie, about my experiences at the Holocaust fellowship.  I started the conversation by asking her if she understood what I had just done.

Bean:  Yep.  You went to study about the Holocaust.

Me:  And what is “the Holocaust”?  Can you explain it?

B: Well, it was a time when bad people did terrible things to a lot of other people.  They took them from their homes and they put them in special places all together and..

M: Wait a minute – who’s “they“?

B; The Nazis.

M: Good – remember that it wasn’t just “the Germans.”  The Nazis were a special group, and it’s better to think of the people who did these things as Nazis.

This conversation went on for a bit, and she expressed her understanding of the basic points of the Shoah.  Then I asked her if she understood WHY I spent a week away; did she comprehend why I thought that this was important enough to go away from my family for a week?

It took her a little while to work her way around it – she focused mainly on my professional life, saying things like “so you can teach about the literature and poetry from that time” and “so you can be a better teacher.”  Finally, though, I asked her WHY I think these things are important to do – WHY do I teach the literature and poetry?  WHY do I want to be a better teacher?

She thought for a moment or two, then said, “So you can make people understand that hate is bad, and so that it might never happen again.”

Exactly.

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Halfway Through

Just when I thought I had all this scholarship thing knocked, the Holocaust Fellowship people go and trot out the survivors.

That sounded disrespectful, but it wasn’t intended to be. The fact of the matter is that Wednesday was, by far, the most challenging day thus far for me. I was able to make it through the first two really hard-core days of lectures and lessons. I managed to keep up – and comprehend, even! – the politics and the ethical questions and the history lessons (I’m loving the history lessons!). I’ve taken (hang on, let me check…) 35 pages of type-written notes as of 7:00 on Wednesday evening. I am learning a lot and loving the intellectual aspect of this conference.

And then Ernie got up to speak.

Ernest Michel is a Shoah survivor. The man radiates humor and humanity and love. My first contact with him came on Tuesday night when he came to my table while we were eating dinner. I was chatting with the woman across from me when I felt warm, gentle hands on my shoulders. I looked up to find this man, this lovely, joyful man, smiling down at me. I put my hand over his on my shoulder and introduced myself. I loved him already.

He told us the wonderful story about his survival. He told us about how proud he is of the tattoo on his left forearm (#104995) and about how he is compelled – compelled – to speak about his experiences. He puts everything on the table, he says, because he feels a responsibility to bear witness for those who didn’t survive, and to tell those who can carry the story on to others.  He survived – he doesn’t know how, but he survived – and that’s important enough to tell.

I needed the break between sessions – which happened to be lunch – because I could not stop crying. I still haven’t figured out what button Ernie’s testimony pushed for me – perhaps it’s the idea that someone could endure this unendurable thing and come out the other side such a warm and loving person, or maybe it’s the incredible responsibility I feel to carry on the work that he’s doing in my own life – but I was entirely knocked off of my center by this afternoon’s session. It was wonderful, but it was difficult all at the same time.

Later, we were treated to a roundtable discussion between Ernie, the Baroness, whom I’ve mentioned before, and Martin Rumscheidt, the son of an executive of I. G. Farben. Farben essentially built the Auschwitz camps, and Ernie had been used as slave labor in the factory in Auschwitz Buna. It was the first time the two had met, and I wish that I could have been a fly on the wall while they had their lunch together apart from us.

I have seen Martin speak before, and felt an instant connection with this man.  I can’t quite articulate what it is – I’m hoping that spending some time with him this week will help me form words around this feeling – but I can tell you for sure that something that resonates in him is moving at the same frequency as something that’s resonating in me.  He carries the responsibility (not the guilt, mind you, but the responsibility) of the child of a perpetrator – a perpetrator who didn’t tell his son about his activities during the war – and Martin struggles with how to live up to that responsibility in his own life.

Anyway, I had hoped that this roundtable conversation would be a bit more – I don’t know – more than it was – I felt that it was diminished by the fact that one professor and one staff took part in (and, I and a few others feel, manipulated and monopolized) the conversation. Despite that, it was lovely to see the spirit of cooperation and concern that these survivors had with one another, and to recognize the vastness of the experience that each of them was generous enough to bring to us.

All in all, it was a profoundly moving day. Wednesday marked the halfway point, and I’m eager to see where we go next (though I’m planning on bringing some tissues with me today…)

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Ways In

Grammar Wednesday is being postponed for this week. I’ll have something cute for you next week, though – I passed a sign on my way in to Not So Local College this past weekend; I’ll get a picture of it on my way back home and post it for you next week.

Something I’m very much enjoying about this program is that it’s taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the Shoah and to the practice of teaching the Shoah to our students. As someone who has been practically soaked through in English classes – literature, literary criticism, deconstruction – it’s wonderful to take a couple of intense sessions in hard-core history, philosophy, and political theory.

Here’s the thing, though; I discovered, a long time ago, that my experience of literature is richer if I understand the history of it – not necessarily the history of the writing itself (the background of the author or the ways in which the piece has been recieved through time) but certainly about the time period during which the piece was written or when the story takes place. I understand Dr. King’s writing much better because I’ve done some research into the Civil Rights era and have (what I’d call a rudimentary) understanding of some of the personalities, issues, and conditions of the time that help me to navigate the literature of the period. My experience of literature is made richer with this kind of knowledge, and I’m able to help my students better understand the work that I ask them to do through a brief history lesson relevant to the piece we’re investigating.

The Shoah is an absolutely overwhelming topic. How anyone can even begin to understand the thing without losing their mind is a wonder to me, truly; I’m not sure it’s possible for one person to fully comprehend the scope and impact of this period of time.

Several of the professors have offered up a really useful way into (or, perhaps I should say around) this problem; take it one story at a time.

There is a story – and I’m not sure of its origin, but I know I’ve mentioned it before – about a boy who’s tossing starfish into the sea after they’ve been spit up onto the shore after a storm. There are thousands of starfish stranded on the beach, and the boy is throwing them back into the surf one by one. Eventually, an old man comes upon the boy and chastises him. “Look at them all,” the man says, “you can’t POSSIBLY make a difference.” The boy picks up a starfish and throws it into the water, then turns to the man and says “I made a difference to THAT one.”

There’s a saying in Judaism: Whoever saves a life saves the world entire. Rabbi Sarah told us, on the first day of this program, about a verse in Hebrew that says: Lo aleha hamlaha ligmor. Velo ata ben horin lehibatel mimena. It’s is not up to you to complete the work; neither are you free to desist from it. I think these sayings are very much like the starfish story – one doesn’t HAVE to do EVERYTHING; the recognition is that one can’t save the world, but one is obligated to do whatever one can to save one’s corner of it.

The work that we do – as teachers and, for me, as a parent – is vital. I may not be able to reach all of my students. I may not be able to save the kid who’s grown up believing that gays are an abomination or that it’s necessary to “protect the white race” (and yes; I’ve got students who believe those things, and lots worse, too), but I might reach one who’s on the ledge. I might be able, though my example and my teaching, to bring a little bit of light into the world. Learning about how these things happen – being educated in the history and the politics and the psychology – will help me to do that work more effectively. It’s possible that I might just make a difference.

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Who I Am

One of the presenters yesterday gave a talk about the psychology of prejudice and, in the process, he mentioned that he had come to the “who are you and why are you here” session on Sunday evening and made some interesting observations.

Whether we realize it or not, he told us, we are always putting things in categories – ourselves and others included. “Each of you,” he said while standing in front of a projection of categories (gender, ethnicity, profession, religion, etc.) “put yourself into a few of these categories. You didn’t so much touch on your marital status or sexual identities, but you made a point of telling us where you’re from and what you do in relation to why you’re here.” Of course, that was the point of the exercise – the professor wasn’t making any judgment – but I think his point was that this is something we do almost effortlessly, and that it’s the ease of this process that can be at the root of human atrocities.

The thing is, though, I DIDN’T put myself in categories. I stood up and essentially said that I have to be here – I feel obligated to be here – because my life is informed by questions of social justice and empathy and compassion. I feel a responsibility as a human being to learn about this topic, and to pass along what I know to others in whatever capacity I might be acting.

After the session was over, I went to the professor and asked him about that. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I remember you; you were the only one who didn’t box yourself in. As a matter of fact, Paul had to ask you where and who you teach.” He didn’t really have a response as to what that might indicate. *I* think that I did it in an effort to not do the cookie-cutter “I work here and I do this and I want to learn that” stock answers, but I also did it because I don’t think that those things matter much.

Anyway, the day was positively insane. Up at 5:30, breakfast at 7 (we got up too early; we overestimated how long it would take us all to cycle through the shower), then workshops straight through lunch – only 10 minute breaks in between. A 30 minute lunch, then back to workshops. We had a speaker through dinner, then another workshop in the evening, then STRAIGHT TO BED. It takes me a while to actually sleep in strange places, so I figure it’ll be about Wednesday before I feel like I’m caught up on my sleep deficit. More later!

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First Night

I’m sitting on the bed in my dorm room and reflecting on the evening I just had.

We – my roommate and I – started by settling in. Since I didn’t bring all that much, unpacking wasn’t really a huge issue, so I immediately set about trying to find an internet connection. I got online for a few precious moments, and haven’t been able to log on again from the room since; I’m hoping to find a more reliable connection in other parts of the college (and, if you’re reading this, I’ve succeeded).

At 5:45, we headed off to the Student Union to our opening dinner. Tom, the outreach coordinator for the program and someone whom I have come to think of as a friend and colleague, began the evening by blowing everyone’s eardrums out trying to test the microphone. After some technical difficulties, he decided to ditch the mic and went about explaining to us what we already knew; how incredibly privileged we all are to be here.

This program is among only 15 in the world that is recognized by Yad Vashem. The work that gets done here and the people who are educated here constitute an important aspect of Shoah studies and humanitarianism in general. The people who graduate from this program, and others like it, are going out into communities and schools and teaching not only about the facts, events, and circumstances of the Shoah, but are also teaching about acceptance, compassion, and the importance of the individual in the face of prejudice, oppression, and brutality. The larger lesson, beyond that the Shoah happened at all, is that it can happen again, and that the only thing keeping history from repeating itself is an educated, compassionate citizenry.

Tom proceeded to introduce some of the guest speakers who will be teaching us this week, and their credentials are impressive. There are so many stories to be told and so much experience to relate that I wonder how any of us are going to make it through the week. We didn’t get a nice, easy runway into the material, either; the keynote speaker, who addressed us right after dinner, was Sybille Sarah Niemoeller von Sell, widow to Martin Niemoeller and heroine in her own right. She delivered a beautiful speech about the necessity of action, about how indifference creates an environment in which evil can thrive, and about how remarkable it was that the Nazis had managed to create conditions under which even the most basic of human kindnesses were transformed into courageous acts of defiance.

After Niemoeller’s speech, we returned to the dorms where we’re staying and met in the large common area on the first floor for introductions. There are 29 of us – the largest fellowship group in the history of the program – and every one of us comes to this experience for reasons that are remarkably similar. Certainly, all the surface or professional motivations are different; some teach history and want a greater understanding of the era, some teach English and want better access to the history. Some have a family history in the Shoah and are interested in filling what one woman called “holes in my soul” about the events that forever changed the dynamic of their families – not only because of the ones who didn’t survive, but for the ones who did and couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it. Some don’t teach at all but, like my roommate, work in arenas of social justice and feel that they will be more effective in their jobs for having had this experience.

For all of those different motivations, though, we all come to this with one common need, and that is to understand OUR place in this history. Time is not discrete – something that happened in the past is never truly over and done with, and what came before is what determines where we are now, just as what happens now will determine what comes after. When it came my turn to introduce myself, I kept it short and to the point; I’m here because I feel a responsibility as a teacher, a parent, and a human being, to make sure that these stories get told. I owe it to the world to use my position as a teacher, a parent, a writer, and a citizen to pass along this knowledge to as many people as I can, and to encourage them to use the lessons that this era has to teach us about where we are now, and where we’re going. I need this to inform my life in terms of my understanding and embodiment of compassion and human dignity.

I’m terribly excited for the rest of the week. It’s not going to be easy, I know that already (I mentioned to my roommate on the way back to our room for the night that there’s absolutely ZERO chance that I’m going to get out of this week without crying), but I also know that this may be, to date, the most important professional work that I’ve done. There’s also zero chance that I’m not going to come out of this a much better person.

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Frankenstein (Again!)

I’ve started my last class at TCC – a hybrid literature course that meets from 8:15 to 10:25 on Monday nights.  I’m not thrilled about the time slot (or the fact that the class is a hybrid), but I’ve decided to make my last class a great one.

I got them started on Frankenstein – both the most challenging piece we’ll read all semester and the one with which I am most deeply in love.

I adore this story, and I have ever since I first read it.  The funny thing is, I can’t tell you when, exactly, that was.  I do know for sure that I read it on my own, though – I wasn’t compelled to read it for a class – and that I remember being profoundly moved by the story, but I can’t tell you when that was.  This seems strange to me; I would think that, given the impact that the novel had on my being – both professional and personal – I would remember the circumstances under which I first encountered it.  Not so, though.  Huh.

Anyway, I’ve got the students reading the entire story for the first two weeks.  Because I’m away at a fellowship for teaching the Holocaust this coming week (I leave for Not So Local College tomorrow afternoon, as a matter of fact), I won’t be able to meet with them for our second class.  The students have been instructed to plow ahead with the reading in my absence, and to be prepared to discuss the novel and all its complexities and social commentary when we meet again in week three.

Every time I read this story – and every time I teach it or share it with people whose opinions I value – I am delighted by what I come away with that I didn’t have before.  I’m often hesitant to share my most valued things with others; I’m afraid that they’ll dislike something I treasure and somehow devalue my appreciation for it, or that they’ll bring up an aspect or question that I’d never considered before that puts a bit of tarnish on my admiration for it.  That’s never happened with this novel, however: in fact, the opposite has been true.  I find that every reading – and every discussion and debate and investigation – leaves me more pleased with the story than I was before, and every time that happens, I’m pleasantly surprised because I was sure that, the last time I read it, I couldn’t be more pleased.

My students, as far as I can tell, are making a good go of it.  Their online homework is to begin an email dialogue with me about the novel, and a few of them have written some insightful questions and made some interesting (though, in one case, incredibly WRONG) predictions.  A few others have written only that the reading is “slow going,” and they’ve received responses from me to the effect that this is insufficient.

Still, I think that the class is going to be interesting and exciting – I’m taking a few chances as far as the readings and the themes go – and I’m looking forward to meeting my students again.

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