Thursday, August 17, 2017

Explaining Nazis to Young People (and President Trump)

I NEVER THOUGHT I’D LIVE to see a day the President of the United States couldn’t come out and denounce Nazis and white supremacists. Of course, I never imagined this nation would elevate such a despicable individual as Donald J. Trump to high office.

In my opinion, the man has been a menace to fundamental American values from the first moment he descended the elevator in Trump Tower and started blasting entire groups of human beings. But you’d think anyone with even a precarious grasp of history would realize Nazis (and their kindred spirits, neo-Nazis today), are a separate category, not to be confused with any other kind of protesters.

So here’s a refresher on who the Nazis were—and what kind of ideology the alt-right was celebrating last weekend in Charlottesville.


WHAT FOLLOWS IS A READING I used to pass out to students in my seventh and eighth grade history classes. It was always a tough read. I knew, every year, many would cry. When I read about children being slaughtered, I sometimes cried myself.

I believed my students needed to confront evil and consider ways to combat its spread. Today it seems we need to remind GOP leaders and many avid Trump supporters exactly who the Nazis were.

The reading I prepared for students follows. If there are any teachers who might want to use it, feel free:

Hitler’s Black Harvest

            Most students today have heard about the Holocaust. They know gas chambers were disguised as showers. They realize Jews had to wear yellow six-pointed stars. Some know six million Jews died. Only a few understand that non-Jewish victims totaled an additional ten million.

            In the end, it seems impossible to come to grips with the horror. To understand the truth we must focus on the broken human heart. We must go beneath the surface of the printed page. 

We must dive into an ocean of blood.     

We must watch as German troops arrest Israel Lewi. We must see his tearful daughter rush up to say goodbye to her beloved father. We must see a soldier’s anger as he orders the poor girl to open her mouth. Then gasp as he fires his pistol down Liebe Lewi’s throat. 

We must see Icek Bekerman steal a piece of leather to make into a pair of shoelaces, from the shop where he works as a Nazi slave. See him caught. Then see him hanged.  

We must see Sophie Scholl and brother Hans, not Jews but “good Germans,” protest Nazi rule. See them paint: “Freedom!” and “Down with Hitler!” on building walls. We must shudder as they are arrested, placed on trial, sentenced to death, and beheaded.

It is not easy to watch what we must watch. And sometimes we must listen. Hear the cries of a nameless Polish prisoner. His head has been caved in and his legs broken when police torture him to make him talk. His battered body makes a thump when he is thrown into a wood coffin and sent to the ovens to be burned. Listen with care. Listen as he regains consciousness at the last second, screaming: “Open up! Open up! I am still alive!”

Listen. Let his terrified shouts enter your soul. Then you may be ready to understand.


            From the moment they rose to power, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party[1] were clear about what they planned to do. Above all, the “race purity” of the Aryan blood must be upheld. Human progress depended on nothing less. Progress would be determined by the success of superior races. Jews, Russians and Poles, homosexuals, the retarded and the handicapped “reproduced like vermin.” These inferior types “polluted” the human race. But the Nazis dreamed of a world in which they had no place. In the twisted Nazi mind it was simple. “Nature is cruel,” Hitler argued. “Therefore, we, too, may be cruel.” The weaker races must die—or live to serve the Aryan race as slaves. One Nazi leader explained their whole plan calmly and clearly. Killing Jews would be like destroying bugs.

It would be the same as “getting rid of lice...a matter of cleanliness.”

            “Force is the first law,” Hitler once said. Force was the tool he preferred for governing.  Long before he came to power, he organized the “Sturmabteilung” or “SA,” his own private army. These brown-shirted “storm troopers,” as they were called, were assigned one task. They must beat, silence and even kill Hitler’s political opponents. An even more powerful tool for evil came later with creation of the “Schutzstaffel” or “SS.”   Dressed in crisp black uniforms, with a “death’s head” symbol on their caps, and lightning bolts on their collars, SS forces were given the job of eliminating millions of human beings. An important branch of the SS was the Gestapo, a secret police force with unlimited power and unmatched skill at torture.

            German Jews were the first to suffer when Hitler rose to power.[2] First came “legal” moves, like the Law against the Overcrowding of German Schools. Under strict guidelines college admissions were closed to Jews. Soon they were removed from all government service. Next, they were prevented from entering theaters or public pools. Sexual relations and marriage between Aryans and Jews were outlawed.[3] There were special seats on buses. Then laws were passed forbidding Jews to work as teachers, lawyers or doctors. 

            Ernst Meier was only a boy when he had his first brush with hate. It came on a day his school had scheduled a field trip. When his teacher read a list of those allowed to go his name was missing. Sadly, Meier, a Jew, began to walk away. With a shout the teacher called on the class to attack: “Boys, get him and knock out of him any idea he may have about coming to school anymore!”

            Widespread violence exploded in November 1938 after a Jewish student attacked and killed a German official in Paris. In the dark hours of November 9-10, known since as Kristillnacht, or “Night of Glass,” German mobs attacked Jewish homes, shops and synagogues. Thousands of businesses were looted [robbed]. Two hundred homes were destroyed. Every synagogue in Germany was vandalized. Dozens of Jews were murdered, including one young boy who was thrown from a third-story window. In days to come the Gestapo arrested 26,000 Jewish men, women and children and carted them away to prison.

            Slowly but surely, Nazi control clamped down tighter and tighter. New rules required all teachers, no matter what their beliefs, to swear obedience to the “Fuhrer” (that is: to Hitler, the “leader”). Government officials took control of newspapers and radio. SS censors now decided what books might be printed. Bonfires were fueled with those deemed unacceptable. All political parties, except the Nazi Party, were outlawed. Bernard Licthenberg, a Catholic politician, spoke out against the attacks on Kristillnacht. So Gestapo agents dragged him away, beat him up, and jailed him for two years. After 1936 a special law freed the SS police from all legal controls, except the will of Adolf Hitler.

            Soon no one was safe, whether Jew or not. The mentally ill were granted “mercy deaths” under a secret plan known as T-4. Handicapped German children[4] were also marked for destruction. One SS doctor preferred to slowly starve such children to death. Most were taken from families and sent to government “hospitals.” There they were secretly gassed and their bodies buried. Homosexuals were also among the victims. Arrested and sent to prison, they wore pink triangles on their uniforms, just as Jews wore yellow stars. Terrible medical experiments were tried to “cure” them. Many died as a result. Most were simply eliminated. One victim was SS Commander Heinrich Himmler’s gay nephew. 

He was gassed by order of his own uncle.

            Mass race murder, or genocide, began once Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Now Hitler turned attention to the East, to lands he dreamed of settling with waves of German pioneers. First he would seize Polish soil. Later he would take over great stretches of Russia. But the soil was already occupied. Existing populations must give way. The Poles, Russians and others were Untermenschen, or “under men,” useful only for slave labor. Let them have education enough to understand simple orders, the Nazis said.  Teach them enough to read basic traffic signs. Let them reproduce only to serve their masters. 

            And if they died off? 

            So much the better.

            During World War II, ten million slaves labored under the Nazis’ iron fist. Thousands dug underground factories to protect German industry from U. S. and British air attack. Others mined coal, picked crops or assembled grenades. They built highways and made roofing tile. Primo Levi, a Jewish slave, survived because his training as a chemist made him valuable to a German drug manufacturer. Mordecai Wulkan lived because his jeweler’s skills were in demand. One task he was given involved sorting a suitcase full of blood-smeared gold teeth—removed from the mouths of countless gassing victims. Other slave workers made beautiful desk sets and bookends from green marble. Some of the most educated wrote college papers for German medical students too lazy to do their own work. 

            Thousands died every month from starvation and mistreatment. If a slave was caught loafing or refused to follow orders they were marked for “special treatment.” That is: they were shot. Those who forced themselves to go on, who did not give up amid the horrors, survived on a diet of 1,000 calories per day. Karl Peterik got by because he ate oats meant for a horse he was tending. Medical care was nonexistent. Slave women who became pregnant were sent to the gas chambers. Prisoners were packed into barracks, three, four, and even six to a bunk, sleeping on filthy straw. Many were covered with lice until “their clothing looked as if it had been sprinkled with poppy seeds.” In the labor camp at Birkenau huge rats scuttled about, gnawing corpses [dead bodies], and attacking those too weak to fight them off. 


            Naturally, Jews came in for special attention. With most of the modern world at war, Hitler felt the time was right for “The Final Solution.” This would mean the elimination of all Jewish population.

            Mass death.

            When Nazi armies conquered new territory, Jews were herded into neighborhoods called ghettoes. Here, especially in Poland, only Jews were allowed to live. And here they must remain, penned up like cattle. In Vilna Ghetto a doctor saw people squeezed into tiny rooms, each person’s living space “narrow as the grave.” In Warsaw 500,000 people crammed into a few square miles. The Jewish sector of the city was walled off from the outside world. At every entrance the Germans posted signs which read: “Warning: Epidemic Zone.” Jews caught outside the ghetto faced almost certain execution.

            Living conditions were terrible. Food was scarce. Nights were filled with the cries of hungry children. When one Jewish mother broke the rules and bought an egg she and the Polish man who sold it to her were shot. Another desperate family boiled straw for “soup.” In Lublin Ghetto families lived in cattle stalls. The water supply was filthy. There was nothing to eat “but potato broth and stale, black bread.” Guards shot passers-by without reason, because they could. Bodies littered the streets. The living stumbled along like people going to a funeral.

            Again and again, the Nazis entered Jewish ghettos and rounded up victims to be “shipped to the East for resettlement.”[5] No one knew what this meant. Those who moved too slowly did not live to find out. When SS troops entered the hospital in Cracow and ordered patients out, Dr. Rosalia Blau protested. Many of the children under her care had scarlet fever and were too ill to move. A German drew his pistol and shot her in the head. Then the patients were murdered in a blast of automatic weapons fire.

            Death might come at any moment. The unthinkable became routine. During one raid, guards dragged an old woman down a flight of steps. Her thin leg slipped between the railings and stuck. SS men kept jerking until the bones cracked with a snap. In Lodz Ghetto soldiers threw newborn babies out of high windows into streets. When the first tiny body fell, witnesses could not credit [trust] their senses. “At first few of us believed it was actually a live, newborn baby,” said one. “We thought it was an object of some kind until we saw another and another being hurled out the window and into the waiting truck.”

In the end, he explained sadly, “We had no more tears left. Our eyes had dried out.”     


            It is hard to read about such crimes, hard to believe humans could be guilty of such cruelty. Yet worse horrors lay ahead when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. Now, special army units were sent out to round up Jews, Russian civilians, and other “sub humans.” Long, deep ditches were dug. Victims were gathered by the hundreds, even the thousands, made to strip—and then the shooting began. It was “hard work” for the SS men, this mowing down of human beings! “All we did was shoot Jews, shoot Jews all the time,” one soldier said in a letter to his wife. “My arm hurt from shooting.” 

            And well it should: for the slaughter was immense.

            Hermann Graebe witnessed one mass killing. Even though he took no part, what he saw turned his soul to ice. Trucks were bringing in victims. Guards were hustling them off. Whips cracked in the air as prisoners undressed: shoes in one pile, coats in another, underwear in a third. Graebe was surprised by how little crying he heard. People “stood about in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign.” Then they moved to the edge of the pit where they would be shot. 

A family caught his eye:

An old woman with snow-white hair was holding a one-year-old child in her arms and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The parents were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about ten years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked his head and seemed to explain something to him.

Then a guard counted off twenty prisoners, including the old woman and her family. They stepped closer to the pits and were cut down in a storm of bullets.

            All over Europe the massacre commenced. In September 1941, the Jews of Kiev, in Russia, were rounded up by SS units and driven to a nearby valley. Here at a place called Babi Yar, 33,771 human beings were shot down in great heaps until their bodies filled a deep ravine. Dina Pronicheva was meant to rest among them. But the shot which struck her did not kill her. Still, she fell into the bloody valley, among the piles of the dead and dying: 

All around and beneath her she could hear strange submerged sounds, groaning, choking and sobbing: many of the people were not dead yet. The whole mass of bodies kept moving slightly as they settled down and were pressed tighter and tighter by the movements of the ones who were still living.

When the killing ended, workers began throwing dirt atop the bodies. The young girl fought back her fear of being buried alive, knowing she might be shot again if she showed any signs of life. By nightfall the killers were “tired” and wanted to go home. Pronicheva waited until they were gone, then managed to claw her way to the surface and survive. 

In a sense she had crawled from the mouth of Hell.

            Only the awful details vary from place to place. At one execution site a beautiful girl stood in line, dazed and knowing she faced death. “She had wonderful eyes,” one witness recalled. A German officer looked her over. Then he called for her to step forward. “What a pity to bury such beauty under the earth,” he said. He told her she could go. Follow the road by which she had come. Go! Don’t look back! Slowly the young woman took a step. Edged away. Then another. Perhaps she might find some path to safety! Without warning now, the officer pulled his revolver and shot her in the back.

Another time two little girls, two friends, held each other and begged for mercy. They were shot and “fell together in their embrace.”  Always the bodies crumpled until they filled the pits and the dirt covered them forever. At one site, a German officer admitted seeing “a kind of spring of blood gushing from the earth.”


            The special SS units made good progress “cleansing” wide stretches of Eastern Europe. But it was hard to shoot so many people and a better “system” was needed. Out of this need arose gas chambers and death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka. Here victims arrived by the trainload, to be gassed in large chambers disguised as showers. Sometimes guards told new arrivals to tie their shoes together so they could find them after their “bath.” There were numbered hooks for hanging clothes and signs in many languages saying: “Showers.” One guard encouraged victims to move faster. “Hurry,” he lied. “Coffee is waiting. Coffee is ready in camp.” At another camp flowers were planted round the gas chambers. Meanwhile a band of pretty Jewish girls in white blouses and navy-blue skirts entertained those about to die. The music they were ordered to play was always merry.

            As the war dragged on more and more people came to understand the truth. But what choice did anyone have when madmen ran the madhouse? At Treblinka guards beat and shot people the moment they stepped from the rail cars. The rest were herded like cattle to the slaughterhouse. One witness watched an SS officer order a bigger boy to sit down on the ground, taking a smaller boy on his knee: “Then he shot them both with one bullet.” 

Vera Kriegel remembered similar scenes at Auschwitz: “Children were having their heads beaten SS men with their gun butts, and some were being thrown into a smoking pit. I was confused: I thought this was some sort of animal kingdom or perhaps I was already in Hell.”

Then by the hundreds it was into the showers. Whole families. Whole villages. And yet, even in these last moments, people had faint hope. For who could imagine murder on such a scale? Who could believe it was going to happen?

            All too soon, Zyklon B, a gas designed as a pesticide [bug killer], came pouring through the vents. With their final breathes a group of Polish prisoners could be heard singing their national anthem. Other victims were so tightly packed they died standing. Kurt Gerstein reported that it was easy to recognize families among the dead. “They were still holding hands, stiffened in death,” he noted, “so that it was difficult to tear them apart in order to clear the chamber for the next load.”

            This task fell to slave laborers. For in every death camp a few prisoners were allowed to live to perform tasks for which the SS had no stomach. Whipped to keep moving, half-starved, these poor men and women appeared to be nothing more than “corpse-colored skeletons.” Yet—as long as they could carry on—they avoided a journey to the gas chamber. Workers at one death camp were under strict orders to carry the bodies of small children over both shoulders. 

This was done to save time.

            Disposing of millions of bodies was a problem. At first, most were burned in large pits. Later special ovens called crematoria were designed. Still, it was no easy task. A camp like Auschwitz could exterminate 6,000 human beings every day. Their ashes alone filled a rail car. Human fat built up inside smokestacks, a foot thick, until prisoners scraped it free. At one camp ash was used as insulation between the walls of buildings. At another it was spread to make pathways between buildings. It was not unusual to see teeth and vertebrae underfoot.

            Nothing of “value” was wasted. Prison workers checked the mouths of the dead and knocked out any gold teeth. The long hair of women was shaved and saved to be made into felt boots. One camp commander salvaged [saved; recovered] 22,000 pairs of children’s shoes. Another gathered mittens and stocking caps. On his first day in camp Rudolf Vrba, a slave at Auschwitz, noticed hundreds of baby carriages, “but still I did not wonder where the babies were.” Later he would see prisoners sitting at tables, squeezing out tube after tube of toothpaste. At first he wondered why the Germans wasted the time. Then he realized workers were looking for hidden diamonds.


            Much of what we know about the camps comes from those lucky enough to survive. At Birkenau, female inmates had one large enamel pot. At meal time it was used to carry soup. By day it served as wash basin, on rare occasions when anyone was allowed to clean up. At night, when prisoners were forbidden to go outside to the toilet, the pot served to contain bodily wastes. At Buchenwald prisoners were tied to a heavy wagon full of stone and sand and forced to pull it, singing as they went. SS guards laughed and called them “singing horses.”

            The entire Nazi “system” was designed to seem senseless. Guards urinated on prisoners, wetting them from head to toe. They forced Jewish girls to clean bathrooms with their blouses. Men with diarrhea were refused permission to go, so “their own pants had to serve as toilets.” At Buchenwald, violation of orders led to a beating with a heavy cane on the bare buttocks. Victims were whipped in front of rows of assembled prisoners, “until flesh fell off in scraps.” On one occasion a camp inmate was scheduled for beating. His brother stepped forward and begged to take his place. The SS officer laughed and ordered both brothers whipped instead.

            Guards sometimes tied prisoners’ hands behind their backs. Then they ran a rope around their wrists and dangled them from trees. One victim was hung up because SS men wanted him to reveal the names of inmates involved in forbidden activities. A witness explained what happened next: 
...he would have talked, but he does not know them [the names]. His hands are tied behind his back and he is hung from a pulley by his wrists. After a few seconds his arms come out of their sockets and remain twisted upward, vertical behind his back.

            Others suffered “interrogation until confession.” That is: they were tortured until they talked. One 19-year-old Czech prisoner refused to cooperate despite every kind of abuse.

Police tried a fresh approach. The boy’s mother was in custody. But she had committed suicide to end her miseries. Gestapo agents cut off her head and brought it to her son’s cell to break his will.

            If guards had any feelings of kindness most lost them quickly amid the horrors.[6] One camp commander and his wife looked for prisoners with tattoos and had them gassed. Then the skin was used to make lamp shades and handbags. In Buchenwald, slave laborers worked in a stone quarry with armed SS troops high above. When guards were bored they bet cigarettes or a beer that they could kill a prisoner below with one toss of a stone. Other victims were thrown into a long deep trench that served as the camp latrine [toilet] and left to drown.  

            Terrible medical experiments were carried out by SS personnel. (“Black murderers in white doctors’ coats,” as one survivor labeled them.) There were tests to see how much cold a man could stand, so the German air force might design better jackets for pilots. Naked Russian prisoners were left outside in bitter cold. Others were submerged in icy water to see how long they survived. When body temperatures fell to 82.5 F, one doctor reported, death was certain, “despite all rescue attempts.”   Other experiments measured the effects of flying at high altitude. Careful notes show what happened to one Jew. Tested, without oxygen, at the equal of 29,400 feet, he “began to perspire and roll his head” after four minutes. After five minutes spasms began. Ten minutes: unconsciousness. 

            Thirteen. Death.  

            In fact, madness had no limits. SS doctors attempted bone transplants on prisoners, hoping new techniques might save wounded German soldiers’ lives. Jews were infected with malaria to test experimental drugs. Dr. Josef Mengele, known as “The Angel of Death,” was interested in blood transfusions. Often he used twins in his experiments. Once he sewed two together, connected their veins, and studied their combined circulation. Others used x-rays and drugs to cause sterilization of prisoners. Such methods, one researcher claimed, might provide Germany with “a new and extremely effective weapon” in the battle against “inferior peoples.”

            So it was. Horror on horror. Terror layered in terror.

            Madness over all. 

            Our horrible story is ended; but even now we have exposed only fragments of an awful picture. It is a truth so terrible it remains almost beyond our imagination. As Primo Levi once explained, “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses.”  

Only the dead could tell us everything. 

It would require 64,000 pages like the ones you have just read to list the names of those who died in Hitler’s black harvest.

Your work:

1. Find definitions for: 

a) Holocaust                
b) synagogue                
c) storm troopers
d) genocide                  
e) Aryan                       
f) superior
g) inferior                    
h) vermin                     
i) ghetto                      

2. What was the role of the SA under Hitler? The role of the SS?

3. What was the Gestapo? How was it different from police in most countries?

4. What was “The Final Solution?”

5. On June 6, 1942, a Jewish historian wrote in his diary, “We want our suffering to remain on record for future generations and for the whole world.” Why do you think he believed it was important for us to know what happened?

6. Describe what a person would see and experience as they approached and entered a gas chamber.

7. As one Jewish girl was about to be shot she turned to face her murderer. “Look straight into these eyes, you coward, and shoot! These eyes will pursue you and haunt you all your life!” Why do you think she did this? 

8. List as many groups and types of individuals as you can who suffered at the hands of the Nazi killers.

I was surprised the first time I used this reading:
Many of my young students did not recognize this man.

[1] The word Nazi comes from the name of Hitler’s political party, the “Nazional” or National Party.
[2] Remember: Adolf Hitler was elected.
[3] Hitler warned that children of mixed race were “halfway between man and ape.”
[4] Nazi leaders referred to such individuals as “useless eaters.”  

[5] Thousands of Jews were tricked in this way and loaded on rail cars. They were told they were being sent to Russia to work on farms. Instead the trains headed straight for death camps like Belzec and Sobibor.
[6] There were some who tried. Oswald Bosko, an SS man, smuggled children out of camp in cardboard boxes. When he was discovered he too was executed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville and the Antidote to Hate

In view of recent developments in Charlottesville, it seemed it might be time to address a few simple points. These are points I tried to make sure my seventh grade students grasped every year.

I can tell you—most did.

During my classroom career, I operated on the principle that history, my subject, was the study of people.

In that light, we often studied the words of the Roman poet Terrance, who once said, “Nothing human is alien to me.” We dissected the meaning of that quote, shortened slightly, the first day of class every year. It was my opinion that all human beings are fundamentally alike.

Working from that premise, we repeatedly focused on empathy in class, “the ability to feel what another person feels.”

I called it “the antidote to hate.”

I had several lesson plans designed to foster empathy in any way I could. One I was most proud of began with a boy on the bus. 

“Back when I was in ninth grade,” (now more than half a century, I must admit) I started by informing every class, “we used to see kids we called ‘hair lips.’ I don’t mean to be cruel. They were born with a birth defect involving a hole in the palate (here I showed what I meant) or lip. Doctors closed the hole. But this left scars and most ‘hair lips’ sounded funny when they talked. 

“We had a boy like that, who had other handicaps, who rode our bus. The only person he talked to was the driver. Every morning he’d climb aboard and call out, ‘Eyyyy, Brrnee.’ Bernie. That was the driver’s name. He’d walk down the aisle and two big high school guys would go: ‘Eyyyy, Brrnee.’ They mocked him every day. It made me sick then. It makes me sick now.

“If I had been bigger, I would have told them to stop,” I added, “but I was skinny and couldn’t do much to help.”

Every student in the room could see the point. The cruelty of the two older boys. The evil of picking on one so defenseless. This held their attention and we went from there.

For homework students had read a handout based on A Brief History of the Indies, published in 1552, written by Bartolome Las Casas, a Spanish priest. Las Casas admitted when he first came to the New World all he cared about was gold. He purchased Indian slaves and ignored the teachings of Christ. When he saw cruelties all around he began to feel a weight upon his soul. He freed his slaves and took holy orders, devoting his life to saving as many natives as he could.

Students read scenes like this:

     The Christians, with their horses and swords and lances, began to slaughter and practice strange cruelty among them [the natives]...and spared neither children, nor the aged, nor pregnant women, nor those in child labor. They not only stabbed them but dismembered them [cut them up] like lambs in a slaughterhouse.
     They made bets as to who could split a man in two or cut off his head with one sword blow...They took babes from their mothers...and dashed their heads against the rocks...Others they seized by the shoulders and threw them into the rivers, laughing and joking...and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” 

Part of a project by one of my students on this topic.

Before classes began, I prepared by taping pictures of the Holocaust on the board and pulling down maps and a movie screen to hide them. Students entered and took their seats. I told them the story of the boy on the bus and asked simply, “How can people be so cruel?”

That was our question for the day.

(Preparing this now, to post on my blog, I suppose I’d say it’s still the question for the day—for every day of human history.)

“What was the worst example from last night’s reading?” I inquired.

Almost every student raised a hand. “When the Spanish cut off the hands of the slaves,” Maggie responded.

“When soldiers burned the building with 300 Indian leaders inside,” said Marco.

“Throwing babies into the river,” Deedee added.

“How could they do it?” I asked again. “How could so many be so cruel? And what made Las Casas and others who tried to save the natives different?”

I didn’t expect anyone to bite yet. I continued: “How long did Las Casas spend trying to save the Indians?”

Ken responded: “Fifty years.”

I asked: “How many of you ever walk down the street and see a bug and step on it?”

All kinds of hands went up.

“Didn’t you feel guilty?” I asked one boy. “Gary! You murderer! That bug had a family, and they’re all like, ‘Hey, when’s Dad coming home, maybe he’ll bring us a toy,’ and you’re like, ‘No big deal. I’ll just scrape dad off the bottom of my shoe and keep walking.’”

The bug idea always got a laugh—the last of the day. I asked how the Spanish (some of them) could do what they did. No one was ready to answer. “It’s the same as the two boys on the bus. Or stepping on a bug. What did the soldiers say when they threw babies in the river?”

“Boil there, you offspring of the devil,” Deedee offered.

Correct. “Now, if the devil walked in this room right now and Gary jumped up and killed the devil, wouldn’t he be good?”

Deedee admitted Gary would be good.

“You admit you’ve stepped on bugs,” I reminded her. “No one thinks killing bugs is wrong?”

They’re just bugs classmates interjected.

Unfortunately, I explained, Hitler and his followers believed killing Jews was acceptable. One Nazi official said the world would build a monument in their honor because they had the courage to do what no one else did. Getting rid of Jews was “like killing vermin,” he insisted, “a matter of cleanliness.”

Did anyone know what vermin were?

“Bugs, fleas. Rats, I think,” Jacob offered. I told the class he was right.   

“It’s a question of dehumanization,” I continued. The definition goes on the board: “to see others as less than human; lower than yourself.”

“I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but most of you dehumanize others. You put labels on groups or individuals you don’t like and you’re on your way!”

“We don’t kill people, though,” Greg objected. True. I turned and added to our notes: “Labeling: to see all members of a group as the same, without individual difference.”

In our school, students admitted peers were labeled “preps,” as in preppy, well-dressed, college-prep types. Poor kids (at least when I started) were labeled “grits,” dirty, lowly, unclean. Labels, we noted, allowed us to ignore the fact our enemies are human. 

I threw this out: “Next time you see someone you don’t like, say: ‘I hate that human being.’ It doesn’t work.”

I said I despised labels. But who could think of one? Every year I worried some parent would see this day’s notes and flip. The examples poured out: nigger, fag, gook, bitch, jock, nerd.

“Yeah,” I interjected, “let’s pick on him. He’s a nerd!” I asked someone to tell me what made a nerd a nerd.

Oliver and Kayla both said nerds were weak. That’s two “N-words” now.

“Oh! Even better! Let’s pick on the weak!” I added scornfully. We were back to the boy on the bus. Students who knew they were guilty of such behavior were already shifting in their seats.

Then we moved to the final steps of the lesson. We raised the maps and movie screen. The kids came forward and looked at pictures of the Holocaust. There were young children being rounded up, Stars of David upon their sleeves. There was a grandmotherly-type looking straight into the camera. “Look: she seems like the type who’d bake cookies for the grand kids.

“Dangerous,” I scoffed.

Another picture showed a house painted with the word: “Jude.” “Notice,” I told my class, “you can walk down the street and say, ‘I hate those Jews!’ You don’t even have to see them to hate them.”

“We do the same,” Antoinette replied. “We label people according to skin color and don’t think.” 

I nodded agreement.

Antoinette was staring at a photo of a long trench filled with emaciated corpses. Tears started. Her friend tugged her arm and led her to her seat. Students were subdued when I sent them back to their places. The bell was about to ring and we would pick up on the subject the next day. 

I used this lesson plan for twenty-five years and it never failed. Then, one day, I heard something completely unexpected. Susie spoke up, one of my favorite students, but still plain-looking and gawky at thirteen. The lesson was finished. The bell was about to ring. Classmates were thinking about labeling and the cruelty that inevitably follows. Susie had her hand up. Clearly, she hoped to have the final say. 

I called on her and she explained in an anguished voice, “You know, Mr. Viall, the other kids label me. They call me a ‘dog.’”

For once I was speechless. We all know teens can be cruel. No one had ever exposed this so perfectly, in such timely fashion, in its starkest forms. The word “dog” hung in the air like a Nazi victim on a scaffold.

We had just devoted an entire period to a discussion of human cruelty. Now those who had inflicted pain on Susie saw themselves, as it were, in a mirror. The image reflected wasn’t flattering.

“That is absolutely wrong,” I spluttered, my voice shaking with emotion. I looked to her peers for explanation. Chastened by a victim’s revelation, no one dared utter a word. The bell rang and I stood and stared as Susie’s tormentors snuck out the door and made their escape to lunch. 

The dehumanizers are always dangerous, always evil, and always wrong.
I don't think that's hard to understand.