Pope Francis said last year, when he visited the synagogue in Rome, that the past serves as a lesson for the present and the future and that the the Holocaust teaches us that utmost vigilance is always needed to be able to take prompt action in defense of human dignity and peace. All human dignity and peace. That's why I'm honored to share this story today from Liza Wiemer about two teen heroes who did just that.
My maternal grandfather and my stepfather's entire family were in concentration camp during the Holocaust, my mother's father as a political prisoner who spoke out against the Nazis, and my stepfather's family as some of the over 300,000 Czech Jews who were interred or slaughtered. My grandfather, an engineer, was forced to help reconfigure the infrastructure of the camp at Terezin (Terezianstadt) to house nearly 60,000 Jews, dissidents, gypsies, homosexuals, and POWs from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand in barracks designed to hold 7,000. By the end of the war, 33,000 of the 144,000 prisoners interred at Terezin had died of disease, starvation, and sadistic treatment by the guards and commandants. An additional 88,000 were deported to the Nazi death camps. My grandfather was the last camp elder when Terezin was liberated, and my father was one of the 15,000 children who went through Terezin. Ninety percent of them died.
I grew up with the bone-deep knowledge that the Holocaust is indefensible. Hearing Liza Wiemer tell the story of what recently happened in a New York school system when teens were specifically asked to defend the Holocaust as a homework assignment sent chills down my spine, both for the level of insensitivity demonstrated by adults and for the courage and insight demonstrated by the teens. It's a startling reminder that we still have a long way to go when it comes to processing history and finding ways to live together, but it's also a shining example of hope.
It's wonderful to know that there are teens who have the courage and conviction to stand up and offer books and words as solutions when adults steer them wrong. After reading Liza's story, Jordan and Archer are my heroes, too.
Please keep reading. It's important.
New York Book Signing Led to Meeting Two Teen Heroes
By Liza Wiemer
|Jordan April and Archer Schurtliff,|
Of the millions of small towns and the hundreds in New York, this Wisconsin educator, author, and member of 0.2 percent of the world’s population ended up in a place where educators believe students should find legitimate reasons in favor of the Nazi’s Final Solution to exterminate Jews, along with other groups such as homosexuals, gypsies, and those with physical and mental disabilities. The teacher of the Principles of Literacy Representation Course, the administration at the Oswego County CiTi/BOCES New Vision program, and even the New York Education Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, believed it would prompt critical thinking.
Imagine the assignment had tasked the students with defending the perpetrators of a different historical atrocity? Would we want our children championing the terrorists who murdered 2,977 people on 9/11? Would we advocate for slave owners? How about the use of chemical weapons against innocent Syrian men, women, and children, which is going on today? No. There are thousands of other ways we can teach students critical thinking without asking them to defend the indefensible and immoral. Some lines must never be crossed.
As I prepared to give my talk, I wondered if I should bring up the controversy. My survival instinct kicked in. Suddenly, I felt like I was in unfriendly territory. Anti-Semitism is nothing new to me. I grew up in the 1970s under the shadows of Nazi rallies held in Skokie, Illinois. I had been called the murderer of Jesus and asked where I hid my horns and tail. Over the years, I’ve faced many other anti-Semitic incidences, including swastikas drawn on my desk and neighborhood kids yelling, “Kill the Jews." More recently, as my family and I walked down the street on our way to Yom Kippur services, a car slowed, a window rolled down, and soda cans flew and exploded along with “Heil Hilter,” as the car peeled away. I watched in horror as two punks flicked lit cigarettes at my children, hitting them on their backs as we walked down a Boston street. Hatred, just for our existence, is a reality in our world.
By the time I arrived at the bookstore, I hoped that somehow I’d be able to find a way to meet these teens to express my admiration, gratitude, and respect. As fate would have it, I took four steps into the bookstore and found myself facing one of my heroes. “Oh my goodness,” I said, “It’s the world-famous Jordan!” It turned out that she works at the store.
Jordan said that students were given their debate position by counting off by twos. She ended up on the con side and Archer on the pro. Neither one felt comfortable with the assignment, deeming it grossly inappropriate. In a meeting with two school administrators and the teacher, their concerns were ignored. Jordan and Archer refused to accept this.
Later that evening, Archer sent me a copy of the assignment. “Top Secret” was stamped in red on the first page. It states, “Ultimately, this is an exercise on expanding your point of view by going outside your comfort zone and training your brain to logistically find the evidence necessary to prove a point, even if it is existentially and philosophically against what you believe.”
A passion for history led Jordan to participate in a European trip through EF Education Tours where she visited Berlin, Krakow, Warsaw, Prague, and three concentration camps. This experience deeply influenced her opposition to the class assignment. Archer said that on his mother’s side, he is a descendent of Eastern European Jews. For both young adults, the idea of advocating for the extermination of a people should never be legitimized by intellectual debate.
As an alternative assignment, Archer and Jordan presented their teacher and administration with a four-page plan, suggesting extensive analysis of non-fiction and fiction Holocaust books to promote critical thinking. Their request was denied, once again being told that the assignment was to debate The Final Solution.
Suggested books for analysis:
- Night by Elie Wiesel, Dawn by Elie Wiesel, Day by Elie Wiesel
- The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman
- The Auschwitz Volunteer by Witold Pilecki
- If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers by Filip Muller
- One of the Girls in the Band by Helena Dunicz Niwińska
- Why: Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes
- The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
- I Was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant by Miklos Nyiszli
- I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson
- In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Eric Larson
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
- The Boy at the Top of The Mountain by John Boyne
- The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
- The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
- Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
- This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
- Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli
- The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure
- If I Should Die Before I Wake by Han Nolan
Standing up for their beliefs has been both stressful and rewarding for Jordan and Archer. Peers have ridiculed them and defended their teacher and the Nazi position. Online, they have faced intense opposition and criticism. Thankfully, they also have received tremendous support. This support has reaffirmed their decision that they did what was right. Talking to these teens, it is clear they possess more sensibility, sensitivity, respect, and compassion than the adults who were supposed to be their role models and mentors.
After the Albany, New York Anti-Defamation League Education Director Beth Martinez stepped in, New York Commissioner Elia renounced the lesson and stated that the assignment will never be given again. But it took two teens to lead the way. They are our teachers. They are our hope for the future, our hope for a world where there is no legitimate reasons for genocide.
Liza Wiemer is the author of the young adult novel, Hello?, two adult non-fiction books, and a contributor to Small Miracles of the Holocaust: Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope, and Survival by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal