My team teacher had never met a Jewish person until I came to teach fifth grade. As last semester wound down she remarked to me as she popped open a Diet Dr. Pepper, “I usually read Number the Stars with sixth graders but now that you’re here I feel like we just have to do it, don’t you think?” I stammered out a halfhearted reply as I started in on my sandwich to avoid talking about her plans any further. I needed to mull the idea over more, to think about it alone. On one side of things stood my firm conviction that the Holocaust stands outside of humanity, an event so horrific that an outsider, myself included, cannot fully understand it. I feared that words we use so frequently like murder and even more disturbing companions like exterminate would fail to convey to my students what it meant for six million to die. How could I articulate the need to study not the symbol of Auschwitz but Auschwitz itself? How could I explain something that at times I’m almost numb to after years of being the token Jew?
I scoured for Holocaust curriculums and reread sections from the books I consider authorities to glean some sort of confidence and direction. I finally called my Dad, unsure and burdened, and asked him what he thought of everything. He said what I knew he would. “I don’t have survivor’s guilt. I have survivor’s responsibility. It is our responsibility to do what they could not, to be Jewish and live.”
I’ve heard that from my father’s lips so many times I feel like it’s a part of my bones. But I heard it for the first time then as an adult, as a teacher. I’ve learned so much more about what responsibility means this year. The responsibility as a teacher to care for, protect, encourage, and shape a child’s life has inspired me as much as it has drowned and there I was, trying to reason my way towards inaction because of the burden I knew it could be. But there was my father, echoing Hillel in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, saying: “If I am not for myself, who will be? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”
So Now began in January when my students started to follow Annemarie and Ellen through Lois Lowry’s words and in February when my father came to my classroom to tell the story of his family and their deaths at Sobibor. It flowed through our conversations in March and their obsessions with reading about Anne Frank and their awe of Schindler. There were tears in April as Bruno and Shmuel were gassed in their striped pajamas and a profound solidarity and silence on Yom HaShoah. In May I thought we would be done, their interest shifted, and yet I see them with their noses shoved in books on Liberation and their cursive practice sentences about propaganda. They preform historical reenactments on the playground, the monkeybar twisted into a cattle car and the climbing wall a gas shower. They call out to each other playing math games in chat rooms in computers, “The password’s ‘jew’, no caps!” and beg for Jewish names. Yael, Aaron, and Dvora take over my class and I wonder if they understand as much as I pray that they do.
And then this week, a fourth grader is caught in the bus line with a swastika drawn on his hand. And David, Oskar Schindler in the playground reenactments, is immediately joined by Dajia, my sweet Tzipporah, and a whole crew of fifth grade justice seekers explaining: “Don’t you know what that means? Hitler killed six million Jews for no reason! We can’t let that happen ever again.”
Never again. They understand. My babies, in their infinite nugget wisdom, understand.