Thursday, January 26, 2012

Poland publicly commemorates Holocaust victims

What is a monument? How do we remember? How do we honor? How do we proclaim that these people were once here, and they are no more? They lived, were a part of the rich tapestry that makes up this community, right here, and they are now gone. How do we show that? These are some of the questions that have motivated Polish community members to come together and memorialize victims of the Holocaust as individuals, to declare their personhood, cut short. 

The caption under Adam Galicia’s image of a building featuring sepia-toned, full, window-sized photographs of men, women, and children reads: “Holocaust remembrance advocates plastered images of Polish Jews on buildings in Warsaw that were part of the Jewish ghetto before WWII wiped them out.” Although this caption seems a little curt and almost cold, the image is stunning. With the choice of the word “plastered” as the verb, the sentence suggests an arbitrary thoughtlessness. In contemporary parlance, to “plaster” is to slap-dashedly affix with a cheap adhesive, without much previous thought to placement, or much concern for permanence. It’s a temporary announcement, like a bill board layer. This photo, on the other hand, suggests quite the contrary. It depicts lovely, larger-than-life portraits that have been carefully attached in seemingly “just right” places on the building’s surface. The placement of the photos flows with the structure of the building itself. Some pictures cover the bottom half of windows, suggesting the very power of story itself, behind the shades; evoking a time and place once rich with vitality, dignity, and love. The architecture literally frames the people because of the way the photos have been thoughtfully selected and arranged. And in turn, the people built the structure, not the literal building maybe, but the community itself. The installation of the photographs creates a monument that declares ‘there is a plan here.’ The end result creates a kind of beauty that is at once tender, dear, and chilling.

Most of the original photographs, which are reproduced and attached to the building, were taken in studios, by professional photographers, to record someone at his or her “best.” The photographers were paid to create likenesses that would last as reminders of how someone looked at a particular age, in a particular outfit, or at a specific event like a wedding. The act of committing these loved ones to film declares that each and every individual mattered; was loved, valued, and cared for; and the photographs themselves would likely have been treasured. Perhaps they were framed, hung on walls; or maybe printed from negatives on to paper and positioned in intimate, hand-held, icon-like keepsakes, small hand-tooled leather folios where they could be opened, closed, gazed upon and tucked away for safe keeping. Maybe they were collected in scrap books. Maybe they were taken at school, or after some significant ceremony. These are not candids of people in the middle of an activity, unaware of the camera. They are posed, the subjects are looking the photographer in the eye. They are precious. And now, they have been enlarged, reproduced and lifted up, quite literally some of them, several stories, to monumentalize. They look us in the eye and, by virtue of where they are positioned, within what was the ghetto, they ask – Why?

Asking some of the same questions, Zuzanna Radzik represents an increasing number of Poles who believe that Jewish heritage is an integral part of the history of Poland, and must be taught as well as preserved. She wants her fellow citizens to know that killing during the Holocaust was not limited to places with names so many people are familiar with: Auschwitz and Treblinka. She wants people to remember that, in small communities like Stoczek Wegrowski, where 188 Jews were murdered on September 22, 1942, during Yom Kippur; vital community members perished. As supervisor for The School of Dialogue, sponsored by The Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, a Polish non-profit organization, Ms. Radzik is hoping to also combat antisemitism by creating a better-informed citizenry. Her group sends out educators; through schools in the villages, cities, and towns in Poland, to give students an idea of where Jews lived, worked, and worshiped before their numbers were reduced to less than one half one per cent of what they were before the war. Radzik hopes to make history real, and literally “bring it home” to places where today, the community members have never met a Jew or seen a synagogue. “When we show them where the ghetto was in their town and that Jews were killed there, it all becomes real.” Radzik reminds us. Her organization highlights shared religious traditions and teaches about Jewish holidays and their connections to other calendars.
On the sight of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April, 1943, in the neighborhood of Murnaow, murals have been painted by Adam Walas. They are in the entryway of an apartment and feature prominent Jews who lived there before the war. Ludwik Zamenhof is one of them. He created Esperanto, the common language that he’d hoped would unite peoples of many cultures. One of the neighborhood’s residents, Beata Chomatowska, has designed an education project involving thirty other local individuals who are also interested in educating citizens about the district’s past.

Zbigniew Nizinski rides his bike through small villages and towns in eastern Poland to talk to elderly people who remember where Jews were buried. He is a 52-year-old Baptist who then places memorial stones on graves that have not been marked, just so that murdered individuals can be remembered. Radzik, Chomatowska, and Zbigniew all hope to help people continue to remember what made the places in Poland sacred – the people who lived there – the citizens who were individuals, who inspired, who worked, who created community and whose memory must be preserved.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Countries that Own Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Rocks

Having just finished the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dr.Will Meinecke’s book Nazi Ideology and the Holocaust (available for free download by clicking here), I was disturbed, but not surprised, by the Nazi’s plan for euthanasia and sterilization of the "undesirable" European population.

“From 1939 to 1945, an estimated 200,000 Germans deemed ‘unworthy of life’ were killed in the various ‘euthanasia’ programs.” These programs included Operation T-4 and Operation 14 f13. Specific groups were also targeted by the Nazis for sterilization, including the “Rhineland Bastards” or children of African soldiers and German women. The Gestapo actually set up Special Commission #3 and between 1935 to 1937, they found, identified, and sterilized (in secret) some 385 children of these mixed raced couples. In July of 1933, a law was passed by the Nazis called the “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring."

If you were born with certain disorders that German scientists believed were inherited you were to be sterilized. These disorders included mental illness, feeblemindedness, serious physical abnormalities, seizures, blindness and deafness, alcoholism, and Huntington’s Chorea. The law was very specific about the possibility of passing on a congenital disease to an offspring. If there was a chance of this happening the state would have you sterilized. Period. After 1934, the Nazis sterilized between 300,000 to 400,000 disabled people and through this law they were also able to sterilize Roma or gypsies. Mind boggling numbers – yes? However, the Nazis were not the only society culpable of this practice. It was going on in America as well.

In the early 20th century, some 15,000 people were sterilized in over three dozen states on the grounds of eugenics. In 1927, even the Supreme Court upheld the practice in the case of criminal punishment. But Americans were also sterilized for being poor, a prisoner, or feebleminded. Sound familiar? During the Depression over 30,000 were sterilized and most were in mental asylums or state institutions. The justification for this practice was the cost to taxpayers for institutional care. Remember the infamous propaganda poster? “This genetically ill person will cost our people's community 60,000 marks over his lifetime. Citizens, that is your money.” You probably noticed the word “marks” and figured this was German. But it could just have easily been posted on a street corner in Kansas or Missouri. That’s how widespread the practice of sterilization was in our country.

Sterilization ended in Germany when the Nazis were defeated in 1945 and throughout most of the world it began to disappear. So imagine my surprise and dismay when I woke up last week to my NPR news report at 6:00am and heard that North Carolina’s legislature had decided to compensate eugenics victims from their state. Unbelievably North Carolina continued sterilization until the mid-1970s. Some 7,600 men, women and children were seen by the state’s eugenics board and deemed unable to “improve the caliber of the population” or were seen as a welfare burden on the state. Sound familiar? One girl was sterilized at 14 after the birth of her only son. The board decided she was unfit for parenthood, because she was poor and smelled bad. Many of the North Carolinian victims had the procedure unknowingly and weren’t aware until they tried to have a child later in life. If you ever get a chance to see USHMM’s “Deadly Medicine” the end is very telling. Video clips show victims of Nazi sterilization who were having fertility tests for years before they told their doctors what camps they had been in and who had taken care of them. Only to find they were no longer able to have a child.

As a library media specialist in a middle school, I teach propaganda lessons with my 8th grade students in the context of the Nazis and World War II. I added American propaganda this year as well to remind students of our county’s use of fear and euphemisms in persuading our citizens. However, next year when I teach the persuasive technique of “citing statistics” I will show the above information side by side so students can see the alarming parallels. Only in America, sterilization went on for another 30 years and paying the live victims $50,000 now as an apology won’t erase the crime committed on them.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Hiding Place revealed

As educators, we realize how important it is to continue to read within our disciplines for a well-rounded mental library from which to draw. The school year gets started, we are saddled with deadlines, grading, meetings, collaborating, with all the while trying to keep up with our own family lives. It simply gets hectic. Outside reading often goes by the wayside.

In 2010, I was bestowed with the honor of becoming a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Fellow. One of the many perks is a stipend to spend freely in the USHMM bookstore. As I was relishing in my decisions, I walked past Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. My Mother often quotes from Ten Boom’s work and as a Holocaust educator I was somewhat familiar with the premise of her story. I picked up a few other items and kept coming back to The Hiding Place. I am so very glad that I did.

As a Christian, living in Holland, Ten Boom tells of a very rich family life and a love of people from all walks of life, prior to the outbreak of World War II. The incredible theme in her story is not of heroism, danger and rescue, which are all present. The elements that are glaringly apparent throughout the entire account are those of common decency coupled with forgiveness. Ten Boom struggled with these in face of incredible odds. She reveals throughout prewar, during her wartime imprisonment and postwar how forgiveness & mere decency are powerful elements in living a fulfilled life. Ten Boom lost significantly at the hands of the Nazis yet she remained decent to her captors & forgiveness helped her to push through the pain of loss. Her story does not focus solely on faith, nor ethnicity or gender and it is one of my most powerful works that I have read from any genre.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Pre-War Jewish life through photographs

In any study of the Holocaust, time should be spent helping students to understand what life was like for the Jews prior to the start of the war. It helps to give them some sense of the magnitude of what was lost during the Holocaust – not just numbers, but families, communities, and traditions. One way I have done this in my classroom is by having students use the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Photo Archives.

Typically, I split them into groups by country (Germany, Britain, France, Austria, Poland, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Russia, Lithuania). Each group then uses the USHMM website to locate a variety of pictures that were taken prior to the start of the war (search "prewar ______ (fill in country of choice)"). I have each group share their photos and talk about what they learned about life before the war in their country. You can have them do a formal presentation through something like power point, photo story, or voice thread or you can have them do an informal share-out of the photos they researched. The “Interpreting Historical Images” worksheet provided by USHMM is a great resource to use any time you have your students analyzing images.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Providing historical context for a memoir study

When I first really started learning more about the Holocaust through the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, we learned about the main events in “10 Core Concepts,” which I then used and adapted (“stole”) to create a PowerPoint presentation that defines these 10 Core Concepts to use with the memoir I teach about the Holocaust. The Concepts are broken down chronologically to help students better understand the time frame of what happened before the Nazis took power all the way to what happened after World War II.

These Concepts also make it easier to teach the Holocaust if you are not a social studies teacher, which I am not; I teach English/Language Arts/Communication Arts. Another nice objective of teaching the history using these Core Concepts is that the Concepts align with the objectives that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum asks teachers consider when teaching the Holocaust. I include a few video clips when I teach the notes to make them a little more visually appealing to students, but teachers can definitely personalize the notes to make them fit their own classroom instruction. I want students to understand the book we are reading socially and contextually in history, so these notes allow me to put the book in perspective (I teach Night by Elie Wiesel, but this unit could easily be used with any memoir of the Holocaust). These notes and the lessons are available on the MCHE website as well and I welcome questions.

Student Worksheet
Teacher Lecture Notes