The Outreach Coordinator for the Holocaust education center (let’s call him Tom) came to CHS on Friday to present to the students a new lecture he’d composed on the antecedents and precursors of the Holocaust.
Tom came to deliver a lecture last term, too, and I’d been wanting to get him back ever since because I know the students were really sucked into the talk he gave last semester. How do I know this? Several of my kids have brought up things, in class conversations and during our out-of-class, lunchtime discussions, that Tom stressed in that first talk, so I know that he got to at least some of them. Being that April is Genocide Awareness Month (and that my classes are working on Holocaust and genocide themes), I jumped at the opportunity to have Tom come back and work his magic again.
And, MAN! That guy has some kind of magic.
First, let me tell you that this man is exceedingly good at what he does. He’s engaging and energetic, and he manages to be self-effacing and humble while at the same time being incredibly knowledgeable and talented. He has a gift for taking a very difficult subject and making it accessible to a wide range of people; he had 64 high school students and 8 teachers and administrators in their seats and completely tuned into what he was saying for almost two straight hours. I admire his passion, and aspire to be as good in my own teaching practice as he is in his.
While I am literally always left in full-on brain-churn after one of Tom’s lectures, this one in particular got to me. The topic is one that we deal with literally all the time as Holocaust educators; how can something like that happen? Students are always asking these sorts of questions because, like everyone else, it is inconceivable to them that a civilized culture full of educated people (kind of like the one we live in?) could possibly allow that kind of impossible inhumanity to take over almost entirely unchecked.
The underlying question in Tom’s lecture was this: What, in my own culture, faith, traditions, or family, creates an “other”? What part do I play, either willingly or unconsciously, in the creation of an “other”? He began the presentation with a talk about the fact that the Nazis didn’t invent anything. Nothing they did was new or original; they were simply masters at tapping into the undercurrent of fear and prejudice that was already extant in German culture after World War I. Beginning with the “Rhineland Bastards,” the children of German women and Black soldiers who served with the occupying French Army after the first World War, the German government played upon fears and hate, however subtle it may have been at the time, to arouse in the target Aryan community a feeling of solidarity against a dangerous and insidious “other.” The presentation went on to describe the prejudice and exclusion (and eventually, sterilization and outright murder) of other “othered” groups; the handicapped, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma people and, of course, Jews.
The conversation that we had, both as a large group and in the short time we were able to meet as classes afterward, revolved around the question of how we approach those with whom we disagree – how do we engage the “other” Tom was talking about? He was challenging us (as he always does) to consider our place in a community and to understand that our thoughts, words, and actions have an effect beyond ourselves. It’s a powerful message, and one that deeply informs my own teaching practice.
One of the things I have to be exceedingly careful about in my classroom is that I not push my agenda; I freely admit that I’m a lefty humanist, but I’m make equally clear that I am not in this to encourage my kids to think like me. What I’m far more concerned about is encouraging my kids to just think; I want them to look critically at the information they get, the assumptions they come into situations with, and the beliefs that inform their actions so they can know for sure (or, at least, as sure as a fallible human being can be) that they’re being genuine and authentic. I don’t want them to swallow wholesale what I or anyone else hands them; I want them to be always questioning, always trying to project out through consequences – trying to see how far the ripples of their words or actions might go, and to what effect.
Before he left, Tom mentioned to the students that he considers me one of his teachers. (This kind of floored me, to be honest, because my admiration of and respect for him and the work that he does didn’t allow room for me to consider that I had anything to offer him, but that’s a topic for another reflection.) He asked the students if they’d noticed how I greet people, and then asked them if they understood what the implications of that greeting are. He explained to the kids that part of being an active agent against the kind of thoughtless hate and prejudice that could potentially lead to genocide is the practice of approaching the other, whoever that other is, with an attitude of respect. While I still struggle with that aspect of my belief system (what do I do when I approach someone who does not return my respect? What about someone who so disrespects me or my kind that his only response is to destroy me? How do I reconcile my intolerance for intolerance?), I am gratified to know that at least some of the ripples I send out in my day-to-day practice of life are good ones. It matters to me that I be a part of a stop-gap against hate; I refuse to pay that kind of energy forward.