Thursday, April 7, 2011

Making connections

As a language arts and reading teacher, I am constantly asking my students to connect what they read to their own personal experience, background knowledge, other texts they have read, and the world at large. I recently finished a book that caused my brain to fire with connections to the Holocaust.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand tells the true story of Louis Zamperini whose pursuit of the four-minute mile took him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Chapter 4 offers a fascinating description of the Nazi Olympics, Louie’s encounter with Hitler, and his theft of a Nazi flag from the Reich Chancellery. It also relates American basketball player Frank Lubin’s experiences when he lingered in Berlin and watched the city reinstate the antisemitic signs and newspapers that had not been present during the games.

Following the Olympics, Louie enrolled at USC and began training for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Of course, that dream was dashed when World War II began. Louie joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor and was trained to be a bombardier. While searching for a missing plane over the Pacific on 27 May 1943, Louie’s own plane crashed at sea killing all but three of the men aboard. The survivors floated on a raft in the Pacific until mid-July when they were captured by the Japanese.

Until the end of the war, Louie was held in Japanese POW camps where he and his fellow inmates were subjected to dehumanizing and sadistic treatment from his guards, inadequate rations, unsanitary living conditions, exposure, disease, lack of medical care, and slave labor. What I find remarkable about how the POWs endured the Japanese camps is the same thing that I find remarkable about how the Jews survived conditions in the Nazi camps – the use of spiritual resistance. On page 243 Hillenbrand describes acts of sabotage and smuggling that “were transformative. In risking their necks to sabotage their enemy, the men were no longer passive captives. They were soldiers again.” On pages 268-269 she describes a Christmas play that the POWs staged for themselves to boost morale. On page 282 she told how Tom Wade recited Shakespeare’s soliloquies and speeches from Churchill and Lincoln to his fellow POWs while they carried back-breaking loads of coal.

The book does not end with Louie’s liberation. It goes on to tell of his struggles with nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and finding a purpose in his post-war, civilian life. Woven throughout Louie’s story, Hillenbrand also tells of efforts made to prosecute the Japanese camp guards for war crimes. Ultimately, Louie finds a way to forgive his Japanese persecutors and redeem his life.

Students in my classroom and participants in workshops at MCHE have often asked me, “How do you manage not to become depressed when you study the Holocaust?” I have been affiliated with MCHE for 14 years now. During that time of intensive learning about the Holocaust, there have been times when I have broached a topic that was simply more than I could bear. However, mostly, I find my studies uplifting. I have read and heard countless testimonies to the strength and resilience of the human spirit. In the face of unimaginable evil, people have acted with kindness, courage, hope, and integrity. I have personally heard survivors as world-famous as Gerda Weissmann Klein and as beloved as our own Bronia Roslawowski speak about the importance of forgiveness.

I believe that all of us are challenged to live our lives with kindness, courage, hope, integrity, and forgiveness. The Holocaust survivors, who have every reason to be fearful, bitter, complaining, and unforgiving, serve as an example for the rest of us when they choose the alternative. Louis Zamperini, through Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful book, now serves as another shining example for me.

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