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Guest column | George Bastable

On a mission to keep lessons of Holocaust alive



I teach about the Holocaust. I also am held responsible to make sure the students do well on their reading and writing standardized tests or else the school, teachers and administrators look bad. No pressure.

I teach them how to read and write and I, along with the social studies teacher, also address the Holocaust. And all year long, I teach about tacit complicity.

Tacit complicity. Silently going along. Literature is a great tool to address the consequence of just standing by.

In 1996, I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I was working as a dry cleaner and had traveled all the way from Hawaii.

I had just read Number the Stars, a book about how the people of Denmark smuggled out their Jewish friends to the safety of Sweden. They hid them on fishing boats.

The emotions were so intense when I emerged from walking through the cattle car used to transport Poles to Treblinka that I almost screamed.

Then I saw it across the room. I ran to it. I stood in front of one of those fishing boats. I knew then that I had a mission in life.

In Poland, nine of every 10 Jews perished. In Denmark, with the help of friends and neighbors, nine of every 10 Jews escaped and later returned. I wanted to tell that story.

I moved to Florida with my wife, a math teacher, and went back to college. I became a teacher.

I teach Number the Stars to seventh-graders, and Night by Elie Weisel to the eighth-graders. Some of them don't get it, but some of them do. Middle-schoolers think anything that happened before they were born is ancient history.

One day I brought that ancient history into their world. My daily agenda simply read "Swimming with a Nazi." It got their attention. I told of how I started a conversation with an old man at our neighborhood pool. It was just my son and me and this grandfather with his granddaughter of mixed race.

He was a retired military man. "Thirty years! But not all here; some of it was in my homeland," he said.

He was a 20-year-old soldier in the Nazi army in 1943. He had seen Hermann Goerring up close, "not a pleasant-looking man."

He had seen Adolf Hitler give a speech in Cologne. "Hitler wasn't some stupid paper hanger; he could talk for hours without a script, and when he spoke he hit the nail right on the head!'' he said in a still-pronounced German accent. He banged his fist into his palm for emphasis. "And talk about a war monger; that Churchill was sure a German-hater."

This grandfather was captured 10 miles from Auschwitz just days before it was liberated. Later, he escaped from the Russians, and came to the United States through French relations.

I asked if he believed the Holocaust really happened. After a moment he said, "I do, but no one knew what was really going on."

He joined our army, fought in Korea and Vietnam. "I was a war criminal fighting for Germany, and a hero fighting for this country, yet I was still fighting the same communists," he observed.

Sometime, I will let him know that the German-hating, war-mongering Churchill, hit the nail right on the head when he said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Later that week, a neo-Nazi in west Pasco was accused of attacking a woman for dating a black man, and killing the teenager who was in her house. Hate survives.

I teach reading and writing. I teach to the test. But I expose children to the Holocaust and hope a few of them get it. When we were standing in front of the railway car at the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg I saw some teenagers with wet cheeks. I felt like I was getting my test score results.

"See what can happen when good people do nothing?" I said to my star student.

"Being tacitly complicit," she replied, "is not a good thing."

Like a fisherman who'd spent all year on the pier, I thought, "I got one," and later that week I tossed her back into the river of life. I spend every summer regrouping and contemplating the bait and stories I'll set up for next year.

See, I've got a job to do. I teach about the Holocaust.

George Bastable is a middle school language arts teacher in Trinity. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

On a mission to keep lessons of Holocaust alive 05/21/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 12:45pm]
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