When political correctness interrupts good education it is even more stupid and wrong than usual. Have a read of this story and then I’ll tell you why I think – and this might surprise, perhaps, some of Wellthisiswhatithink’s regular readers – I consider this an extremely foolish moment for the local school authorities.
ALBANY, N.Y. – A high school English teacher who had students pretend to be Jew-hating Nazis in a writing assignment has been placed on leave.
The teacher at Albany High School caused a storm of criticism after having students practice the art of persuasive writing by penning a letter to a fictitious Nazi government official arguing that “Jews are evil.”
District Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard held a news conference Friday to apologize for the assignment.
The Times Union newspaper reported on Saturday that the teacher was not in class on Friday and had been placed on leave by the school district.
The district has not named the teacher, who was described as a veteran.
The writing assignment was done before a planned class reading of the memoir “Night,” by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
For the assignment, the teacher asked students to research Nazi propaganda, then write a letter trying to convince an official of the Third Reich “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems.”
“Review in your notebooks the definitions for logos, ethos, and pathos,” the teacher’s assignment said. “Choose which argument style will be most effective in making your point. Please remember, your life (here in Nazi Germany in the 30s) may depend on it!”
Wyngaard said she didn’t think the assignment was malicious but “it displayed a level of insensitivity that we absolutely will not tolerate.”
Many of the students were dismayed by the assignment. Some refused to write the essay.
Encouraging students to think like Nazis? Disgraceful, right?
Not at all.
We spend much of our educative process with our kids encouraging them to empathise with people in situations much different to their own. In Australia for example, most obviously, we encourage them to imagine their life as an arriving refugee, for example from Afghanistan, or as an indigenous child. (Both “hot” political topics.)
If we want to use our creative writing, philosophy, theology or sociology classes to encourage them to evaluate the world critically, why would we only ask them to put themselves in the minds of the weak, the downtrodden, or the dis-advantaged?
To be sure, such an exercise is worthy and valuable on many levels.
But what better lesson could we teach them but to understand the madness – the collective, breathtaking, murderous insanity – of the rise of fascism and racism represented so awfully and perfectly by the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany?
And, as here, to try to understand how ordinary people became swept up in it, abandoning their principles, their innate goodness, their better selves, through fear, intimidation, and has been demonstrated by many psychological experiments, a desire, above all, to conform to authority.
Without the passive and sometimes active support of the citizenry, a fascist regime cannot arise. It’s as simple as that. Whether that citizenry is enthusiastic or cowed, the regime cannot exist in a vacuum.
The mob is a dangerous thing, and a mob turned against an ethnic group desperately so. And every mob is made up of individuals, suspending their individual ethical framework. It’s not a problem that got locked away and dealt with in the 1930s and 40s. We have seen it occur many times since. Rwanda, anyone?
How can we possibly rid humanity of this sort of mass psychosis unless we can teach our children to try to understand how a combination of pressures can make otherwise sane people do terrible things – like write a letter to an official to convince him or her “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems.” Especially when a short trip to the concentration camp or the guillotine would be your likely outcome if that letter did not sound convincing. (See below.)
Millions of “ordinary” Germans made these moral compromises in this period.
As many have admitted, they had a reasonable idea – if not the whole picture – as to what was happening to the Jews.
After all, there were cases of neighbours helping Nazi thugs to evict Jews, bundle them into trucks, take their furniture, and sometimes there was explicit violence, sometimes fatal, on the streets.
Within recent memory we have seen exactly the same sort of compromise with morality played out with dreadful consequences in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Serbia …
Let us read the AP report carefully. The children in this man’s class were being prepared to encounter Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece “Night”. A Holocaust memoir so excoriating, so terrible, so shocking in its description of how the wholesale slaughter of the Jews was not protested and allowed to continue, as to be almost unreadable.
There is a danger that in today’s world, growing up in a relatively safe modern environment, distanced from these seminal events by time (it is coming up to 70 years from the end of WWII), the children of today will simply not be able to grasp or genuinely take on the horrors of that era – what man is capable of doing to his fellow man.
Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. Not malicious? This teacher’s actions were far-sighted and innovative. The teacher should be reinstated immediately. It’s the school supervisor who needs to be sent on leave. Perhaps to tour Auschwitz, with enough time to think a little more deeply about their role than merely pacifying knee-jerk public opinion.
One of the key themes in Wiesel’s work is the “Unheeded Witnesses” – people who tried to warn of the extremity of the Final Solution but who could not convince those around them. And of those who stand by while terrible events are allowed to unfold, uninterrupted.
In the end, even Wiesel himself finds himself in this role, too terrified of dying himself to intervene in the beating to death of his own father in the bunk under his.
Understanding how such events can occur requires, first, an understanding of how millions of apparently sane and compassionate people can connive in their perpetration. One can hear the students now, saying to each other, “We would never behave like that!” Yet people do. All the time.
Understanding why is the key to changing our world.
This teacher is not an insensitive bumbler, he is a hero.
To understand what happened to those few incredibly courageous Germans who stood up against the Nazis, I warmly commend you to watch Sophie Scholl, The Final Days.
It tells the almost unwatchable, unutterably horrible and yet inspiring story of a group of five young people who defied the Nazis and published anti-war literature.
Their story is told here.
Read it, if you can. Watch it, if you can.
Read Wiesel’s book, if you can.
It is often said that we owe it to the dead never to forget.
Well, we owe it to the living to understand, too.
Extract from Wikipedia:
Night is a work by Elie Wiesel about his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust and toward the end of the Second World War. In just over 100 pages of sparse and fragmented narrative, Wiesel writes about the death of God and his own increasing disgust with humanity, reflected in the inversion of the father-child relationship as his father declines to a helpless state and Wiesel becomes his resentful teenage caregiver. “If only I could get rid of this dead weight … Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.” In Night, everything is inverted, every value destroyed. “Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends,” a Kapo tells him. “Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”
Wiesel was 16 years old when Buchenwald was liberated by the United States Army in April 1945, too late for his father, who died after a beating while Wiesel lay silently on the bunk above for fear of being beaten too. Having lost his faith in God and mankind, he vowed not to speak of his experience for ten years. In 1954 he wrote an 865-page manuscript in Yiddish, published as the 245-page Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (“And the World Remained Silent”) in Buenos Aires, after which the French novelist François Mauriac persuaded him to write it for a wider audience.
Even with Mauriac’s help, finding a publisher was not easy – they said the book was too morbid – but 178 pages appeared in 1958 in France as La Nuit, and in 1960 a 116-page version was published in the United States as Night. Fifty years later it had been translated into 30 languages, and ranked alongside Primo Levi‘s If This Is a Man and Anne Frank‘s The Diary of a Young Girl as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature. Unlike Levi’s and Frank’s work, it remains unclear how much of Wiesel’s story is memoir. He has reacted angrily to the idea that any of it is fiction, calling it his deposition, but scholars have nevertheless had difficulty approaching it as an unvarnished account. The American literary critic Ruth Franklin writes that the ruthless pruning of the text from Yiddish to French transformed an angry historical account into a work of art.
Night is the first book in a trilogy – Night, Dawn and Day – reflecting Wiesel’s state of mind during and after the Holocaust. The titles mark his transition from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall. “In Night,” he said, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end – man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.”
Wiesel was born on 30 September 1928 in Sighet, a town in the Carpathian mountains of northern Transylvania, into a close-knit community of 10,000–20,000 mostly Orthodox Jews. The area was annexed by Hungary in 1940. Ellen Fine writes that anti-Jewish legislation was enacted between 1938 and 1944, but the period Wiesel discusses at the beginning of the book, 1942 and 1943, was nevertheless a relatively calm one for the Jewish population.
That changed at midnight on 18 March 1944 with the invasion of Hungary by Nazi Germany and the installation of Döme Sztójay‘s puppet government. Adolf Eichmann, commander of the Nazi’s Sondereinsatzkommando (Special Action Unit), arrived in Hungary to oversee the deportation of its Jews to Auschwitz. Between 15 May and 7 July 1944, 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, around 12,000 every day, most of them gassed.
As the Allies prepared for the liberation of Europe in May and June that year, Wiesel and his family – his father Chlomo (also written Shlomo), his mother Sarah, and his sisters Hilda, Beatrice, and seven-year-old Tzipora – were being deported to Auschwitz, along with 15,000 Jews from Sighet and 18,000 from neighboring villages.
Wiesel’s mother and Tzipora were immediately sent to the gas chamber. Hilda and Beatrice survived, separated from the rest of the family. Wiesel and his father managed to stay together, surviving hard labor and a death march to another concentration camp, Buchenwald, where Wiesel watched his father die just weeks before the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army arrived to liberate the camp.
Night opens in Sighet in 1941. The book’s narrator is Eliezer, a pious Orthodox Jewish teenager, who studies the Talmud by day and at night runs to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple, a prediction, writes Fine, of the shadow about to be cast over Europe’s Jews.
To the disapproval of his father, Eliezer spends his time discussing the Kabbalah and the mysteries of the universe with Moshe the Beadle, the synagogue’s caretaker and the town’s humblest resident, “awkward as a clown” but much loved. Moshe tells him that “man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him,” a theme to which Night repeatedly turns.
Toward the end of 1942, the Hungarian government rules that Jews unable to prove their citizenship will be expelled, and Moshe is crammed onto a cattle train and taken to Poland. Somehow he manages to escape, miraculously saved by God, he believes, so that he might save the Jews of Sighet. He hurries back to the village to tell what he calls the story of his own death, running from one household to the next: “Jews, listen to me! It’s all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me!“
He tells them that when the cattle train crossed the border into Poland it was taken over by the Gestapo, the German secret police. The Jews were transferred to trucks and driven to a forest in Galicia, near Kolomaye, where they were forced to dig pits. When they had finished, each prisoner had to approach the hole, present his neck, and was shot. Babies were thrown into the air and used as targets by machine gunners. He tells them about Malka, the young girl who took three days to die, and Tobias, the tailor who begged to be killed before his sons; and how he, Moshe, was shot in the leg and taken for dead. But the Jews of Sighet would not listen, making Moshe Night’s first unheeded witness.
The Sighet ghettos
Over the next 18 months restrictions on Jews increase.
No valuables are to be kept in Jewish homes.
Jews are not allowed to visit restaurants, attend the synagogue, or leave home after six in the evening, and they must wear the yellow star at all times. Eliezer’s father makes light of it:
The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don’t die of it …
(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)
The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear. We even thought ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained. A little Jewish republic … We appointed a Jewish Council, a Jewish police, an office for social assistance, a labor committee, a hygiene department – a whole government machinery. Everyone marveled at it. We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers …
It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto – it was illusion.
In May 1944 the Judenrat is told the ghettos will be closed with immediate effect and the residents deported.
They are not told their destination, only that they may each take a few personal belongings. The next day, Eliezer watches as the Hungarian police, wielding truncheons and rifle butts, round up his friends and neighbors, then march them through the streets.
“It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and my hate is still the only link between us today.”
And there was I, on the pavement, unable to make a move. Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved … His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book …
One by one they passed in front of me, teachers, friends, others, all those I had been afraid of, all those I once could have laughed at, all those I had lived with over the years. They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs.
Eliezer and his family are crammed into a closed cattle wagon with 80 others, with no light, little to eat or drink, barely able to breathe.
On their third night in the wagon, one woman, Madame Schächter, repeatedly becomes hysterical, screaming that she can see flames, until she is beaten into silence by the others.
Men and women are separated on arrival.
Eliezer and his father are sent to the left; his mother, Hilda, Beatrice, and Tzipora to the right.
He learned years later that his mother and Tzipora were taken straight to the gas chamber.
For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair … and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.
The remainder of Night describes Eliezer’s desperate efforts not to be parted from his father, not even to lose sight of him; his grief and shame at witnessing his father’s decline into helplessness; and as their relationship changes and the young man becomes the older man’s caregiver, his resentment and guilt, because his father’s existence threatens his own.
The stronger Eliezer’s need to survive, the weaker the bonds that tie him to other people.
His loss of faith in human relationships is mirrored in his loss of faith in God.
During the first night, as he and his father wait in line to be thrown into a firepit, he watches a lorry draw up and deliver its load of children into the fire.
While his father recites the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead – Wiesel writes that in the long history of the Jews, he does not know whether people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves – Eliezer considers throwing himself against the electric fence.
At that moment he and his father are ordered to go to their barracks. But Eliezer is already destroyed. “[T]he student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me.”
There follows a passage that Ellen Fine writes contains the main themes of Night.
The death of God, children, innocence, and the défaite du moi, or dissolution of the self, a recurring theme in Holocaust literature:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.
With the loss of self goes Eliezer’s sense of time: “I glanced at my father. How he had changed! … So much had happened within such a few hours that I had lost all sense of time. When had we left our houses? And the ghetto? And the train? Was it only a week? One night – one single night?”
God is not lost to Eliezer entirely. During the hanging of a child, which the camp is forced to watch, he hears someone ask: Where is God? Where is he? Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy dies slowly and in agony. Wiesel files past him, sees his tongue still pink and his eyes clear, and weeps.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?
And I heard a voice within me answer him: … Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.
Fine writes that this is the central event in Night, the religious sacrifice, Isaac bound to the altar, Jesus nailed to the cross, described by Alfred Kazin as the literal death of God. Afterwards the inmates celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but Eliezer cannot take part.
Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him?
Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?
How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces?
But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused.
In or around August 1944, Eliezer and his father (seen left) are transferred from Birkenau to Auschwitz III, a work camp, their lives reduced to the avoidance of violence and the constant search for food.
“Bread, soup – these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach.”
Their only joy is when the Americans bomb the camp.
In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, the Germans decide to flee, taking 60,000 inmates on a death march to concentration camps in Germany. Eliezer and his father are marched to Gleiwitz to be put on a freight train to Buchenwald, a camp near Weimar, 350 miles (563 km) from Auschwitz.
Pitch darkness. Every now and then, an explosion in the night. They had orders to fire on any who could not keep up. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of this pleasure. If one of us had stopped for a second, a sharp shot finished off another filthy son of a bitch.Near me, men were collapsing in the dirty snow. Shots.
Resting in a shed after marching 50 miles (80 km), Rabbi Eliahou asks if anyone has seen his son. They had stuck together for three years, “always near each other, for suffering, for blows, for the ration of bread, for prayer,” but the rabbi had lost sight of him in the crowd and is now scratching through the snow looking for his son’s corpse. “I hadn’t any strength left for running. And my son didn’t notice. That’s all I know.”
Wiesel doesn’t tell the man that his son had indeed noticed his father limping, and had run faster, letting the distance between them grow.
And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.
The inmates spend two days and nights in Gleiwitz locked inside cramped barracks without food, water, or heat, literally sleeping on top of one another, so that each morning the living wake with the dead underneath them. There is more marching to the train station and onto a cattle wagon with no roof, and no room to sit down until other inmates make space by throwing the dead onto the tracks. They travel for ten days and nights, with only the snow falling on them for water. Of the 100 Jews in Wiesel’s wagon, 12 survive the journey.
I woke from my apathy just at the moment when two men came up to my father. I threw myself on top of his body. He was cold. I slapped him. I rubbed his hand, crying:Father! Father! Wake up. They’re trying to throw you out of the carriage …His body remained inert …I set to work to slap him as hard as I could. After a moment, my father’s eyelids moved slightly over his glazed eyes. He was breathing weakly.You see, I cried.The two men moved away.
Buchenwald and liberation
An alert sounds, the camp lights go out, and Eliezer, exhausted, follows the crowd to the barracks, leaving his father behind.
He wakes at dawn on a wooden bunk, remembering that he has a father, and goes in search of him. “But at that same moment this thought came into my mind. Don’t let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.”
His father is in another block, sick with dysentery.
The other men in his bunk, a Frenchman and a Pole, attack him because he can no longer go outside to relieve himself.
Eliezer is unable to protect him. “Another wound to the heart, another hate, another reason for living lost.”
Begging for water one night from his bunk, where he has lain for a week, Chlomo is beaten on the head with a truncheon by an SS officer for making too much noise. Eliezer lies in the bunk above and does nothing for fear of being beaten too. He hears his father make a rattling noise, “Eliezer”. In the morning, 29 January 1945, he finds another man in his father’s place. The Kapos had come before dawn and taken Chlomo to the crematorium.
His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched for it, I might perhaps have found something like – free at last!
Chlomo missed his freedom by just a few weeks. The Soviets had liberated Auschwitz 11 days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. Eliezer is transferred to the children’s block where he stays with 600 others, dreaming of soup. On 5 April 1945 the inmates are told the camp is to be liquidated and they are to be moved – another death march. On 11 April, with 20,000 inmates still inside, a Jewish resistance movement attacks the remaining SS officers and takes control. At six o’clock that evening, an American tank arrives at the gates, and behind it the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army.
Eliezer is free.