Tag Archives: Holocaust

Stumbling on History, by Fern Schumer Chapman

Stumbling on HistoryIt is human, perhaps, to try to forget the past when the memories dredge up feelings of guilt and shame. The danger is that in sweeping our ugliness under the rug, we will never learn from our mistakes, and the suffering of the victims will never heal. Fern Schumer Chapman’s mother, Edith Westerfeld Schumer, was born in the tiny German town of Stockstadt am Rhein, into one of only two Jewish families at the time of the Holocaust. She and her sister were sent to America to live with an aunt and uncle they had never met when Edith was only twelve years old. She never saw her parents again. Only later did she learn that they died in two different concentration camps.

In 1996, German artist Gunther Demnig began an activist art project in Berlin called the Stumbling Stones (Stolpersteinen) Project. Demnig places a square, brass marker—about the size of a hand—in the street in front of a victim’s home or place of business. The marker is deeply inscribed with the person’s name, date of birth, and their fate. Since he conceived of it, the Stumbling Stones Project has spread to many cities in Germany, as well as France, Poland, Italy, Denmark, and Austria. Although he has met with opposition, “Demnig’s team embosses 450 Stumbling Stones each month,” and they have placed markers in over 1,000 cities.

Stumbling Stones

Stumbling on History, besides giving a factual account of the project, tells Chapman’s personal story of traveling with her mother to Stockstadt am Rhein to participate in a historical ceremony. The book is laid out in picture book format, but the amount of text is best suited to older children and adults who, like me, have never heard of this beautiful and significant art project. This inspiring story is accompanied by many large photographs on every page, both historical and contemporary. Chapman has produced a volume that will help children to recognize both the enduring tragedy of Nazi violence and the profound impact that a small work of art can have on an individual’s life.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, which I had specially bound for our library. It can be hard to get, even though it was published in 2016, but the paperback is on Amazon. Well worth it. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Wave, by Todd Strasser

WaveBen Ross was an enthusiastic young teacher, always leading his high-school history students toward deeper understanding, rather than just memorizing battle dates and lists of kings. The older teachers tolerated his style, figuring that it would wear off soon enough. When Ben showed his students a film of the Nazi concentration camps, some of his kids woke up from their bored lethargy, but they raised questions about how this could have happened. A few of them openly stated that they did not believe that ordinary people would stand by and let their neighbors be treated this way. Ben needed a strategy to convince them that the Holocaust really did happen— and could happen again.

The next day, class was conducted differently. Ben wrote on the board: “Strength Through Discipline.” He made the kids stand beside their desks and start all of their answers with, “Mr. Ross!” There was no discussion, just questions and rapid-fire answers. To Ben’s surprise, the students ate it up! The class showed a cohesion that he had never seen before, and later they opined that they all felt equal for the first time. As the days went by, they created a salute and a motto, and the movement spread beyond Ben’s class. Even the football team began to incorporate the disciplined group mentality that began as Ben’s experiment. Students who had always been shunned outsiders were some of the most enthusiastic adherents, as they were securely part of a group for the first time. Chillingly, however, Ben’s students began to persecute those who were not part of the group, and at least one young man landed in the hospital. How could Ben bring this experiment to an end?

Although The Wave is a novel, it is based on the true story of a classroom experiment in Palo Alto, California, in 1969. I had never heard of it until I received a request to purchase additional copies for our library system, since it is assigned reading in our local high schools. After reading the reviews, I had to read this little book myself. The writing is simple and straightforward, but the message is frightening. I also recently watched the movie of the spectacular novel The Book Thief (also based on a true story), which I highly recommend. Sometimes it feels as if we are awash in Holocaust stories, but their importance goes far beyond the history of what happened in Germany seventy years ago. It is the revelation of the evil that lies within each of our souls that needs to be kept out in the open, warning us that this was not just a German phenomenon; it is a human phenomenon. Even at our best, we rush to self-preservation against the slightest danger, but at our worst, we can perpetrate terrible cruelties toward our very own neighbors if the opportunity presents itself—and opportunities are always presenting themselves.

As far as I can tell, today’s societal landscape looks as if we haven’t learned much. We don’t seem to be able to transfer the lessons of yesterday to the situations of today. If you are looking for ways to discuss these issues with your teens, or even among an adult book group, this story is a great springboard. Weighing in at 138 small pages, everyone should be able to get in on the conversation.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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