Letting the Holocaust Speak for Itself: A Rural Montana Teacher Speaks

Guest Post: by Beth Keyser

Superior, Montana is a small town nestled near the Lolo National Forest located between the Idaho border and Missoula, Montana. With under a thousand people living here, the community is close knit.  The people are friendly, kind, and generally conservative in their values. Superior was also the home of Slim Deardorff, an affiliate to Matt Hale and the American White Supremacist Party and World Church of Our Creator in the 1990’s, who maintained a small active group just outside of Superior.  When I began teaching here in August 2001, Deardorff still lived here.  Despite his group dissolving, there was still some lingering anti-Semitism. This I discovered when I began teaching my students the facts about the holocaust.  I was then and continue to be struck every year by the level of ignorance.  When I ask students what they know about it, very few have any information at all.

In spite or perhaps because of their lack of information, every year, usually at the beginning of the unit, an anti-Semitic incident, along the lines of name calling or graffiti, raises its head. Sometimes it is directed at me: twice in the last fifteen years, students challenged my credibility in not being Jewish enough to speak for the victims of the holocaust in any way. By dismissing my perspective, I believe they hoped to deny that it happened at all.  Also, every year, I find swastikas written on desks or in notebooks.  I used to worry that these incidents were a reflection of a broader problem of bigotry; however, I now believe they are a manifestation of students testing their own prejudices.  By doing so publicly and sometimes anonymously, these students inevitably hear responses, and can gauge their peers’ expressions of either rejection or agreement. It is as if students are asking questions without the pressure and perhaps embarrassment of being identified as anti-Semites while learning the effects expressing their prejudices have on their friends and community.

This year was no different. Community members put up a playground in our only park last fall with volunteers from all over town working together to build it.  This spring, while I was teaching my annual holocaust unit, someone wrote in crayon on the jungle gym equipment, “Death to all Jews.” A conscientious community member noticed it, called the police, and registered their outrage on Facebook.  Parents all over town condemned the incident. Some blamed my students. “Why would people blame us?” my students asked a colleague. She pointed out that indeed it made no sense that the class be blamed since it was learning about the holocaust. If indeed they understood what happened, they wouldn’t write such things. Whether it was a student of mine or someone else, I’m confident, based on my experiences over the years, that is was no accident that it coincided with the beginning of my Holocaust unit.

When I began teaching the unit this year, one of my students complained that he couldn’t understand the point of learning about the holocaust.  In any case, since it was history, it had no place in an English class. Others chimed in.  I’ve heard this before and proceeded to provide my students with a rationale that was dispassionate, lengthy, and detailed. Much of it, I suspect, they didn’t remember but it was enough to satisfy this young man’s complaint for now.  I proceeded through background information about the rise of Nazi Germany, its use of propaganda, and basic vocabulary items like anti-Semitism and genocide.  Again, this student complained; no one else chimed in at this point.  I finally convinced him to hang in there because the “gore” was coming.  I knew full well that when he did learn the truth about “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, he would be less jubilant in his desire for information.  After all, this wasn’t a You Tube video.

The day of presenting “The final Solution to the Jewish Question” came.  I put up posters around the room showing the stages of deportation to concentration camps and killing centers including cattle cars, gas showers, and crematoriums.  I had a few posters of open mass graves where hundreds of victims were thrown, which I did not put up on the wall because for some students these posters could be overwhelming.  I offered students an opportunity to look at them but did not require it. The atmosphere was subdued, which is rare for this class.  There were no more protests from my young dissenter.  In fact, the students who complained the most at the beginning of this unit, whispered to each other daring each other to look at the optional posters.  I stood near these posters so that I could initiate discussion with anyone who wanted to talk.  There was plenty of discussion.  They had a lot of questions.  Their disdain for this unit turned into outrage and disbelief that this could actually happen.

After that lesson, the general attitude changed as well.  Students walked into class, sat down, and silently waited for me to begin.  They asked productive questions and worked hard on their projects. One day a girl, who had been in trouble for bullying other students and who was extremely afraid to speak up in class, spoke out in empathy about the plight of the Jews and other victims of The Holocaust.  During a discussion about stereotypes, students talked about how they were ridiculed for being hicks and backward thinkers. We found common ground when I shared how, in high school, I was stereotyped for being Jewish.  Students also talked about their own heritage.  Many in Superior are descendants of Germans. During the gold rush, Superior attracted immigrants from Ireland, England, Canada, Germany, and Scandinavia. They didn’t want to identify themselves with Nazis, but at the same time, they were loyal to their German roots. One thing I have learned about young adolescents is that they love arguing but usually lack the patience and ability to articulate complex issues.  As a leader of discussions, I had to remain dispassionate and nonjudgmental or much of this rich discussion could have devolved into superficial bickering.

I am reluctant to draw too many conclusions from my experiences with my students over the years, but I will make one. Adolescents react to topics that challenge their values and prejudices without much introspection. As their teacher, I respect them no matter what their values and biases are because I am confident that by providing them with the facts and allowing them to process these facts in their own way is better than chiding them. Students won’t learn if they are put on the defensive either intentionally or unintentionally.  Whether this unit helps to dispel anti-Semitic prejudice is difficult to determine.

But at least they have the facts.

 

 

 

 

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