It was 4:30 on a winter afternoon, and my roommate skipped the pleasantries: “You probably want to talk about the Holocaust, don’t you?” he asked. It was true — lately, the subject had been on my mind more often than not.
That fall, I had accepted a new job as a seventh grade English teacher at a small Quaker school. A few months in, the curriculum dictated that I would be teaching my students a work of historical fiction about the Holocaust. I didn’t particularly want to do it.
I attended Jewish day school from preschool through high school. I have no memory of learning about the Holocaust for the first time — or, as my friend Hannah put it when I asked her the same question, “I never didn’t know about gas chambers.”
So thorough and constant was my Holocaust education that in 11th grade, on a class trip to Poland, I wrote an essay titled “Why I Can’t Write This Paper” instead of the assigned Holocaust literature analysis. “I am completely supersaturated. The inhumane horrors perpetrated by the Nazis should engender an emotional response. When I learn about the Holocaust, I should feel shock, fear, disgust and so forth,” I wrote. “I feel nothing. Something is wrong with that.”
10 years later, in my classroom, I presented my students with a poem, “The Garden,” by Franta Bass, a boy who died in a concentration camp. I taught three sections of seventh grade English, which means that in a single day I gave the lesson three times. Three times, I told the students that I was Jewish and that for me, this topic was a personal one. Three times my voice wobbled with emotion, every one of them a shock.
In the remembrance of the Holocaust, Jewish children are assigned an enormous task, crushing in its weight and invisible in its constancy. Before teaching about it, I would have told you it had never affected me much. Sure, I always knew where my passport was and felt a bit nervous around the hissing sounds of air escaping. I had the occasional Nazi nightmare, but who didn’t? In high school, there was a girl in my class who had special permission to step out of history class when we watched Holocaust documentaries. The rest of us found that strange, almost sickly, like the kid with the grass allergy who needs to sit on their special blanket.
I was once at a Shabbat dinner playing a game that involved question cards. “Name a person you’ve never met who’s impacted your life,” a friend of mine read aloud. There was a brief silence, the mood shifting to a more thoughtful and earnest one before someone said, “I mean, I think the answer for all of us is Hitler.” Everyone laughed.
At 17, when my 11th-grade class arrived in Poland, we were greeted by the sturdy Polish security guard who would be accompanying us through the increasingly antisemitic streets of Poland. “Welcome! So happy to have you. Now if you see me hold up this black baseball cap at any point,” he wiggled a hat in one hand, “you run. Let’s have fun this week!” It was a two-toned talk I’d known since childhood. That was the trip when I broke up with my boyfriend, snuck up to the roof to play in the snow and walked through the death camps. That was the trip when I asked my teacher why, at the site of horrors I’d known of all my life, I didn’t feel what I was supposed to.
It wasn’t until my shell cracked that I realized how long ago I’d built it. Amidst my students’ outrage and empathy, their thrice-underlined sentences and raised hands wiggling for answers, my own sensitivity returned.
After reading “The Garden,” I allowed the students some time to process on their own in their journals. I made a sweep around the horseshoe of desks, glancing at their pages as they wrote. “I feel like CRYING,” one student had written, carving capital letters into her paper. I realized I’d have to reimagine success in the classroom this unit, reconfigure the yardstick by which I measured understanding. The aim would not be to make students feel like crying. At the same time, that she felt like crying meant she understood.
A few weeks later, I printed out photographs taken in secret by Mendel Grossman in the Lodz Ghetto. My classroom became a gallery, and I invited my students to wander the room with their journals at their own pace. They looked at the photographs, and I looked at them, wondering why it felt so much more powerful to watch them see these things than it ever had to do the seeing myself. I wondered if it was my role as teacher rather than student, or my age. Or was I only feeling the impact because I was seeing everything anew, having stepped away from the subject for so long? Was I having this experience because I had committed the cardinal sin and allowed myself, just for a little while, to forget?
I was 26 years old and had been tasked with “bearing witness” my entire life, but this was the first time I ever considered the term. It was the first time I recognized, watching my students determinedly become witnesses themselves, the burden I had always borne.
There are people who believe my students are too young to study the Holocaust, but I’ve come to think they’re better equipped than we are. Kids don’t express their understanding of the Holocaust through rhetoric or homily. There is no flourishing polysyllabic abstraction, no attempt to find words commensurate in their extremity and formality to the atrocities that occurred. They look straight at it. They say, “This is so sad.” And it is.
Once we finished the book, I invited a Holocaust survivor to come to school and speak to the students. The event marked the topic’s impending end, and I had a brood of new fears to face. If the unit was over, there would be no next class in which to add a lesson or make a point. Outside the world of my classroom, “Maus” was being pulled from shelves and protesters were wearing yellow stars in protest of vaccine requirements. Had I done enough?
In my own Holocaust education, I had watched the adults huff and puff with breathless urgency. What were they so excited about, anyway? Of course it was horrible. Of course I’d remember. Then I became a teacher, and I understood. I’ve never been a parent; this was the first time I could relate to that need for confirmation, the wavering plea that forms to counterbalance the certainty of youth. I wanted them to sign a contract. I wanted to know for sure.
I would have to trust them, I realized, the way my teachers had trusted me, though I had given them no good reason to. “The night before [we visited] Auschwitz,” I wrote in my essay to my high school teacher, “I spoke to you about feeling desensitized. You told me not to worry, that some people take much longer to process such emotionally intense events.” Then I spent two paragraphs telling him he was wrong.
The survivor who visited my class, Ruth, spoke wonderfully. I didn’t realize until I felt my disappointment that I had been harboring hopes for the visit. I was hoping for proof that the students had crossed some invisible threshold of understanding — I wanted to look at them in the audience and see vigorous nodding, cheeks with a single tear sliding down them. I imagined they would come to me afterwards and say, “You’re right, we must never forget.” Instead, there was applause, we took a picture and the kids dispersed to their next class.
But many students wrote thank you notes to Ruth. She replied:
Thank you for sending these comments which I appreciate very much and also moved me profoundly. It was a pleasure meeting you and I was most impressed with your students’ maturity, incisive questions and caring. It gives me hope.
All the best,
I stared at the screen, her hard-won hope making a mockery of my doubts. Though her words were a reply to a thank you note, I was tempted to send another in response. It was enough that she told her story, and my students listened. That they bore witness, and that she saw them do so, brought our study of the topic to its end.
In a few weeks my current seventh graders will read “The Garden,” and they will ask me when and how and why, why, why. I’ll begin by telling them, “This is personal for me.” My voice will still wobble, I think. I hope.