Category Archives: Holocaust fellowship

A Perfect Storm

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.

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Filed under admiration, analysis, colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, Holocaust fellowship, I love my job, Mrs. Chili as Student, self-analysis, Teaching

Wish Me Luck, Please?

I just postmarked my application for the Teacher Fellowship Program at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I’m not overly confident that I’ll be accepted – the competition is pretty fierce – but at least I got my application in.  I’m sending out all the good vibes I can with it; I really, really want to be chosen for this.

I’ll keep you all posted!

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Filed under compassion and cooperation, Holocaust, Holocaust fellowship, Mrs. Chili as Student

Research Paper

*Chili’s note; Grammar Wednesday is being postponed this week; I’ve got bigger work to do*

I had an uneven number of students in my morning class, and I didn’t expect that they’d be able to give me a whole lot of productive feedback anyway (yes, I’m being pessimistic, but I’m also a realist), so I didn’t get my paper workshopped.  My hope is that I’ll be able to participate in the big-kids’ workshop next period.

Regardless, I wanted to put this out for you, dear readers (well, for those of you brave enough to get to the end of it, anyway) to see if I can get some peer feedback on the thing.  Remember that this is a first draft; I’m entirely dissatisfied that I’ve properly addressed my major question.

I’ve included my own questions at the end; I welcome any and all suggestions you care to make.

Thanks!

Mrs. Chili
English I/II, III/IV
November 9, 2009
Research Paper

Shards of History: Kristallnacht, Memory, and Racial Unrest

When the sun rose over Germany and Austria on the morning of November 10, 1938, much of its light was filtered through the smoke of still-burning synagogues and Jewish homes across both countries.  What light shone past the haze sparkled over perhaps billions of broken shards of shattered windows and illuminated the faces of Jews both dead and stunned living alike.  Those who survived the night had endured an unprecedented, targeted, and deliberate riot perpetrated by the German government, the police forces, and ordinary German citizens against their Jewish neighbors.  Homes and businesses were looted and destroyed, synagogues were burned, and thousands of Jews suffered arrest, rape, and murder at the hands of their countrymen.  The riots came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, and the memory of that night is still alive in the consciousness of survivors and scholars.  Kristallnacht stands as a warning against the violence and destruction that racial hatred can bring.

As soon as Adolf Hitler assumed the chancellorship of Germany in January of 1933, he began implementing programs meant to limit the freedoms and infringe on the citizenship of German Jews.  As early as April of that year, a boycott against Jewish-owned businesses was called for by the Nazi government, and the call was made on April 1st in a rally by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.  Though the boycott was largely unsuccessful – the German people were not yet ready to follow Hitler in his hatred of their Jewish neighbors – it was, nevertheless, a warning sign of things to come.

Antisemitism and the persecution of Jews represented a central tenet of Nazi ideology (USHMM).  The adoption of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 announced the public intention of the German government to marginalize German Jews and to limit their participation in civic life.  Among the many restrictions imposed on Jews was the denial of positions in civil service, limits on the numbers of Jewish students allowed in universities, and restrictions on the practices of Jewish doctors and lawyers.  The ban on Jewish participation in German life even extended to the entertainment industry; Jews were no longer allowed to act on stage or in films (USHMM) and, eventually, were forbidden to attend plays and films as patrons, as well.

Life for Jews in Poland wasn’t much better.  Poland, too, had become increasingly hostile toward its Jewish population, and was unwilling to allow Polish Jews living outside of the country to return to Poland.  In order to return, foreign residents needed to obtain a special stamp on their passports.  When these people went to their consulates in Germany and were refused the vital stamp, the purpose of the Polish government became clear. Poland did not want them to return (Schleunes, 237).

Along with the restrictions Germany put on Jews came many mass, forced deportations of foreign Jews from Germany.  Soviets, Poles, and Austrians who were identified as Jews were forced to leave Germany and German occupied territories, regardless of whether these deportees had anywhere to go; in many cases, these people had lived in Germany for decades and, in some cases, generations, though sometimes without ever obtaining legal citizenship.

One such deportation was the mass expulsion of Polish Jews in 1938.  The group were rounded up and shipped to the border, where Polish officials denied them entry into the country, a move which forced the deported Jews to live in a refugee camp between the two countries.  Two of these refugees were the parents of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year-old illegal immigrant living in France.  Seeking to avenge the cruel treatment of his parents, Grynszpan sought the audience of a German official at the embassy in Paris on November 7, 1938; it is suspected that he asked to see the ambassador, Count von Welczek, but was received by the third secretary, instead.  Ernst vom Rath, a minor figure in the embassy, had the unhappy luck of answering Grynszpan’s request to meet with a German official and was shot  by the teenager.  He died of his wound two days later.

Vom Rath’s death was the pretext under which the Nazis launched a widespread riot in Germany and Austria against Jews.  An article in the New York Times reported that the shooting in Paris was linked to a “world conspiracy” and warned Jews of certain retaliation.  The official German response was that Grynszpan’s frustrated attempt to find justice for his parents was, in fact, “a new plot of the Jewish world conspiracy against National Socialist Germany, an attempt to torpedo Franco-German relations, and a plot against European peace.”  The article went on to quote Der Angriff, the German newspaper founded by the Nazi party in 1927, which called for “the nations of Europe to unite for ruthless war against the international Jewish menace and against Jewish murder and Jewish crime”(Tolischus).

The German government wasted no time in organizing retaliation for vom Rath’s shooting.  In orders transmitted at 11:55 p.m. on November 9th, 1938 to all Gestapo offices, Heinrich Muller, the chief of the Gestapo, ordered that “Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly.”  Jewish homes, shops, and places of worship were targets of violence, though the Gestapo’s orders made clear that action was to be taken against these places “only if there is no… danger to the surrounding” German-owned properties and there was no risk of harm to other, non-Jewish citizens.  The orders went on to clarify that looting and “other significant excesses” were to be suppressed, though it clear from eyewitness testimony of people who lived through the pogrom that those orders were not conscientiously followed by officials.  Further, Heinrich warned that “Preparations are to be made for the arrest of about 20,000 to 30,000 Jews in the Reich. Above all well-to-do Jews are to be selected.”  As many Jews as could be accommodated were to be arrested, particularly the “healthy, male Jews, not too old” were targeted.

What is interesting here is that while the pogrom was not discouraged by the Nazi government, many elements within the Nazi leadership took pains to distance themselves from the more radical elements of the SA, sometimes called “Brown Shirts” or storm troopers, who were originally organized as Hitler’s private army and whose purpose was to disrupt opponents to Hitler and to influence the populations by intimidation and violence.  While Hitler’s sympathies were clearly with the SA’s proposed method of dealing with “the Jewish problem” (Schleunes, 236). he was forced to concede, after the Kristallnacht riots, that a more rational approach to Jewish marginalization was required.

The German government was not above letting the radicals do some of their dirty work, however.  At a rally on the night of November 9th, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, a chief instigator of the pogrom, intimated to the convened Nazi ‘Old Guard’ that ‘World Jewry’ had conspired to commit the assassination and announced that, “the Führer has decided that … demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered” (USHMM).  The regional Party leaders took this as a command, however, and issued orders to their offices and to branches of the State Police, SA, and Hitler Youth.  Many of the perpetrators from these organizations dressed in civilian clothes, however, to perpetuate the myth that the riots were sparked spontaneously by ordinary citizens outraged by the assassination of vom Rath.

Ernest Günter Fontheim, a young Jewish boy at the time of the pogrom, remembers going to school on the morning of November 10th and being told of what happened the night before.  “In a tense voice Dr. Wollheim announced that school was being dismissed because our safety could not be guaranteed,” Fontheim says. “This was followed by a number of instructions which he urged us to follow in every detail” (Fontheim).  The students were told to go straight home and to not walk in large groups so as to avoid the attention of others.  Fontheim and his class was told that school would be closed for the foreseeable future.

On his way home, Fontheim walked past the synagogue where he was made Bar Mitzvah.  He watched a “thick column of smoke rising out of the center cupola. There was no wind, and the column seemed to stand motionless reaching into the heavens” (Fontheim).  He also witnessed a mob dragging a Jewish man from his apartment and beaten bloody.

Joanna Gerechter Neumann was also an eyewitness to the morning after:

“What I saw was hordes of people standing in front of a beautiful synagogue, and         throwing stones through these magnificent colored windows. And as we arrived, of     course we ran past place itself, the noise, the shouting, the screaming. I suppose         there was an, an aura of, of eeriness about it, because we still didn’t know what was     happening, but I suppose just the mere fact that so many people were there and         were screaming and shouting and, and throwing stones into the stained glass         windows was enough to make us run.”

The final tally of destruction is not clearly known.  The number of synagogues destroyed varies depending on the sources consulted, ranging from about 270 to more than 1,000-2,000 (Bard).  At least 96 people were murdered, nearly 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and upwards of 7,500 Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed.

Adding insult to grave injury was the fact that, three days after the riots, Herman Goring, Hitler’s acknowledged second in command, held a meeting with the top Nazi leadership to assess the damage done during the night and place responsibility for it (JVR).  In this meeting, he issued an edict stating that Jews themselves were to be made responsible for the damages inflicted against them.  Realizing that the cost of insurance claims for damages to Jewish property would certainly cripple insurance companies, Goring mandated that Jews “be held legally and financially responsible for the damages incurred by the pogrom. Accordingly, a “fine of 1 billion marks was levied for the slaying of Vom Rath, and 6 million marks paid by insurance companies for broken windows was to be given to the state coffers. (Snyder, 201).

The Reich saw the pogrom as a perfect opportunity to truly begin addressing the “Jewish question.”  Goring was concerned, however, about the loss of property due to violence against Jews; he wanted for the Jews to suffer, certainly, but he wasn’t willing to have property and materials that he deemed valuable to the Reich destroyed in the process.  In the meeting, Goring warned his subordinates that any property that could be seized for the benefit of the German cause should be, and that actions should not be taken that would “hurt” the Nazi party.

Further,  Goring made perfectly clear the intention of the Nazi leadership toward Jews going forward.  “I should not want to leave any doubt, gentlemen, as to the aim of today’s meeting,” Goring is quoted as saying.  “We have not come together merely to talk again, but to make decisions, and I implore competent agencies to take all measures for the elimination of the Jew from the German economy, and to submit them to me” (JVL).

International reaction to the Kristallnacht pogrom was mixed.  The German Ambassador to the U.S. , Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff, reported that the attitude of the U.S. toward Germany took a decided turn from neutral to somewhat positive to decidedly hostile after the Kristallnacht pogrom.  In a report sent to the Nazi government on the 14th of November, five days after Kristallnacht, Dieckhoff wrote:

I believe the storm now raging over the United States will calm down in the
near future. As for now, a hurricane is raging here and no regular work can be
done. It is well known that a large part of the American press has been
attacking Germany in the most hateful and vicious way, and that this
incitement has become widespread. Until 10 November, large and strong
parts of the American people were still indifferent to the propaganda
campaign, partly because of indifference in what regards European matters,
partly because of skepticism concerning the newspapers, partly out of
sympathy for the Third Reich… Today this is no longer the case… There are still wide circles that are indifferent, and many individuals who are maintaining their calm, but as far as public opinion is being expressed, it is without exception enraged and bitter against Germany (Yad Vashem).

My research question is “How does (does?) understanding Kristallnacht help us to understand other incidences of racial intolerance and violence (i.e. the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Rwandan genocide, etc)?”

My concerns for this paper are:
• that I’ve not included enough background information about the political, social, and economic conditions imposed upon the Jewish population of Germany leading up to Kristallnacht
• that I’ve not made clear enough the internal power struggles between Hitler and his radical SA and Goebbels and Goring’s more systematic approach to the “Jewish question,” and how that affected both official policy and conditions on the ground.
• that I am unsure of how to make the leap from 1938 to the present time (though I think I’m going to tie it in to Kristallnacht commemorations that will happen on Monday night).
• that I have to have a far broader understanding of psychology in order to make the connection between my research and its application to my guiding question.

Aaaaand, GO!

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Filed under about writing, analysis, colleagues, composition, concerns, critical thinking, Holocaust, Holocaust fellowship, I love my job, Learning, self-analysis, Teaching, writing

The Way We Think About the Struggles of Others

I’m hoping that you’ll all be open to engaging me on a question that I’ve been pondering for a while now.  I’m pretty sure you are all aware of this by now, but I am an GLBTQ ally and have been for years.  I’m also a fellow at a center for Holocaust studies and am actively involved in outreach and education about the Shoah.  These two activities have given me the opportunity to contemplate issues of equality, personhood, and compassion, and I find that the question of how people understand the struggles of others continues to come up as a primary element of the work that I do.

My husband returned home from an extended business trip last month.  When he’s away on business, he tends to read a lot of USA Today.  This trip was no exception.

One of the first things we talked about over his welcome-home dinner was the question of the intersection of gay rights and civil rights. Mr. Chili got all worked up about these pieces in an issue of USA Today and made sure that he set them aside for me to see.

This is the first article, an opinion piece from November:

Black leaders called on to confront homophobia

Gary E. Kaminski – Buena Vista, Pa.

My great joy at the election results has been severely tempered by California voters’ passage of Proposition 8, which effectively denies gays the right to marry (“Where’s the outrage?” The Forum, Wednesday).

(Rights fight. In Los Angeles this month, 10,000 same-sex marriage supporters march to overturn the state’s anti-gay marriage law Proposition 8.David McNew / Getty Images)

What makes this so tragic? Although many whites opposed the measure, blacks supported the denial of an existing right. It’s appalling that a group so familiar with discrimination could vote to strip rights from another minority.

I urge leaders of the black community to face head-on the blight of homophobia that, as we see in California, has real-world consequences. I urge our new President-elect, Barack Obama, who is uniquely qualified to confront issues of bigotry, to do so strongly and emphatically.

This was a response to that piece, and the article that got Mr. Chili (and me) all worked up:

Race, gay rights don’t mix

Paul Scott – Durham, N.C.

James Kirchick questioned the lack of support among African Americans for gay-rights issues. As an African American, I am tired of folks who seem to think that black civil rights issues should be mixed with the issues of others. To compare gay rights with the transatlantic slave trade is an insult to the millions of my ancestors whose bones rest at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

It must also be noted that since the civil rights era, our movement has been hijacked by every other group that has a beef with America — from gay-rights to animal-rights groups — so much so that many issues that pertain specifically to black people get lost in the shuffle. The freedom of African Americans has been paid for with our own blood, sweat and tears. We do not need gay-rights activists or any others to co-sign.

Okay, so here’s the thing; I’m coming to you with my thinking about this because I feel under-qualified, as a white woman who was raised and continues to reside in a predominantly white environment, to speak with authority about the intersection of race and GLBTQ rights.  Does Mr. Scott, in your opinion, have legitimacy in claiming that “our movement,” as he calls it, has been co-opted by others seeking equality and justice?  Does his argument have firm foundation in the legacy of slavery, or is it less a question of the (relatively) distant past and more about the efforts of recent leaders (and, not for nothing, ordinary people of literally every race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, and faith) who stood up and spoke out?  I would hasten to remind Mr. Scott that Dr. King’s widow spoke often of the very solid connection between the work her husband did and the work that GLBTQ activists are doing now; her premise was that the oppression of ANY group dehumanizes and degrades us all.  That, of course, is the message that all civil rights leaders, past and present, highlight in their work and is, I think, the foundational idea of any struggle for equality.  Race has nothing to do with that; it’s about humanity.

I understand, as a Holocaust scholar, that a lot of people who have been brutalized and dehumanized and denied their basic rights by a larger and more powerful group feel an ownership to that crime.  It is true that a great many Jews will still deny the importance of the other minorities who were victimized in the Shoah – that countless Gypsies, handicapped people, political activist, gays, lesbians, and trans people and who knows who else were slaughtered with the same vileness of spirit that the Jews were is secondary to THEIR suffering.  I understand that they feel that to acknowledge the suffering of others somehow diminishes their own.  I do not understand WHY they feel this way, however; I just know that they do.  My thinking about this as it relates to the question of gay rights and race is centered around this idea; do you think Mr. Scott is operating from a presumption that “his” movement needs to be kept separate and inviolable from others; that to open the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement to encompass the struggles of others for recognition of equal personhood somehow diminishes the work that was done in the 50s and 60s?  Does equating gay rights to civil rights – or, more specifically, to the capital-letter Civil Rights Movement – somehow erode or threaten the progress that’s been made on the issues of race?

I would appreciate anything you can offer me in the way of furthering my thinking about this.  I recognize that there’s a big piece of this puzzle that I, by virtue of the nature of my environment and upbringing, can’t come to on my own.

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Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, critical thinking, ethics, Gay/Straight Alliance, GLBTQ issues, Holocaust, Holocaust fellowship, Learning, out in the real world, politics, Questions, self-analysis

Analysis and Applicability

Last week, I invited a colleague of mine, a vibrant, energetic, and incredibly academically vigorous man, to come and speak to my classes about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into his presentations about the Holocaust.  Tom, the outreach coordinator for the center for Holocaust studies where I did my summer fellowship this year, travels the region delivering presentations to schools and organizations about topics that range from Nazi political policy to Anne Frank to Darfur to Holocaust denial.  Because of the incredible importance of the work that he does – and because Tom is a man deeply concerned that he always comports himself in as moral, respectful, and ethical a way possible – a lot of work goes in to these presentations.  It was this work – this research, this consideration of credibility and validity, and this organization – that I wanted my students to see.

I thought the presentation was excellent.  Tom did a wonderful job breaking down his process; he led us through his consideration of his topic and his audience, his intent for a particular presentation, his assessment of the credibility of his sources, and the process he uses to choose, place, and caption images.  He spoke clearly and eloquently about analyzing a topic and seeing it for its component parts.  He explained the elements of his introductions and the ways in which he defines terms, lays groundwork, and establishes context.  He emphasized the importance of tying a presentation together at the ending; about synthesizing the whole back to the elements that were laid out in the introduction, and about leaving the viewer with a powerful, unifying image.

None of my students got any of that.

When I polled my evening kids about what they were able to take away from Tom’s lecture, to a person they all said “nothing.”  One of them said that she understands that it’s important to not show Jews as victims; that showing them as they would choose to be represented is respectful, “but,” in her words, “that’s about it.”

I knew this would happen.  About five minutes into Tom’s talk, I looked into the blank faces of my students, who were respectfully listening and watching as Tom gave his overview of the work he does, and I knew they were all thinking, “but I’m not doing a paper on the Holocaust,” or “none of this applies to me,” or “I’m not even using pictures in my paper.”  My guess was that one common thought running through their heads was “MAN!  I wish I’d slept in this morning.”

It was at this point that I started taking notes.  I translated everything that Tom was saying and expanded it so that it would be relevant to my students.  He spoke about how he needs to be careful when using pictures in his presentations, and I wrote about the importance of understanding the context of images – not just pictures, mind you, but concepts and ideas as images – before using them in a paper.  He talked about one of the Nazis’ “reasons” for the Final Solution, and I wrote about analyzing an issue to uncover and represent its basic elements.  He talked about pissing off a high school class who expected a particular kind of Holocaust presentation (“You’re the Holocaust Guy, right?  We’re going to have an easy class today!“) by giving them something that struck a lot closer to home than was comfortable for any of them, and I wrote about understanding one’s audience and knowing what they expect, what they think they already know, and how to get them to where you want them to be at the end of the paper.  He spoke about considering what’s not represented in a photograph, and I wrote about how important it is to be aware of both the obvious and the unstated (or the subtle) when one is putting together a piece of writing – sometimes what is not said is what’s most important.

When I broke it all down like this for my evening students (I don’t see my morning kids again until Monday), they grudgingly conceded that they could see that, maybe, Tom’s presentation really was relevant to them.  They just haven’t had enough practice looking beyond the plot – beyond what’s literally in front of them – to see how something that seems unrelated to their immediate concerns can be important and meaningful.  I modeled that behavior for them, and my hope is to give them some practice in this kind of work at least once more before the semester comes to a close.

I’m not just teaching these freshmen how to string a bunch of sentences together and how to cite in the MLA format; I’m teaching them how to be conscious and critical consumers of information.  I want to teach them how to really see.

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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!

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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Filed under compassion and cooperation, concerns, ethics, Holocaust fellowship, out in the real world

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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Filed under compassion and cooperation, concerns, ethics, failure, film as literature, frustrations, Holocaust fellowship, Learning, popular culture, Teaching

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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Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, ethics, Holocaust fellowship, Learning, self-analysis, Teaching

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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Filed under colleagues, compassion and cooperation, ethics, Holocaust fellowship, Literature, out in the real world, self-analysis, Teaching