I’m getting ready to start The Book Thief with my freshmen. Today, a very dear friend of mine came to talk to my babies about his childhood in Nazi Germany.
Martin was born in 1935 to a family of well-to-do Germans. His father was a chemical engineer and was well placed in the German industrial culture. Dad’s job during the war was to see to the acquisition and absorption of foreign companies into the Nazi complex, and he was, by Martin’s assessment, very good at it. He was also involved in the I. G. Farben operation at Auschwitz, though at the time, Martin was unaware of his father’s work there.
Martin grew up perfectly at ease with the kind of rabid antisemitism that the Nazis propagated. He believed all of the lies that were told about “undesirable” people because everyone he knew, loved, and respected – his parents, his teachers, his clergy – never challenged those lies; in fact, they worked diligently to cement them in Martin’s mind. It wasn’t until he moved to Canada in 1952 that Martin began to question the assumptions with which he’d grown up. Once he started questioning, though, he never stopped.
The kindhearted, soft-spoken gentleman has made it his mission to go out into the world to talk about his experience of wrestling with the legacy that his father, his family, and his people have given him. He speaks with a sometimes shocking mixture of quiet eloquence and bitter ferocity about the atrocities, the hatred, and the lingering effects of that period in our history continues to wreak. Martin believes that talking about these things, especially to a generation who has never known the kind of pernicious malignancy that characterized his own childhood, is his duty; he could no sooner remain quiet than he could stop breathing.
I have a profound and complex affection and admiration for this man. He represents for me an example of what a fully engaged, compassionate, and thinking human being should be. Martin’s willingness to look the ugliness of his own past full in the face is something that takes a staggering amount of courage in private; that he does it in public – and often behind microphones and in front of audiences packed with survivors and the children and grandchildren of survivors – defies my ability to name it.
My usually boisterous and difficult to focus freshman class was held in absolute thrall for an hour and 15 minutes first thing this morning (those of you unfamiliar with freshman during first period should know that this is no small thing). Martin has kindly agreed to come back on Wednesday so the kids have a chance to process some of the things that he said enough to formulate some questions; my goal is for them to have some idea of what it was like to be a young person in Nazi Germany before we begin reading Zuzak’s gorgeous novel about a family’s efforts to survive during that time.
I am quite certain that my students are only marginally aware of the incredible gift that Martin offers them, and that they are even less cognizant of the enormous fortitude and commitment that he demonstrates every time he stands up to tell his story. I am aware, however, and I am moved beyond my ability to express every time he agrees to share his time, his compassion, and his friendship with me.