One of the most powerful books I read as a preteen was Chernowitz by Fran Arrick. A young adult novel about bullying and anti-Semitism, I recently revisited it as I read it aloud to my own kids.
The story leads up to an episode of revenge on the anti-Semitic bully by his victim and a school assembly on the Holocaust led by the school principal as an attempted antidote to the incident. While the victim goes through tremendous personal growth as he realizes the limits of vengeance, his tormenter is portrayed as being blinded by bigotry and beyond redemption.
I wondered how the themes would hold up a generation later, and in the context of my own kids’ lives. Given that, at the time I first read it, I attended Jewish day school and was surrounded by Jewish friends, I wondered how my kids – who are among the few Jewish kids at their large public elementary school – would react. I like to think that their Jewish identity is solid and their friendships nurturing enough to feel secure from the ignorance from which racism and prejudice stems. On this, time will tell.
The theme of revenge is also apt in today’s political climate where cycles of violence are all too prevalent on a global scale. While it can taste sweet at the time, revenge – rather than justice-seeking – all too often leaves a bitter aftertaste. The book succeeds in mining this ethical complexity. I also appreciate the author’s unvarnished treatment of bigotry, and the lesson on how important and sometimes challenging it is to keep parent-child communication open and flowing.
But the book’s final scene of the school assembly where graphic Holocaust footage was shown left me wondering. Assuming empathy and awareness are good antidotes to all kinds of prejudice, including anti-Semitism, how much exposure is too much, particularly when it comes to images of Nazi atrocities?
My own kids know their paternal grandfather was a survivor of Auschwitz. They have heard of Hitler – his name is a common word in their vocabulary, for better or worse, and they know something of the Holocaust. But, as I read the final pages of Chernowitz to them, I found myself omitting much of the excruciatingly graphic imagery, which included references to Josef Mengele’s victims.
When it comes to Holocaust education, the consensus now seems to be that graphic imagery should be used “judiciously,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. And “only to the extent necessary to achieve the lesson objective. Try to select images and texts that do not exploit the students’ emotional vulnerability or that might be construed as disrespectful to the victims themselves,” the museum advises educators on its website.
Julie Dawn Freeman, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Oneonta, has warned that exposing students to too much graphic imagery can backfire in multiple ways. It can desensitize students to the subject, it can provide students with a sense that classroom trust has been violated, it can unwittingly provide a voyeuristic experience, and it can dehumanize as well as stereotype the victims.
On all of these counts, the fictional principal’s shocking assembly in Chernowitz, while well intentioned, probably failed.
For these reasons, many of us have tended to focus on individual perspectives. In this vein, Anne Frank’s diary has, of course, had great impact. And many educators have made wonderful use of direct survivor testimony. When my father-in-law, Bill Gluck, was younger, he made a point of visiting Vancouver schools and community centres to share his tale of survival. And I have been fortunate to host Holocaust survivor David Shentow of Ottawa at my course at Carleton. But, as we know, and as my own family experienced first-hand this year with the loss of my father-in-law, Holocaust survivors will not be around forever.
Prejudice, hatred, suffering and revenge are heady themes for kids and preteens. Whatever our methodology for getting students to think ethically, at the very first, we can work our hardest to get them to think about basic impulses like kindness.
In an upcoming column, I’ll discuss an innovative education project on kindness being run in Ottawa schools by local educator and active community member Jenny Shinder.