Honoring Anne Frank’s Legacy

On the occasion of Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, Anne Frank House Executive Director, Ronald Leopold, reflects on the relationship between the Holocaust and today: whether democratic societies, which were rebuilt with so much care in the shadow of the Holocaust, are in danger and how despite this fear, Anne Frank’s words can guide our youth to a brighter future. This piece was specially adapted for Echoes & Reflections from his keynote speech for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center on June 5th, 2019. 

On the occasion of Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, we recall that the remembrance of the Holocaust is connected to the present and the future.  

Anne’s fifteenth birthday would also be her last, because not much later, fate intervenes. On August 4th, 1944, a raid takes place in the building at 263 Prinsengracht, in which all eight people in hiding and the two male helpers are arrested. The people in hiding are deported via the Westerbork transit camp in the East of the Netherlands to Auschwitz and from there to various other concentration camps. Of the eight, only Anne’s father Otto Frank ultimately survives the war. The others perish under inhumane circumstances. Anne and her sister Margot succumb to typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in mid-February 1945, two months before the camp is liberated.

But the meaning of the Anne Frank House goes further than the tragedy in which it is rooted. The House also forms a mirror in which we can see ourselves, not to admire our beauty like in a fairytale:  Not “mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”, but to be confronted with who we are, what we as human beings are capable of, what the values are that make us human. The fate of Anne and Margot Frank was the work of human hands. It was not the result of a natural disaster, not the work of creatures from another planet, not even the work of one particular type of person. Visitors to the Anne Frank House are invited to reflect on this, and challenged to ask themselves questions, often uncomfortable questions concerning our moral compass. Questions about the choices we make and the consequences they have for ourselves and for others, about the need to protect ourselves against ourselves.

Otto Frank remarked, shortly before the Anne Frank House opened in 1960, that “we should stop teaching history lessons and should start teaching lessons from history.” I don’t assert that we should stop teaching history lessons, but his intrinsic message was clear: history lessons are of little use if they don’t also serve as a mirror for our own actions.

What is the relevance of the Holocaust in the 21st century for generations whose grandparents and great-grandparents were born after WWII? Aren’t the circumstances and events of the past too distant from us? Can they still have a guiding significance in 2019? Or do we soon lose ourselves in slogans, in banal comparisons, in platitudes that sound good but can no longer serve as a moral compass.

History gives us food for thought, not so much because it repeats itself, but because it offers a view of what lies behind human thinking and actions. What motivated people to think and act the way they did? What considerations did they weigh, how do they explain their own time and how do we perceive it in retrospect?

Anyone who has thought about WWII and the Shoah inevitably comes up with the question of how things could have gone so far; at what moment might history have taken a different turn. Historians have already written libraries full about this and undoubtedly there will be much more written. But in 2019 that question also raises an urgent contemporary dilemma related to democratic vigilance: what do we see and hear around us, how do we “read” our own time, how do we interpret the risks? Is our open, democratic society and the rule of law, which we rebuilt with so much care in the shadow of the Holocaust, in danger? Has the world lost its way and are we en route to new tragedies?

Surely it will not happen to us again in a relatively short span of time that we miss the moment to turn the tide of history? That we let the “window to act” pass us by, while the warning lights of the past flash brighter and brighter? Are we going to make the same mistake twice?

“I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support,” Anne Frank wrote in the first sentence of her diary, still unaware of how important this support would prove to be in the more than two years that followed. We can only speculate about her thoughts during the last months of her young life in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Was she able to hold on to her dreams and ideals in a situation of increasing hopelessness? Did she still believe that “. . .  people are truly good at heart”, as she had written in her diary a short time before the arrest? Did she gaze at the sky, like she had earlier through the attic window of the hiding place, and think everything is going to turn out alright?

The dreams expressed by Anne Frank implore us to think about who we are and who we want to be, about the world in which we now live and the one we want to live in, about the things that make us human. Her life story serves as a warning and as a source of inspiration, as a guide to achieving a better world, a better future. It is important to realize that Anne Frank’s short life began in 1929 in a free and democratic Germany and ended a mere fifteen years later in a world of total barbarism. This malevolence did not begin with the outbreak of WWII, but in the years 1932-1933 with the rapid demise of German democracy and the Nazi takeover of power.

I don’t believe we are facing that same inconceivable question at this moment. But I do believe there is every reason to more vigorously defend our open, democratic society and the rule of law. The question I ask is whether we maintain enough of a connection with this contemporary, everyday context. Wouldn’t it be better if we took that context as the starting point for a Shoah-related educational experience instead of a history lesson? Speaking in management terms, shouldn’t we have remembering the Shoah “pulling” from the present instead of “pushing” from the past?

Youth help us fulfil our missions and accordingly build the world of their dreams. They offer us new perspectives, which are accompanied by new connotations. Let us therefore consider how we can actively engage young people, listen to them and welcome them with open arms. It is my experience that there are many very talented and committed young people, sometimes incredibly young, from whom we can learn a lot.

Since the first publication of the Diary of Anne Frank in 1947, it has been read by millions of young people around the world. In the words she penned, they hear the voice of someone their own age, a peer. Her dreams are their dreams.

I want to take you back to April 11, 1944. It’s a lovely spring day in Amsterdam, with a clear blue sky, almost 70 degrees outside, a mild breeze is blowing. A long, bitter cold winter is finally giving way to the first warmth of the year. The trees are budding; it will not be long now before they’re in full bloom. It is a day full of yearning, yearning for everything that has been missing for so long: the warm rays of the sun on your skin, fresh air, the smell of nature awakening. Anne Frank is at her desk in the musty annex writing one of the longest and most moving entries in her diary.

A break-in downstairs in the building makes her once again realize that she’s in hiding, makes her think about being Jewish and what that means to her. She’s scared but determined to be brave and strong. She’s ready for death but wants to live, wants to make her mark on the world. She reflects on who she is and who she wants to be: a Jew; Dutch; a woman with inner strength, a goal, opinions, religion and love.

“If only I can be myself, I’ll be satisfied.”

With these simple words Anne Frank reveals something very personal to us. On that beautiful spring day, she doesn’t share an identity claim with us, but the desire for space and the freedom to discover and develop herself. Her diary is the consequence of that search. She has been locked up in a small space with seven others for more than two years, continually discovering herself but always realizing that she is part of a group of people who are dependent on one another. She wants to make her voice heard, she has strong opinions, but is also vulnerable and prepared to change her point-of-view, even if this is easier said than done. Each time she asks herself questions and presents herself with dilemmas. And she realizes if she must get along with the seven other inhabitants of the Secret Annex, that she sometimes has to comply with their wishes.

The very last sentence of her diary speaks volumes: “. . . [I] keep on trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be, if . . . if only there were no other people in the world.” But other people live there as well. “If only I can be myself” Just like in the diary, not as an identity claim, but as an individual desire and a democratic endeavor to ensure that everyone has the opportunity and freedom to discover and develop themselves, while keeping in mind that other people live in the world. Whoever reads Anne Frank’s diary cannot help but think about the dilemmas this presents, about what kind of attitudes and abilities are required of us. This isn’t going to give us the best of all possible worlds, but hopefully it will spare us the Hell that Anne Frank, Margot Frank, and millions of others were forced to endure. They were not only prohibited from being their true selves, but from being at all.

About the Author: Ronald Leopold has been the executive director of the Anne Frank House since 2011. Leopold held various posts at the Dutch General Pension Fund for Public Employees and was involved in the implementation of the legislation regarding war victims. Leopold lives in Amsterdam with his wife and daughter.

Who is a Survivor?

As a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Florida, who survived the tragedy on February 14, 2018, I have spent the past year grappling with this question. By definition, a survivor is a person who continues to function or prosper, in spite of opposition, hardships or setbacks. I have always been in awe of Holocaust Survivors. I tried, but for much of my life I could not fathom what they had been through. Every Holocaust Survivor has a unique experience, but all have suffered loss and terror beyond imagination. They are my true heroes and I think about them daily – the ones I’ve met in person, and through books and movies. Their will to live, attitude of perseverance, hope for future generations, and willingness to share their personal heart-wrenching stories, so we can learn from them and keep their lessons alive, is inspiring.

And yet, following the shooting, I felt guilty listening to others who called my fellow MSD teachers, my students and me “survivors.” The survivors I’ve always associated with that word had nothing left after the war –  no family, no possessions, no therapy, no service dogs, no support. Many were often told to “shake it off, move on, try to forget it, make a NEW life!” But, like them, we did survive a tragedy that needs to be told.

The value of sharing Holocaust Survivors’ stories and our own is very much motivated by my experience teaching a Holocaust course that was started at our school 5 years ago, to help students understand that the study of genocide is imperative to upholding world democracy. It is a yearlong course, divided into a History of the Holocaust semester and Literature of the Holocaust semester. There was no precedent for this class at our school, so the language arts teacher and I reached out for recommended resources from Echoes & Reflections. We based our curriculum on the comprehensive material in their original Teacher’s Guide and on their website, which provides educators and students access to Holocaust Survivor video history testimony to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. Motivated by these lessons, over the past 5 years MSD High School has had numerous speakers, such as Holocaust Survivors, liberators, and WWII veterans come talk with our students about the impact of this important historical event. We make an annual spring luncheon for area Survivors where the students are hosts, servers, entertainers, and most importantly – listeners. We also hosted a Kristallnacht commemoration event in 2017 with a Holocaust Survivor Band and invited the entire community. In essence, we are continuously trying to expose the students and our community to the lessons of the Holocaust through a personal lens in the hopes that others understand that hate is NEVER okay, being a bystander is NOT okay, and that we must all learn to be upstanders. In many respects, these lessons are no different in the aftermath of the shooting at MSD.

I was teaching a Holocaust Studies course at MSD on February 14, 2018 in room 1214 on the first floor of the 1200 building, when a former MSD student began to shoot up our school. I have been teaching at MSD for 18 years and 10 of those years were spent in room 1214 – a Happy Learning Place for me and my students. The walls were adorned with posters of photos of Holocaust victims and there was a large yellow banner in the back of the room that stated: “We Will Never Forget”. That banner was given to me by a Holocaust Survivor. Although this room was dedicated to honoring the atrocities of the past, it was also a room full of promise and hope.

That day, we began the 90-minute class with student presentations on how to combat hate and hate group tactics that may be present on their soon-to-be college campuses. We then moved on to an IWitness activity from the USC Shoah Foundation about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and we watched testimony from German Jewish Athletes who were banned from participating. During the activity we started a discussion on important players during those Olympics and I asked if they knew Adi Dassler. Nicholas Dworet, a senior who just earned a swimming scholarship at the University of Indianapolis, knew it was the German shoemaker who started Adidas! We were all so impressed and he was smiling ear to ear, just as we heard loud shots in the hallway outside our classroom door.

The students immediately flew from their desks to find cover, in a classroom that had no Safe Space. Within seconds, the shooter was blasting his AR 15 into the glass window that runs vertically down the center of the door. The sound was deafening as the bullets flew through the glass randomly aiming at anything that moved. It was complete chaos. Students screamed while they watched their classmates, their friends, get hit with a barrage of bullets. The shooter wounded four of my students and murdered two beautiful souls, Nicholas Dworet, the star athlete, and Helena Ramsay, a beautiful young lady who stated at the beginning of the year that hate would someday be eradicated. They will never fulfill their dreams for the future, as those dreams died in the very class where they were learning how to combat hate. The lessons of the Holocaust came into room 1214.

Following the tragedy, the #NeverAgain movement was not a coincidence. The students over the years who took the Holocaust Studies course knew this slogan, studied this slogan and realized after this shooting, that it was up to them to make changes. Most of the March For Our Lives students learned the term “upstanders” in Room 1214. In part, this learning experience sparked a youth movement that is unstoppable, and my students have set an example for youth around the world. What they do matters! Following the tragedy, not taking action was NOT an option. Speaking out and speaking up on causes such as gun control, school safety, voter registration, and mental health reform has become a key focus in our community and many others have taken their leads from the students in Parkland.

So, like the Holocaust Survivors that we treasure, we too, have a story to tell and it becomes everyone’s responsibility to pass it on. As you walk out the door of my new classroom – a portable among many temporarily placed on the outdoor basketball courts, you can’t miss a very large Echoes & Reflections poster with a quote from the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel: “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.”

We now live by these words: “If we don’t do it, who will? The world is watching.”

About the Author: Ivy Schamis is a Social Studies teacher from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

Every Child Makes a Difference

I do not remember my Mom ever sitting me down and telling me the whole story of how she came to America from Austria, rather the details seemed to unfold over my lifetime, but the primary points were there from as far back as I can remember. She was six, her brother was four… Kristallnacht had happened, and her parents felt the only way they could secure the safety of their children was to send them to America with a family friend who would shelter them across the ocean.

The year was 1939 and once in NYC they moved into an orphanage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Meanwhile, my grandmother stayed in Vienna to care for her elderly parents and my grandfather boarded the MS St. Louis – often called the “Voyage of the Damned” – planning to settle in Cuba and then send for his family to join him.  Unfortunately, upon arrival into Cuba’s harbor, my grandfather learned (along with all the other St. Louis passengers) that the documents he had paid so dearly for would not gain him entry into Cuba, which admitted only about 30 of the 937 passengers (those who were not Jews or had special visas). The passengers not admitted sat in Cuba’s harbor for 40 days while the world debated their fate, ultimately returning the ship to Europe where many perished at the hands of the Nazis. But my grandfather survived the war in a UK POW Camp, ultimately joining his children in the USA (via Canada with less than $2 in his pocket), while it would be ten years before my grandmother was reunited with all of them. And then, she would die within a year of her arrival here. 

 A few details came early – my mother does not remember being scared during the journey to the USA but clearly remembers feeling very cared for at the orphanage. Although the orphanage cut the hair of the children there very short in an effort to make it easier to care for them, understanding all that my Mom had lost already, they left her long golden curls intact. She worried about her brother more, shifting even at that young age from sibling to caretaker. They wrote letters to a cousin in neutral Switzerland who in turn wrote to their Mom in Vienna, relaying messages back and forth. 

My grandmother kept diaries the entire time (they formed the basis for a book my uncle published in Austria with help from my mom and a professional historian/writer a few years ago) and in reading their translations, the war, the Holocaust, and all that happened in her world made the facts of history very real and personal for me.  I felt her pain – shared her sorrows – so wished I had known her.

 So much of my mom’s story shaped who I am and what I have done with my life.  The lessons I took away from it – the family friend whose name I do not know but who brought my mom and her brother to the USA, taught me that one person can truly make a difference – one person made it possible for their lives to be saved.  The fate of the MS St. Louis passengers showed me what happens when the world turns its back – when no one cares.  The kindness shown to my mom at the orphanage taught me how important even small acts can be. And, as I became a mom myself, I have come to understand the extent to which we as parents will put the well-being of our children above the pain our decisions to help them might cause us.

 These lessons stay with me.  When I walk the refugee camps – from Darfur to Jordan to Kenya to most recently, Bangladesh, I see my mom’s face on every child I encounter.  I hear my grandfather’s voice when talking with those who feel the world has forgotten them. I shudder as I see history repeating itself and hear parents and families share the pain of separation and the horrors that brought them to this point. 

 But, equally, I try to remember how much even one small act can mean and to push myself to take on that challenge. I relish every smile I can help bring out and every song I sing with kids in languages that leave us all unsure of what it is we are actually singing. I push myself to play soccer in the camp’s 100+ degree heat because it is a way of connecting and of forgetting where the soccer game happens to be. I offer my hand when a lack of a common language prevents any other form of communication and try to make eye contact whenever it is culturally appropriate.  And as I do so, I am reminded to be thankful for all that I have, for every experience I have been blessed to be part of, and for the many good people with whom I have been privileged to share my life.

 And, I understand that just as my mother was an innocent caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust, so too are the many kids I encounter at every stop that I make  I understand how important it is to not focus on the numbers but to remember that each number represents people – real people. I long for the day that the world sees ALL children for what they are – CHILDREN… not refugees, migrants, aliens, or defined by the borders they happen to be born between or the color of their skin or the faith they practice or the heritage that makes them who they are – just CHILDREN first and foremost. Children do not get to pick where they will be born, whom they will be born to, or under what circumstances. If they did, they surely would not choose poverty, conflict zones, or abusive situations. After all, they are children.  And, we are the grown-ups. 

Teachers especially are the grown-ups who work every day to empower students with the knowledge, empathy, and awareness they need to be the next generation of global citizens. So whether it is by bringing in classroom resources like UNICEF Kid Power that build students’ skills and connections as global citizens, teaching with lessons from Echoes & Reflections, or connecting with community organizations locally,  I encourage all teachers to continue to lead the way by helping students believe that they have the power to make a difference in this world. Let us learn from the past and take whatever action – large or small – that is within our individual power and create a world in which we put CHILDREN FIRST.

About the author: Caryl M. Stern is the President and CEO of UNICEF USA. A dynamic change-maker, Stern has dedicated her career to helping others through education, compassion, advocacy and rolling up her sleeves. 

When Hate Is Always Just around the Corner

This past summer I traveled to Poland as part of Echoes & Reflections Advanced Program with Yad Vashem with a group of educators, where we were surrounded by hate from the ghetto in Warsaw to the ghetto fields in Lodz. We stood at Birkenau together to bear witness to the greatest atrocity in the human world, fueled by hate — and by a particular strain of hate: antisemitism. As I landed back in the United States my heart was overwhelmed with the idea that hate can cause so much harm. While I understood this, to witness it gave me a whole new perspective.

Today, it has become clear that you do not have to travel far to find hate. My heart was riddled with overwhelming sadness and defeat as I entered my classroom the day after the shooting in Pittsburgh, PA. My heart once again sat in disbelief and shock as I thought about how to talk to my students about hatred and how it had reared its ugly head in a beautiful city with a thriving Jewish community. Now antisemitism was not thousands of miles away in Europe and did not occur decades prior. It was here, now, in Pennsylvania, our own backyard. I wondered how my students would respond. Would they want to talk about gun control or the president? How would I steer the conversation back to where it needs to go? How would I answer questions that my students will pose? They will ask “why the Jews?” and while I know the textbook answer, I will have to say to them “I don’t know.”

As I look back on my trip to Poland, it is not hate that I am reminded of, but love. While it would be easy to say antisemitism and hate were the common themes, I challenged myself to see that love is the common thread that is woven throughout. Stories of people doing right in the face of terrible wrong, both active and passive resistance, and the undying will to survive. The question becomes “What do I do with that?” As an educator, how do I take the horrible suffering of a generation born decades before me and give it meaning? Then I remember the faces. The beautiful faces that were snuffed from this world too soon — mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, husbands and wives. I tell their stories and as a classroom and community, we learn their stories. I allow my students to feel through them the will to overcome hate.

I believe we can combat hate with truth, education, and unwavering love. Be a voice for the voiceless and let your love shine brighter than the hate in the world. When teaching the Holocaust I make every effort to focus on the rescuers and those engaged in resistance. Who are they? What were they doing to help? I ask my students “How could you help?”

Our small community is banding together and collecting donations to send to the synagogue in Pittsburgh. The message is clear:  when hate shows itself, we must make our voices of love and humanity louder. Never again! Hate is sometimes just around the corner, but if we come together as a community, a state, a nation, a world, we can combat antisemitism and all forms of hate – one story at a time.

About the author: Deborah Hamilton is a middle school social studies learning facilitator at Northern Potter School District located in Ulysses, PA. Deborah encourages her students to stand against social injustice and to be a voice for the voiceless. 

Power in Community and Conversation: One Year after Charlottesville

In the aftermath of last year’s events in Charlottesville, VA, Jennifer Goss, an Echoes & Reflections facilitator and classroom teacher from Staunton, VA, reflects on how “hate in our backyard” impacted her classroom and community. A year later she reflects on how her students’ study of the Holocaust has contributed to their healing process and gives them the skills to engage in respectful dialogue on complex issues.

Charlottesville. It has been one year since the city just a short trip over the mountain from mine became a word uttered in nearly every American household. A beautiful, quaint city, larger than my home of Staunton, but still just as lovely, was forever changed by the events of August 11-12, 2017. In the time that has elapsed since moments of hate touched Central Virginia, not a week has passed when it has not somehow come up in conversation. Whether it’s the description of where in Virginia that I live or the airport that I have flown out of to the location where I am speaking to an individual, the response is always similar, “Charlottesville…yes, I know exactly where that is.”

I’d like to say that in this year, I’ve discovered the answers to solve issues related to hatred and discrimination. I wish I felt like our nation and our world has made great strides. I’d like to be able to comment that incidents of hate have drastically diminished (Note: according to ADL reported incidents increased by 57% in 2017). Of course, those of you who have taken the time to read a column such as this know that sadly, this is still not our reality.

What I have discovered in this past year, however, is that there is power in community and conversation. The ripples of Charlottesville have made uncomfortable conversations rise to the surface and in doing so; have brought in new voices and opinions that may not have been ready or felt safe to speak out in the past. Not all of these voices are ones of agreement but there is power in that as well—learning to have effective discourse on issues that divide us is a critical issue in building stronger communities.

One of the places I have been privileged to witness this is within my own classroom and school. As a small Southern town, the issues of Southern history and heritage are part of our community just as they are part of the community of Charlottesville and many others throughout the South. Not all of my students approach this history from the same cultural and historical background but day after day, I repeatedly witnessed respectful and effective discourse on topics that had previously lay dormant. In our region, many schools and segments of our public infrastructure such as roadways bear the names of Confederate leaders. Some students believe that these names should be retained for the sake of marking the importance of local history while others wish to see the names altered because of their direct links to issues such as slavery and oppression. Many of my students were able to vote in our local elections this past spring and some made choices based on this very issue.

Despite differing opinions, most students are able to discuss their beliefs in a respectful and appropriate manner. I have been personally fortunate to witness this repeatedly in my classroom and believe that some of these very skills were facilitated by discussion of tough topics such as the Holocaust within the confines of our classroom walls. In the wake of the incidents in Charlottesville, I utilized the USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness mini-lesson Promoting Effective Conversation Skills, and I plan to make this a staple in my classroom, regardless of the subject I am teaching. The testimony of Holocaust survivor Henry Oertelt and the strategies employed in this mini-lesson helped my students consider ways to disagree but still respect one another. To me, the importance of skills like these goes beyond the content and I am grateful for tools such as this to help me in this process.

It is my hope that as these students go out into the larger nation and world, they will carry their effective conversational tools with them. These students can show the world that you can disagree and still shake hands and walk away from a conversation a bit more educated on what and why the other side holds their beliefs and opinions. These students can also educate others on the lessons they learned from studying the Holocaust—that every human being matters and how the path of hatred doesn’t always have to have the same conclusion. They will take the lessons of Holocaust survivors like Henry Oertelt, Kurt Messerschmidt, and Itka Zygmuntowicz and show the world that there is hope for a brighter future even in the complicated and seemingly uncompromising world that we are all trying to navigate today. It is our task as educators not to shrink away from complicated topics and histories but instead, to provide our students with the tools to navigate them respectfully.

About the author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012. 

The 1936 Olympics: Finding Meaning in a Moment of Victory

The advent of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games gives educators the opportunity to discuss this event’s influence in advancing mutual respect and understanding across the world. It is also an opportunity to examine how events like the Olympics are not immune to bias and injustice toward groups and individuals. This prejudice was especially evident at the Berlin, Germany 1936 Summer Olympics when Nazi ideology was taking hold in Germany.

Leading up to the Games, many countries, including the United States, considered boycotting the Olympics in protest of Nazi persecution of German-Jewish athletes like Margaret Lambert. However, many African-American leaders in the United States opposed the boycott, believing that the achievements of African-American athletes in Germany would challenge and delegitimize both the discriminatory policies in Germany and in the United States. The boycott did not occur, and in what many considered a controversial move, African-Americans Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe replaced two American-Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, on the US 4×100-meter relay team.

Although the reason behind this last minute decision was never confirmed, Glickman has stated that his coaches feared the optics of two Jewish athletes standing on the winning podium under the Nazi flag.

While the 1936 Games were originally an opportunity for Germany to convince the world of their false notion of Aryan supremacy, in a moment of victory, African-American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens defied the Nazi’s racist propaganda by winning four gold medals and breaking two Olympic records.

One would have hoped that Owens’s achievements at the 1936 Games would have had a profound influence on combating antisemitism and racism; however, history has shown that his performance had no immediate influence on the fate of those affected by such ideology. Following the 1936 Olympics, Nazi influence continued to grow, and the US would not officially abolish Jim Crow laws until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

A sign of the times in which Owens lived; President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not meet with the athlete to congratulate him, which was customary for returning Olympic champions. It was not until 1976 that sitting US president Gerald Ford formally recognized Jesse Owens by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Later in his life, Jesse Owens’s reflected on his homecoming:

“After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But none was going to offer me a job.”

The story of the 1936 Olympics provides an entry point for students to grapple with complex questions. Despite Jesse Owens’s achievements, in the aftermath of the Games, why was he not given the same respect as other Olympic athletes? What prevented people from calling out the injustice and hypocrisy of Jim Crow, and why was no action taken by the world to prevent the Holocaust?

Such questions are not meant to undermine the determination of the few who were advocating for the freedoms of African Americans and Jews before, during, and following the Games. Yet, it is clear that the numbers were too few and progress too slow. This unfortunate delay in societal change makes it imperative to bring attention to the inaction that took place following the Games, in the classroom. We must give students the opportunity to explore the setbacks of this history so they can think critically about the world around them today, and make choices that will increase the pace in which freedom and equality are universally accessed.

For an in-depth look at how racism played a role at the 1936 Olympics explore this IWitness activity from our Partners at USC Shoah Foundation The Institute for Visual History and Education.

Valuing Free Speech and the Challenge of Living in a Democracy

Americans know it’s not always pleasant to watch free speech in action.

As we witnessed this summer in Charlottesville, free speech can be hateful. It can be corrosive and demeaning. And yet, as Americans, we are dedicated to protecting free speech to a degree that our counterparts in other countries find astonishing—even ill-considered. It’s part of our Constitution, and part of our national character.

A 2015 Pew Research Center study of attitudes in 38 countries found that Americans are more tolerant of free speech than citizens of any other nation. Seventy-one percent of US respondents said they believe people should be able to say and write what they like without government interference or censorship.

Our full-throated commitment to free speech doesn’t mean we always have an easy relationship with it—the First Amendment has faced countless legal challenges from those who argue that our freedom of speech has actually become a freedom to intimidate, or a freedom to instill fear. That tension was famously on display in 1978, when the city government of Skokie, Illinois, filed a suit to stop neo-Nazis from marching through their town. At the time, Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, was home to an unusually high number of Holocaust survivors, and the mayor and other officials argued that the neo-Nazis’ right to free speech paled in comparison to the survivors’ right not to be terrorized. The ACLU stepped in to defend the neo-Nazis’ First Amendment rights, and the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the ACLU and the First Amendment. The neo-Nazis never marched in Skokie—they took their awful, legally-protected speech to Chicago, instead.

As a writer and researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, I know that the Skokie case remains painfully relevant, even today. I know how challenging it can be to balance the legal right to free speech with the much more human need for all citizens to feel safe.

My job involves monitoring and writing about some of the most hateful groups and people in America—from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis to anti-Muslim extremists. Every day, my colleagues and I are confronted with images and words of hate and vitriol. We read about Richard Spencer’s dreams for a white ethnostate. We listen to Milo Yiannopoulos disparage transgender people. We watch videos of speeches by anti-Muslim bigots like Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, who capitalize on fear and xenophobia and blame an entire religion for the actions of a few extremists.

We listen to these hateful people speak because it’s part of our jobs. We also listen because we need to know what they are saying. Their speech is real, and it affects people’s lives. And that’s the main reason we need to protect their right to speak publicly and freely.

Hateful speech that is muffled or suppressed will still exist. It will just go underground, where it has the potential to become even more powerful. People who are prone to extremism are often drawn to ideas and movements that society deems inappropriate.

I’m also a firm believer in countering vile speech with good speech. Whenever neo-Nazis march, the rest of us have to show up to peacefully protest the swastikas, racism and anti-Semitism on display. Whenever a Klan group leaves recruitment fliers on suburban doorsteps, the rest of us need to come together and make sure that every member of our community feels supported and safe.

The First Amendment is a right that confers huge responsibility. At this moment in history, the responsibility part of the equation seems to be falling to those of us who believe in civil rights, equality, and kindness.

Students who are keeping up with the news will undoubtedly have questions, and possibly concerns, about the practicability and ethics of protecting free speech, even when that speech feels confrontational, offensive, or just plain wrong. It’s a conundrum that can feel uncomfortable, and it’s important to allow the conversation to be in that place of discomfort. That’s where real critical thinking happens—about individual rights and the responsibilities inherent in living in a democracy. Ask your students how they feel about the rights of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie. Ask them how they might respond to a hateful person coming to speak in their city. Allow them to take up the different sides of the arguments, and help them understand that while the First Amendment is a bedrock principle, applying it fairly and objectively isn’t always easy.

After all, it’s no small feat to respect an individual’s right to express bigoted ideas. But that’s what Americans have always done. Just as one bigot has the right to speak his mind, the rest of us have a responsibility to let him know we’re watching, we oppose his hate—and we’re not going away.

Jessica Reaves is the senior writer and communications specialist at ADL’s Center on Extremism. The views expressed here are hers alone.

Educators Respond to Charlottesville

This year Echoes & Reflections created its inaugural Educator Advisory Committee (EAC). The purpose of the Committee is to gather thoughtful and diverse educators from around the United States to provide us with expert educational guidance and feedback so we can continue to offer the highest quality of Holocaust education professional development to teachers. In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, we reached out to our members to understand how as they return to the classroom they hope to inspire their students through the lens of Holocaust education.

Here are some of their responses:

Susan Schinleber

“The events in Charlottesville over the weekend speak more eloquently than I ever could and explain in stark and horrifying terms why we need to teach the Holocaust to our students. I feel compelled to teach this subject now more than ever and for so many reasons: to bear witness; to teach students that their actions count; to show that the Holocaust was never inevitable. Learning about the Holocaust helps our students make the connection between what happened then and what is happening in the world around them. I never stop reading and studying what happened then and I bring that passion to the classroom and hope that it sows the seeds it needs to.”

Susan Schinleber teaches English and Public Speaking at North Shore Country Day School, a K-12 private school in Winnetka, IL.

Eden C. Stein, Ph.D.

“This year my 8th graders will return to school horrified, with questions and anger over what has recently transpired in Charlottesville. “Why do people hate the Jews?” is a question I have often heard. They will be eager to read a Holocaust memoir and to learn about the history of antisemitism along with the history of racism. Following the reading of these important books they will be inspired to do something.  In my Language Arts classroom, that something will be to write letters for social change – real letters that will actually be sent to a local, state, or national legislature. My hope is to also inspire them to recognize bigotry, racism and antisemitism in the world surrounding them and speak up to eradicate it.”

Eden C. Stein is certified for Language Arts and Social Studies 4-8 and History 7-12. She teaches at Worthington Hooker School in New Haven, CT.

Susan Davenport

“As we begin a new school year I hope to inspire my students to speak out. This hope was renewed over the weekend when there was very little being said about the events in Charlottesville, VA.  Elie Wiesel’s profound quote, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” seems extremely applicable to the current world climate. My goal for the school year is to encourage my students to be brave and stand up for what is right; for them to understand that silence does not help. It is my hope that they lead their lives by Wiesel’s quote.”

Susan Davenport teaches English 10, English 11, Humanities, and Speech at John S. Battle High School in Bristol, VA. 

William Mason

“In light of the most recent current events, Holocaust education is more important now than ever. It’s our sacred duty as teachers to inspire our students to be a voice of reason and understanding that the events of 80 years ago cannot be permitted to happen again. Holocaust education can be the inspiration for students to see the evil and work against it.”

William Mason teaches American History & Government and Holocaust Studies at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, NY.

Let us know: How do you hope to inspire your classroom in the New Year?

Hate Is In Our Backyard

“It is one thing to read about hateful actions in other cities across the US, but this is different. This hits too close to home. Hate is in our backyard.”

Anyone who knows me would say that I am infrequently at a loss for words; however, the events of last weekend have caused me to struggle with a way to verbalize my feelings and process the images. On Saturday and Sunday, and several times since then, I have opened my social media accounts, determined to write an impassioned post about the events that touched our neighboring community and came up short each time. The only thing I could think to say is that these events are not what real Virginians stand for and the fact that I had just spent the concluding two days of our first week back-to-school discussing antisemitism and hatred made it unfathomable to have such a local and contemporary example. In my heart though, these words were not enough.

Charlottesville is a “big sister” city to the small city of Staunton that I have called my home for the past five years. Like Staunton, it has many traits that are more small-town than truly city. The downtown areas of both are dotted with locally-owned restaurants, boutiques and antique stores set against the backdrop of historical architecture, and the footsteps of a rich and sometimes challenging past. Like Staunton, it is a place where history is always present, sometimes taken for granted, but frequently a topic of conversation. Both cities are composed of moderately diverse populations; populations that have had their struggles, but who have, at least in recent years, dealt with them largely through peaceful discourse.

For me personally, Charlottesville holds a special place in my heart. It is the city where our daughter was born, six weeks early with a team of doctors on standby at the University of Virginia hospital. It wasn’t part of our plan, which didn’t include anything except our local hospital closer to home, but for the rest of our lives and hers, Charlottesville will always be a part of our story. It is a city I visit frequently for other reasons as well, to socialize with my friends, to utilize their airport, and to seek out its stores. Now, it will also be a location that I think of in other ways—as the home to events that will be ingrained in the minds of Americans for a long time to come.

As the weekend drew to a close, I found myself grappling with what to say and do when students arrived in my classes on Monday. In the back of my mind I was in “teacher-mode,” but like the social media post, clear answers were not forthcoming. I knew that our class discussions on Thursday and Friday had provided them with a foundation, but giving them both space and guidance to process the events was of foremost concern.

Going into Monday, I will say that I was thankful for incredible colleagues and friends who were available to bounce ideas off of as we collectively searched for ideas on how to aid our students. I was also grateful to have many resources available to help get the conversation started. Between Echoes and Reflections, USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), there were options for each of my classes for Monday and the days to come.

I began each class on Monday by allowing students simply to speak out, question and share. The one theme that resonated through and through was the discomfort of proximity—these hateful acts occurred in a place where my students eat dinner with their families, where their parents work, where older siblings attend college, and where many of them hope to find themselves post-high school. Over and over, I heard variations of what Henry, my first student of the day, shared, “It is one thing to read about hateful actions in other cities across the US, but this is different. This hits too close to home. Hate is in our backyard.”

Throughout the day, we talked about respectful discourse utilizing the framework of a mini-lesson created by USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness entitled, “Promoting Effective Conversation Skills.” This lesson proved powerful not only for its fostering a skill that is sometimes overridden by emotion, but also because it includes the testimony of Henry Oertelt,  who is also a featured survivor in the Echoes and Reflection’s unit, “Contemporary Antisemitism.” His words are powerful and need to be shared:

“…it is time for people to recognize that the world is made out of many, many different people, different colors, different sizes, and all kinds of differences…. it’s about time that we recognize that.  It’s about time that we learn to live with it. And one way to learn to live with it is…we start to learn about each other, and while we may not agree with the ideology, and the lifestyle of other people, it is time to know about them, to respect them, as I expect them to respect me.

And if this can come done, and I think we’re making some progress, not a lot, but I see some progress here and there. If this can come about, then I think the world can be a much better place….That’s basically, my main message is because I tell them I am the prime example of what can happen to people that are suffering under prejudicial circumstances and biases and when nobody speaks up…we have to learn to speak up when we see prejudice and hatred.”

In the days since, we have talked about white supremacy more extensively than I have in years past. I have shared with my students the USHMM “Voices of Antisemitism” podcast by former Neo-Nazi Frank Meeink to show students that there is a path forward, even from the pit of hate. Students have discussed, debated, and respectfully disagreed as we have talked, and there is no doubt in my mind that this will continue for days and weeks to come; something I view with optimism. Although it feels at times like a small step, we as educators must firmly keep in mind every single day that our students truly do have the power to change the world. They are on a path to discovering how to be responsible citizens and it is our job to guide them. During a week such as this, it may be hard to come up with the right words, but we trust in the process, and we find the way.

Now What?

In the face of the ugly and violent expressions of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology seen this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, we asked the question: What choices will we make? What will we tolerate?

It’s been inspiring to see the ways in the past 48 hours that people all over the country are making a choice, taking a stand, and letting their voices be heard. As friends, educators, parents, and those interested in advancing Holocaust education and working to combat hate, we hope you’ll consider some of the following action steps:

(1) If you are a teacher or know a teacher, check out/pass along our professional development programs and online resources to support meaningful Holocaust education.

(2) Inquire about how the Holocaust and genocide are taught in your local schools. Advocate for teachers’ access to professional learning opportunities.

(3) Find out if your state mandates the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides, and what you can do to support these policies.

(4) Volunteer and support organizations that promote Holocaust education, combat hate, and work for social justice. You can begin by contacting your local ADL office here.

(5) Educate yourself about hate groups and extremism in the United States. Recruitment of young people is a primary focus of these groups.

(6) Stay connected with us! Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

We are guided by the words of Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

Thank you for your commitment!