“What’s the Holocaust?” a student asked me the day before we were scheduled to hear a Holocaust survivor guest speaker. After I gave him my best Holocaust 101 spiel he looked at me with disbelief. “But why?” he asked, certain that I was leaving something out. Certain that this couldn’t be true in the world he knows. “What was their motivation?”
“Hate,” I said. “Hate and ignorance.”
I love that he asked why. I am glad that to him this seemed an impossible nightmarish tale. And I am happier still that he had the opportunity to hear the whole story from someone who lived it.
For those people who think the power of a story is nil, or who believe adolescents have the attention spans of the average gnat, I would challenge you with what I saw today. I saw 3oo 8th graders sit in rapt attention while one tiny 87 year old German lady spoke to them for 55 minutes. She stood there and she spoke. At times she was hard to hear, occasionally hard to understand. But they sat and they listened and they learned. Her story was one of impossible hardship and unbelievable miracles. The day that she and her mother finally stood in the gas chamber, after three years of starvation and forced labor, on that day it malfunctioned and she walked out.
When she told of the lemon her father carried in his pocket the day they were transported to the camps, I believe every student in that room could taste its tartness. When she held up the striped shirt her mother wore in the camps I think we all shivered at the thought of wearing so little through three harsh winters. We were transported by her story.
After she spoke I debriefed with my students in English class. I remembered when I was their age and had been lucky enough to hear another survivor speak. It will not be this way for their children. By the time any children of theirs are thirteen; old enough to learn about horror, the survivors will be gone.
I told them that what they heard today makes them witnesses. They heard it firsthand and with the hearing comes the responsibility to pass on and share the story. After today I think they will.