30 June, Berlin, Written 3 July on a train between Berlin and Prague
“How is it possible that something like this could have happened?”
Elie Wiesel died yesterday. We heard the news after we had just gotten back from a public viewing of the Germany-Italy soccer game at the Brandenburg Gate.
I’m a fatalist by nature, which is certainly inconvenient at times, but I couldn’t help but think about the coincidental timing of his passing. It was my last night in Germany, and after spending a significant amount of our week thinking about how humans remember and memorialize tragedy and inhumanity, this news seemed particularly poignant. This remarkable man has left an enduring legacy in so many ways, but certainly in the form of several books that millions of kids all over the world have read, and will continue to read.
Being in Germany, having just spent the better part of a week learning, re-learning, discussing, and contextualizing the Holocaust and the experience of Germany under National Socialism, Wiesel’s death seemed especially poignant, as we had just met with a survivor of the Holocaust, and had discussed in several conversations how important it was to tell these stories before those who lived them are gone. Afterward, we collectively, and strongly, felt an increased duty to be the conduits by which these stories reach broader society. We had previously discussed during our experiences that some things in the world around us are rapidly changing, and many believe we (people, educators, etc.) need to adapt to those changes or get left behind.
I believe that we, as social studies, humanities, and liberal arts teachers, will forever be story-tellers. The medium may change, the means may change, but we still tell stories, help kids contextualize stories, and help reinforce stories that are undertold. As the world around us is changing and the purposes of education are shifting, I believe it is implicitly the role of educators to help kids think and engage them in the world around us. Thinking deeper, broader, harder than they would otherwise, remembering that students are people first. People who will soon leave the safe bounds of school, and enter a world where they will be citizens, and consumers, and employees, and friends and family, but will remain, most importantly, humans.
We had the great fortune of meeting with Margot Friedlander, a Holocaust survivor who lived in the states for 64 years before her return to Germany in 2010. In addition to her chilling experiences in Theresienstadt (Terezin in Czech), she also shared words of humanity to bring back to our students. During her unimaginable experiences, she shared that she had continually wondered, “How is it possible that something like this could have happened?” She told us that people needed to always use their own feelings, and avoid being influenced by politicians and public figures. She mentioned that students should focus on doing the right thing, and that though we can never love everyone, we can certainly respect everyone. Her book, Try to Make your Life, shares her experiences before, during, and after her time in Theresienstadt. An incredibly profound message, we had the chance to listen to her story, and ask her questions about her experiences.
I couldn’t help but think about my experience at Oksan Seowan when she made her last comment in answering a question about what we should bring back to our students.
Be a human being. Be a feeling, thinking human being. A mensch.
71 years after she was freed from one of the most vile acts of inhumanity we’ve ever known, this woman is still actively sharing her message and encouraging us to be more fully human. The importance of her story, and the story of everyone affected by the Holocaust, and the War at large has not diminished, and as her generation passes, it’s left to all of us to work to ensure her story and the stories of others like her, are not forgotten, and the lessons that were learned are shared.
As a result of these two weeks, our conversation with this incredible woman, and my personal reflections on the importance of the loss of Elie Wiesel, I’m more convinced than I’ve ever been that teaching (in many, many shapes and forms) is one of the most profound expressions of humanity I have encountered. That’s a pretty incredible thing to start a school year with.