Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Indiana’s Holocaust Observance and My Closing Remarks

Today I had the privilege — in my capacity as President of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council — to offer the closing remarks at the State of Indiana’s annual Holocaust Observance program (this year’s title was “A Holocaust Day of Remembrance: Honoring the Past, Remembering for the Future”). The program is presented by the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Indiana Holiday Commission, and Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

The speakers at the program included Clayton A. Graham, Chair, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Indiana Holiday Commission, and Indiana Civil Rights Commission; Tony A. Kirkland, Executive Director, Indiana Civil Rights Commission; Cantor Janice Roger, Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation; and Phil Lande, son of a Holocaust survivor. The featured speakers were Richard Mourdock, Indiana State Treasurer (who, though I may disagree with him on many things, impressed me with very powerful remarks for which I express my sincere gratitude), and Norbert Krapf, Indiana Poet Laureate. Mr. Krapf spoke of growing up in a German-Catholic community in southern Indiana and his efforts to learn about his heritage and how those efforts, in turn, led to his learning about the Holocaust. He read several very moving selections from his book Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany. You can read more of Mr. Krapf’s story in A Poet Discovers a World of Complexities in His Background archived from The New York Times.

Of course, given that this blog is about Me Me Me Me Me, I decided to reprint my prepared remarks:

In Indiana, the law requires that Holocaust education be a part of the curriculum. However, teaching about the Holocaust is not the same as understanding the Holocaust. Unfortunately, this distinction was made all too apparent earlier this school year in a central Indiana middle school.

The class was an 8th grade English writing class. Some teachers in other 8th grade English classes were teaching The Diary of Anne Frank; unfortunately, they later explained, they didn’t know much about the Holocaust themselves, especially how to teach it to 8th graders. In the particular writing class, the teacher was focusing on creative writing and wanted to avoid some of the same exercises that she’d used for years. So, with the help of some materials and suggestions that she’d found elsewhere, she tried to get her students to think about bad things. She wanted them to write creatively, and especially to try to find some of the good that might be found in those bad things. While this may have been a laudable goal, in some cases — like the Holocaust — there simply isn’t an easily found silver lining. And thus the assignment went awry.

One of the possible assignments for the students was to sell something. Before I describe how this assignment relates to the Holocaust, let me first relay the first of the two examples of something that could be sold provided by the teacher:

For Sale: America. This 200+ year old country could be just what the medicine man ordered! Nestled between 2 major oceans and bordered on the north and south by 2 friendly countries, the United States of America has already been subdivided into 48 convenient parcels plus a vast tract of land near the Arctic Circle and a few heavenly islands in the Pacific. Though it no longer contains huge herds of buffalo to hunt and crystal clear streams and lakes to fish in, native peoples will still enjoy the vast tracks of farmland and those with Visa cards will be able to buy food and manufactured items to help them forget the pristine beauty which was lost. They could also watch nature documentaries on the Discovery Channel.

Though some may agree with the political viewpoint of that example, one must query its appropriateness as an example for an 8th grade English class. But what about the Holocaust? Here is the second example:

For Sale: Auschwitz. Looking for a place that would make the perfect summer camp? Think about this concentration camp. Poland would like to take the bad reputation of Auschwitz and turn it around! Think of the possibilities! The barracks could be renovated to house thousands of people. We have ovens big enough to bake bread for thousands. The razor wire will prevent students from making a break for it. There is plenty of room for exercise, where role call used to be taken. Railroads can go right through camp, meaning supplies will be at your fingertips at all times.

Yes, you heard me correctly: We have ovens big enough to bake bread for thousands. That is what I mean when I say that there is a difference between teaching about the Holocaust and understanding the Holocaust.

And that wasn’t the only example in the assignment packet. Students could also write a letter of recommendation for a job. One example provided was to have Adolf Hitler write a letter of recommendation for Dr. Joseph Mengele for a job as a plastic surgeon. For those who don’t recall, he was the “doctor” who performed experiments on twins at Auschwitz, including Terre Haute resident Eva Kor and her twin sister. Or students could create a trading card about a historical figure. The example provided was Adolf Hitler. Some of the data on the example Hitler trading card:

Hobbies: Planning New Ways to Rule the World

Pet Peeve: Jews.

You see, so long as we live in a world where people can make jokes about ovens used to destroy the bodies of millions of people murdered for no reason other than their religion, so long as we live in a world where people don’t take seriously evil experiments done upon unwilling human victims, so long as we live in a world where people can look at the evil of the Holocaust and chalk it up to one man’s “pet peeve”, then we remain at risk for the same things happening again and again.

Our world continues to face genocide. From Rwanda to Bosnia to Darfur. We give lip service to learning the lessons of the Holocaust, but it seems clear that we’re not really digesting those lessons. All too often we allow hate to fester and guide our actions.

The issue in the school has been largely resolved and those involved have used the incident as a learning opportunity, so I don’t want to spend time rehashing issues of blame or to even note which school was involved. I’m satisfied that the teacher understands the inappropriateness of the assignment.

We need to continue teaching about the Holocaust, both in terms of the facts of what happened and in terms of the lessons to be learned. And we need to be sure that we give Indiana’s teachers the tools and lessons that they need so that they can tackle this subject with the seriousness and understanding that it requires. For to teach the Holocaust as something other than one of the worst evils the world has ever seen is to teach our children that genocide isn’t a danger and that hate is an acceptable guidepost to life.

The program had a small audience. The Jewish community was well-represented. But those of us in the Jewish community need to do an even better job of attending at and participating in events such as this one (or the Holocaust Observance program being conducted by the City of Carmel on Friday) to demonstrate to the broader community that we really do care about the Holocaust and that we’re appreciative of the efforts of our state and local municipalities to commemorate the Holocaust. More importantly, we need to be sure that more Gentiles are in attendance so that we can be sure that memories of the Holocaust do not become the sole province of Jews.

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At Tuesday, April 13, 2010 2:28:00 PM , Anonymous Debbie said...

Bravo! See I do read your blog....


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