• This is a reply to my first reply

  • Michael Franke wrote a new post 9 years ago

    As you read Sondra’s book, please pause at least two times to record your thoughts, responses, questions or queries. If it fits, copy out a passage that speaks to you. Write about your own reactions or tell your […]

    • It was suggested that we post our responses as we read. This may be challenging for me, as I usually revise my thoughts/opinions as I read. So this is a warning that I may contradict myself in later posts!

      On pg. 7, Andrea’s question, “How can one be a whole human being in the classroom [by stating his or her attitudes and moral views]?” really resonated with me. Ms. Perl had assigned a text which discusses teaching as a moral and intellectual endeavor. Teachers in Austria were taught to be neutral and not discuss their beliefs, and they were grappling with this text. I struggle with this as well. I teach in a conservative Catholic environment, where I am employed “at will.” This means we can be dismissed at any time for statements or actions which contradict the teachings of the church, whether during the school day or “off the clock.” I often wonder how we can teach authentically when we are not allowed to be authentic ourselves?

      I was also struck by Margret’s letter on page 36, in which she writes,”circumstances in my school are so difficult that only a small number of my students will profit right away from the work we do. For the others it’s like opening a small window through which they do not yet dare look…Maybe one day they’ll think of the work we’ve done together, and it will become meaningful for them.” So many of us teachers (especially middle school!) live in this space. It is often difficult to see the effects of our teaching; we can only have faith and hope that we are getting through to our students. I often think of it as taking steps in the dark. It’s nice to know that I am not alone in the dark!

      • I was also drawn to the same passage when she includes that “a much more wholesome educational situational is created when the teacher is a live person” and not “[trying] to post as a completely objective person” for precisely the same reason. I often feel like I pushing down my real self when teaching–not because I am terribly controversial, but because I don’t feel free to express my own opinion if it wavers even slightly from church teaching. My job is literally on the line. It can be stifling, so the idea that these teachers found being yourself as a negative surprised me.

      • And isn’t authenticity at the heart of quality teaching? Each of the teachers who have resonated with me in my life did their work as an outpouring of who each was as an individual. The outpouring showed naturally as curiosity, passion, experience, and ultimately as empathy, support, compassion. When we tap into this authenticity, we succeed. When we push it aside, we fail. I believe this is a big part of the magic of Sondra’s book. Her actions as a teacher grow from her authentic wondering, her authentic questions, her authentic discussions. Your work situation sounds frustrating.

    • This book is really starting to cause my teaching to shift in a positive way. Because Dr. Perl and her students had enough courage to ask the difficult questions, I feel that I can too. When I first started reading, I was envious of her ability to speak authentically to her students. Then I realized that fear and concern about my teaching environment had caused me to repress myself more and more in the classroom. When we become cut off from our authentic selves in the classroom, we become smaller and smaller. We lose empathy for our students, and become rule-enforcing automatons. Eventually, as Dr. Perl says on page 95, we become “an absence, …not at all genuinely present.” I just needed to reclaim my own voice, and to integrate the personal life that was so cut off from my school life. It has been as simple as changing writing prompts to involve issues that matter to my students, and opening up to share my own views and vulnerabilities. I also created a blog in which we read an article, post our views, and offer feedback to each other. It is empowering for all of us! All this has happened since I began reading “On Austrian Soil,” and it has made all the difference. I realized how much I wanted that open and honest dialogue with my students that Dr. Perl had, and that I just needed the courage to claim it.

    • This is my second time reading Sondra’s book. (I read it last year while attending the Montana satellite seminar.) I approached it this time with the intention of going more slowly and deeply through it. The first thing that struck me was on the early page xiii of the Introduction, near the bottom when Sondra mentions students and teachers coming “face-to-face with the question of their responsibility not only to the past but also to the future.” I believe we are all faced with that challenge; and making both teachers and students aware of it by our own actions and involvement in these topics can be a risky venture – people are on their own journeys and depending on where they are in the process, they may not be ready for such a challenge.
      As Sondra continues on p. xiv, “hatred is rooted deeply in the soil that we call our own…families…cultures …allegiance…prejudice is perpetuated by the stories we repeat.” This land connection is abundantly evident here in the United States, in every single state, where a mixture of American Indian words and names remain on the land, cohabiting with the names of genocidal perpetrators intent on ridding the land of these very same people.
      At some point in our lives, we become aware – or are made aware – of these atrocities, and the less than honorable history of our world’s leaders, our own nation’s “forefathers” (I put that in quotations because it implies a ‘parenthood’ of this land came ‘before’ something else – namely, The U.S. of A. It seems, to me, to completely ignore the indigenous people who were here for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the explorers and colonists. But I digress!) To connect with what the other two writers have posted, once we are aware of the truth of history we are faced with having to decide what we do with that knowledge. I really appreciated the inclusion of Perrone’s “hopeful vision” on p. 6 and hope to find a copy of ‘A Letter to Teachers’ so I can read the entire text.

      • Dear Sally, Robin and Merry,
        Thank you for being the first summer participants to respond to On Austrian Soil. That, alone, takes a certain kind of courage and sharing of your voices. I know it’s a busy time of year and others may not yet be reading the book — but, again, thanks for starting us off.
        Having taught at the college level for a rather long time, I have always had the freedom to speak without facing serious consequences. It sounds as if the situation in Catholic schools is far more complicated. But, to me, it makes Sally’s shift in the past week or so all the more stunning and exciting. I would hope that all classrooms can be places for the sharing of real voices without jobs being threatened, without having to adhere to a ‘party line,’ and it sounds as if you, Sally, have found that middle ground.
        Merry raises a related question about speaking truth — about facing the history of our own country. Her view is one that is often silenced as well.
        I look forward to continuing these discussions as the responses accumulate here and then face to face in New York.

    • I’m through to Sondra’s follow-up visit to Austria that ends with Horst’s tour. I am feeling pulled in quite a few directions. I’ve made careful notes of the pedagogical queues that I can and will apply to my own teaching as I move on to teaching older students next year. From the outset, I appreciate Sondra’s candor as the books opens in not knowing exactly how she should or would feel when going to Austria in relation to her Jewish identity. When she decides to bring her inquiry into the classroom, I am thinking to myself, “Sondra, are you sure? Is this fair to the students? Margret seems like a special case.” Not because I don’t agree with her need to know, but because I am sympathetic to what I suspect will be an unexpected turn in the course for the students. I am with her, I want her to be heard, and I want to hear what these students have to say. While I understand some of the student’s reactions, plaudits to Sondra who works so carefully to establish balance and respect in the classroom. One line that sticks with me after she makes the decision to share her feelings about being in Austria with her class is “this is the what we risk when we teach with such openness. We can make room for differences of opinion here, can’t we?” Later she says, “This, to me, is dialogue. One does not accuse. Instead, one invites others to engage in a discussion of meaning.” Continually, she goes back to a mutual respect and truly listening. I keep thinking to myself it’s so basic, but so often neglected. I’m looking forward to reading her student’s responses.

    • Pg. 43
      “… do you really think we can separate our research questions from who we are as people?”

      pg. 47
      Bissex quoting Konrad: “You must love your animal before you can study it.”

      I spent many years struggling with a deep internal conflict. I have always been drawn to darkness, whether through a fascination with Stephen King as a teenager, or thoroughly enjoying exposing my juniors to Gothic horror stories. Yet, when it came to the Holocaust and other genocides, I was always ashamed. I was embarrassed to admit that I was interested in the Holocaust – though when I was in high school that term was only beginning to be used. I was bothered that genocide engrossed me. I felt that there must be something wrong with me – that I was sick in some way – that I was fascinated with the topic.
      Over the years, I questioned myself and tried to keep this inside. I would research and find I had more questions than when I started. The more I read, the more I had to know. The more I knew, the more it bothered me. There was something disturbing that sickened me, and I knew it was important, but people didn’t talk about it in polite conversation. As a result, I continued to be reluctant to acknowledge this openly. Friends, family, and colleagues would ask about my interests, and I would easily reply with comments about literacy, novels, football, astronomy, hiking… I didn’t include the Holocaust, genocide, or human rights abuses unless the conversation had started in that direction already.
      It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s, through a series of coincidental events, that it finally struck me. I can’t identify the point at which it occurred; there was no “AHA” moment that I can recall, no epiphany. Nonetheless, it slowly became clear to me that my interest wasn’t because there was something aberrant in my mind, but because genocide kept occurring and there was something wrong across the globe. There was something in me that yearned to understand so that I could do something about it. I knew that somewhere there were people who would understand this and not judge me because I was reading books about these awful atrocities. Not surprisingly, it took a while to find like-minded people.
      As I was reading Dr. Perl’s memoir, when I came across the quotes above, they resonated with me strongly. Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education are parts of who I am. If I am to be authentic in the classroom, with my colleagues, and family, then this is something they should know abut me. I am a vocal advocate for social justice, trying to close the empathy gap, and education that encompasses uncomfortable topics. I can’t say that I “love” the Holocaust or genocide; I am passionate though. If I want to stand against hatred and violence, then I must understand where it comes from, how it evolves, and what it looks like. If I am unwilling to immerse myself in those deep waters, how could I ever ask others to?

      • Wow! Bravo, Jeff. Kudos to you for being courageous enough to share those thoughts. (Helps me understand my fascination with things like Alfred Hitchcock movies, and murder mysteries, etc. It’s a need to understand why people choose those paths, not because I want to walk the paths myself.) Again, thanks for sharing that.

      • Jeff,

        I also appreciate your comments, as someone who also is drawn to dark books. Unlike you, I haven’t had a difficult time sharing my attraction to these types of books or topics. I do notice the surprised look on people’s faces when i share certain books but I quickly add that I am fascinated with trying to understand what could cause humans to do certain actions. I am interested in the psychology. I guess somewhere in me I believe that the more I understand the more I can help students, people, my own children, or those around me and prevent in some way the darkness I read about.
        I look forward to exchanging book recommendations though.

    • So, as I begin the journey of reading the memoir and have read many of your reflections here, I am struck by two things in particular. First, I so appreciate the candor with which the memoir is written. Sondra’s honesty about her struggles, feelings, and observations have completely drawn me into her story. I find myself wondering, “What would I do?” in any given situation, or “How would I respond to Margaret’s story if it were me?”

      It is this candor that leads me to reflect most deeply on the question raised in the beginning of the story about the connection between education and morality. I without hesitation believe the two are intimately and inextricably linked, yet the larger looming question of “How do you teach morality?” is one that I do not feel qualified to answer. I find myself deeply contemplating this and to continually mull over Andrea’s question on page 7, “ How can one be a whole human being in the classroom?” It would seem that of course we are human beings in the classroom. Each of us brings and shares unique talents with our students. But the idea of being a “whole human being” is a different one entirely. In reflecting on my own personal experience, and on what Sondra, Sally, and Robin have shared, I have been forced to reflect on how much of myself I share or don’t share with my students. When I think about my teaching experiences with young children, versus public high school, versus the all-girls Catholic high school where I am working now, if I am honest, as Sondra is in her story, I must say I have never felt ENTIRELY myself. With younger children, there are only parts of you that are shared. And while I have had some experience and frustration as expressed by Sally and Robin about not agreeing fully with Church teachings and what “not” to say, I can also say that teaching in public school I was not entirely myself either, denying the religious part of my person. As a deeply liberal person politically and yet a religious person, I have not fit in securely in any environment in or out of the classroom.

      So this reflection has led me to think about Sondra’s risk-taking and when she shares truths about herself with her students. I know that those moments when I have taken the risks and been most genuinely myself with my students are the “magic moments.” When I am vulnerable to my students and they are vulnerable to me – these are the moments in time when my students and I have connected so deeply that it transcends the classroom experience and TRUE learning happens. But knowing this, I keep contemplating “Why is it such a struggle to be ourselves?” So I continue to contemplate these things, and read on…

      • Dear Angie and Jeff,
        You both raise such important questions, ones that I would find difficult to respond to in the short space available here. I do expect that we can address them when we meet so for now will only say that for me ‘being authentic’ does not necessarily mean revealing everything one thinks and feels so much as being as open and honest as the situation allows in one’s way of responding to students. It’s a stance as well as an operating principle. Does that make sense?
        And, Jeff, I never thought about the Konrad Lorenz quote as it relates to the Holocaust as a subject of study. I agree that one could never ‘love’ the Holocaust nor ‘love’ the perpetrators. But I agree that one can embrace the questions raised by their behavior and find meaning in exploring them.
        To be continued….

      • Angie, I found something very comforting yet deeply poignant about your response. I appreciate that you added another dimension — having to deny your spirituality when your worked in a public school. It is easy for me to blame the conservative environment in which I teach for the difficulty I felt feel in being authentic in the classroom. The truth is that so many of us feel so divided. Our political viewpoints may not comfortably contained within a specific religious framework,or we may feel that we are “between” two religious traditions. Even when we are being authentic and vulnerable, it may not be possible to connect with others 100% of the time. We need to hope and wait for those “magic moments,” as you describe them. I have read through your response at least a half a dozen times and find that it explains something that I have not yet been able to express in words.

    • Dear Michael, I have a little problem, I submitted my response a few minutes ago but I can’t see it. What could be the problem? Thanks for your help. Peter

    • At present I am reading that part of the book when Sondra is travelling back to the USA after her first visit in Austria. In the first two chapters there were two moments that have had such a great effect on me.
      The first one is when she gets ont he plane on 28 June and during the journey the names of the cities appear ont he map first in German and then in English. Then she remembers her mother’s voice saying: (now I’d like to quote) ’We’re Jews. If we had been born there instead of here, we would have been herdedinto cattle cars and sent to the camps.’
      And then come those pictures and feelings about the Holocaust to her mind and she tries to convince herself that the Austrian people cannot do anything, and anyway 50 years have passed since then. But suddenly another of her mum’s sentence comes upon her: ’No matter what they say or do, no matter how stunning their accomplishments in art, music, and philosophy, within every German, every Austrian, lies a Nazi in disguise.’
      In my opinion this inner struggle deeply determined the next period of time in Austria, her attitude towards the Austrian/German people. She really had to try to get the numerous prejudices over. What’s more, after meeting them for the first time, her mum’s words came to her mind once again when she was talking to her in her imagination. ’What did you expect? You are working with the children or the grandchildren of Nazis, says my mother’s voice. Have you told them you are a Jewish? If I knew, would they still rap their knuckles with such enthusiasm?
      This is not an issue, I respond. Almost everyone in the room looks younger than I, and I was born after the war. There teachers in front of me are not responsible for what happened.
      Well, their parents were alive then, she replies. Your father was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. Their parents could easily be my age. What did their parents or even their grandparents do?
      But Mother, I answer, I have not come here to accuse them. I have come to teach them.’
      The poem on the next page was also so staggering for me that is the manifestation of the same feeling. But later (and now I am jumping in time) it was heartwarming to read another poem on page 26 that showed me that she has gone through such a big inner change, after getting to know her students thoroughly, revealing her Jewish origin after a long agony and confessing that she had had prejudies against the Austrians.
      Margaret’s personality and their relationship were also quite interesting for me. Her very first reaction in connection with Sondra’s Jewish origin really touched me yet I didn’t even know her personal story. Then in the second chapter I got to know Margaret’s family and past. It was quite instructive to read this family history because personally I have known several similar stories from Hungary too. And I have also met people from my age, who are in their early forties or a bit older ones in their fifties who have gone through similar inside struggles like Margaret. In addition, Hungary came under Russian influence after World War II. It led to conflicts and oppositions in a lot of Hungarian families because the generation that was born right before the war or not long after it couldn’t accept their parents’ views, who looked back on the authoritarian system before the war with something like nostalgy andbecause of this they, the new generation, became more susceptive to the communist idea. Finally I found Margarte’s poem on page 28 really tragic in which she faced her past and herself too.

      • Dear Peter,
        Thank you for responding and for attempting to trace my own fears and thoughts as I began this sojourn into Austria and into my own mind and heart. It does ultimately become a story of change across generations. I also appreciate your bringing the Hungarian perspective to bear on all of this and look forward to hearing more from you and Marianna about how the Holocaust was understood, misunderstood, denied, distorted and reclaimed in your country. You are surely bringing new voices to our table this summer and we look forward to welcoming both of you as we begin this difficult inquiry.

    • In the second chapter, my thoughts were parallel to Sondra’s as she was climbing and reflecting on her homes. On p. 21, when Sondra writes “‘the big house,’ as we called it, was too big”, it was like an echo in my head of something from my own childhood I have told to people. When I was about ten, my family moved from a cracker box sized house – where all five of us girls shared a bedroom and my two brothers shared another downstairs – to a big spacious house. I often associated that move with the disintegration of our family. As an adult, of course, I understand it had more to do with other factors such as my dad’s alcoholism and maybe just the general challenges of sustaining a marriage and a family. But as a kid, I felt that house just gave us room to grow apart. Later in the chapter (p. 25) when Sondra speaks from her thirteen year old self, I also heard my own young girl voice, wondering how and why people could do such things. And knowing that my family name was German, and hearing some of my father’s racist comments about Blacks, American Indians, etc. made me also wish I was someone else – and having no idea who that would be or how I’d go about creating her.

    • I’m currently in the middle of chapter 6 reading the letters but a few things struck me in the first half of the book. As many others who have posted so far, I also appreciate the openness of how these memoirs are written because it is a true reflection of feelings which I think makes works more powerful. It puts me in that person’s mindset where I am attempting to understand what is being felt and trying to find a way to relate to it. When I wrote my blog about my HAJRTP experience last year, I was complemented on my openness but I feel like that’s the only way I can communicate and help people understand what I’m trying to say. It’s also more effective in the classroom because the students can sense that this is something that’s important to me so it piques their interests more.

      This openness also ties in with the concept of teachers being human beings in the classroom which the Austrian teachers seemed to struggle with. This section of the book resonated with me because I try to be a human being when I teach because I can tell the difference when I’m portraying that side and when I’m not. In teaching Sociology and parts of American History, I really get into the things that affect my students as well as myself and those are the concepts they tend to understand and engage in better. However, with other parts, I feel like the Austrian teachers where I feel restricted to telling them what I’m supposed to tell them. Being in the South, it is especially difficult sometimes to break away from the standards because much of what is covered is uncomfortable to talk about (slavery, etc.) and sometimes there’s a backlash from administration and parents. I have more freedom with Sociology and I think the students get more out of that because I can cover a wide range of concepts in a manner where I can be myself and the students can still learn what they are supposed to and enjoy doing so.

      I also liked how the teachers began opening up more as the seminars went on. One thing that did strike me was the response to the Holocaust in Austria in general. I’m not sure if that’s the case today but it really struck me as odd because I expected the response to be same as it is in Germany. It’s still an uncomfortable subject for many but whenever my mom shares her experiences about being in school and being taken to concentration camps to learn about the past, I get a sense that at least there’s some educating going on. I really appreciate Sondra’s openness to talk about who she is and her personal feelings to the group. Sharing feelings isn’t always easy to do but when people are honest, whether others like it or not, they’re respected more and definitely hold my attention. I also thought it was great to give the teachers the option to join her as she tries to answer her own questions. Going on that walk was something that needed to happen in my opinion. I think back to something that was discussed regarding teachers and how they should never stop learning. Continually gaining knowledge is something that everyone should do, especially teachers. It not only enhances their knowledge but it allows them to communicate what they learn to others in a manner where they have more of an emotional connection which is felt by others. I think the walk was probably very uncomfortable for many but in reading the letters so far, I can see the importance of the walk because it now opens the door for people to talk about their feelings and wanting to know more. I will continue to read on to see if this opens up more dialogue not only with Sondra but in the classrooms with their students as well.

      • Reggie – I liked what you had to say about 2 things: the time it took for Sondra’s students to open themselves up to talking about the difficult history, and the importance of that frozen walk. I often want that level of disclosure, trust, and openness in my students early in the year, and have to force myself to give them time to be more willing to share as the year progresses. It does happen, but I thought Sondra’s approach of really trying to let them tell her when they were ready to move forward or share was effective – she seemed more patient than I ever am. Also, I really felt the cold during the entire scene of the walk, and I think it spoke to the group’s desire to understand something that was important to Sondra, even if at that point they didn’t yet connect it to its importance in their own lives.

      • I agree that it struck me as unusual that these experiences were not talked about in Austria, and then I wondered where else in the world has this happened on a mass scale and nobody talks about it? Is it human nature to bury and ignore the past? What part of the psyche does that protect, both individually and collectively?

      • Reggie and Natalie,

        Perhaps due to technology allowing so many people to have a lot of information readily available education and talking about uncomfortable topics happens more often. It’s a lot more difficult to hide images and stories about atrocities. l connected your comments to the internment camps for people of Japanese ancestry in the US. This topic was not covered in school and we had internment camps here in Idaho. The topic was not discussed and it has only been recently that more stories are surfacing. I read an interview by Dr. James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told me, where he says as Americans it is difficult to discuss our history of being a perpetrator or oppressor but we definitely want others to talk about being perpetrators and oppressors, such as the Germans. Perhaps this doesn’t only apply to Americans. I think of the times I have been a perpetrator or a bystander and find it difficult to confront. There is so much to learn from going through the process of naming moving forward proactively but as Sondra teaches us, it doesn’t simply happen It’s a process.

    • Let me begin by admitting I was actually relieved that my first attempt to post here was unsuccessful. I am quite intimidated by the task and the subject matter of the book. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I am in awe of Sondra Perl and what she brings to her classroom, plus the insights she gains from her students’ writings. And so I g=begin with a caveat that this may be just a snapshot of where I am at this point in time, not having been able to process what I have read from the book in any real way!

      The book came to me as a total surprise. I anticipated reading a memoir like Five Chimneys for this summer seminar but On Austrian Soil blindsided me completely. As soon as I read the Introduction, my initial reaction was “What have I gotten myself into”–but don’t take that in a negative way. Sure there were feelings of inadequacy, not being a writing teacher, and I was not expecting this to be more about teaching, relationships, personal narrative, and less about Holocaust history. But at the same time I am thrilled to be presented with this new challenge and am eager to explore these areas as I continue to evolve in my role in the classroom.

      I have always felt the split between being one who transmits knowledge in a classroom and providing opportunities for personal growth. Spoon-feeding information so students can perform well on an assessment is vastly different from the responsibility we have as educators to foster learning lifelong lessons about citizenship and responsibility. “What does it mean to teach? In what ways is teaching an ethical act? How can one be a full human being in the classroom?” (34). These words and of course the Vito Perrone quotation, “Education at its best is first and foremost a moral and intellectual endeavor”(6). These questions and the Perrone quotation have given me much to reflect on in the month or so since I first read them.

      • Patrick, I am right there with you in so many ways. I also don’t know what I was expecting when I first received On Austrian Soil. But, I have been so moved by the frank openness and genuine reflection of Sondra’s book. I am a writing teacher, but I still feel some of the hesitations that you do. I write often with my students. I occasionally write on my own time. But, one topic I have never really breached in my writing: the Holocaust. And I have no clue why. It makes absolutely no sense as I have so much passion for the importance of Holocaust education and so much of my reading life is devoted to Holocaust reading. I am also looking forward to being pushed in this way. It certainly seems that we both are stepping in the right direction this summer. Looking forward to talking with you.

    • I am one of those ‘unfortunates’ whose reflections were lost in the ‘Great Site Security Upgrade of 2015’. Hopefully, I can make up for that now, rewriting what couldn’t be digitally recovered.

      I am about halfway through On Austrian Soil, and while there are many ideas and issues that have caught my attention, two stand out for me particularly — both as a Theology and Philosophy teacher, and as my school’s Campus Minister. One relates to the question of whether we can teach morality in the classroom, and the other is about Margret’s statement about her Granny’s efforts at assistance during the war.

      The question comes up early — should we teach morality in our classrooms? My course, required for all of our students at the Junior level, is called Morality. Clearly, my opinion on this as necessity is going to be slanted. Margret later asks, in her journal writings, whether we can teach empathy, and unfortunately, the answer is NO. In learning to make moral decisions, and to be able to intellectually understand WHY we make the decisions that we do, we need to realize that every choice we make, in every circumstance, has serious consequences that change the further paths and choices we, and others around us, have to make; every choice changes the course of our history. Every choice of A or B, this or that, means that we hold our choices up as the best possible decision for action in a particular, concrete situation. This belongs in EVERY classroom, since we have to ask our students to make such decisions throughout every step of their lives: buying from this vendor or that one, wearing clothing made in this place or in that one, serving our families milk from these cows or those.

      On the other hand, empathy cannot be taught. learning to make choices between good and bad, right and wrong, is — in large part — an intellectual enterprise. Being able to empathize deals with one’s emotional and spiritual state, and while study can awaken it, it can not cause it to be.

      In this vein, Margret states that, “Granny did all she dared to. It was not much.” Giving bread to the Jewish prisoner was a real act of defiance, and took both real courage in making and holding up a choice as morally right, for others to see. One should not underestimate the power of ‘not much’ — a lesson which I try to teach to my students on their Sophomore Retreat — a level called ‘Corinth’ after St. Paul’s letter, about the meaning of love of neighbor. One of the stories that I recount for the kids there is called “Not Much”, and it, too, takes place during World War II, in a German concentration camp. Four Polish POWs are being forced to make munitions for the German fighter planes, and when the SS guards aren’t looking, these four men don’t fill them with gunpowder. In one such shell, they placed a note stating what they were doing, and that they knew it wasn’t much, but it was all they could do, in doing the right thing and staying alive while doing so. The crew of an American bomber was hit by these empty shells, and when they returned to their airfield, in Britain, they inspected them and found the note. Their moral act of ‘not much’ made a great difference, both then and now, as my students consider their actions so many years later. ‘Not much’ is a moral choice that makes others take notice, and changes the course of history.

      • I have goosebumps from your phrase “the power of not much.” Sometimes, it is all we can do…and so much better than nothing.

    • As I started reading “On Austrian Soil”, I connected to Sondra’s complex feelings of identity described in Chapter 2. I read chapter 2 a few weeks ago but I hesitated to write a response about a personal connection. In my mind, for some reason, I wanted to make an academic response. After finishing chapter 5, I realize I need to write about my personal connection because it influences so much of what I do as a teacher. In particular the following words stirred something within me.

      p. 21 – “Someone’s mother would stare at me too long. Someone’s brother would joke that Jews had horns. I didn’t know what to do with my discomfort, except to pretend it didn’t exist.”

      p. 25 – “…realize that years ago a complicated dynamic entered my inner life: revulsion for the Jew-haters alternated with revulsion for the Jews.”

      p. 26 – “If he were alive, could I explain to him that I loved the world of immigrant Jews he wished to escape? That his financial success, however well deserved, was also a cause of conflict for me? That in order to be accepted in the Short Hills of my youth, I felt I needed to blend in? That like Eva, the protagonist of my childhood fears and dreams, I, too, felt compelled to remake myself in the image of Christian schoolmates?

      Nahuatl is the language of the Aztec people. Nepantla is a Nahuatl word used by the Aztecs referring to a space between two worlds. As an adult, I learned many Chicano people use Nepantla to describe the complex feelings of living in cultures with constant contradictions in language, religion, social etiquette, politics, and education. Like Sondra, I pretended the discomfort didn’t exist because I didn’t know what to do. When I was 10 years old my family visited my father’s hometown in Mexico. This was also the place I was raised and lived the first 5 years of my life. It felt like home. However, I was somewhat rejected by my peers. I spoke differently than they did. I pronounced words differently. They said I spoke Spanish with an accent! My skin was too light in complexion. I dressed “American” and acted “American” too. They said I was not Mexican. I was so confused. In the US some peers made fun of me for pronouncing some English words differently and using phrases incorrectly. My skin was too hard in complexion. I dressed differently. I acted “Mexican”. They said I was not American. I felt I didn’t belong here nor there. I lived in the state of Nepantla.

      As our country becomes more diverse, how many of our students will relate to the feelings described by Sondra? How can I help my students process these complex emotions? I can’t depend on their parents to help them because for many, as for my parents, they can’t relate. Perhaps sharing similar texts to students, providing purposeful writing prompts to respond and connect to such texts, and creating a platform for dialogue within my classroom is a start.

      • I was thinking something so similar. When I speak/teach about the Holocaust to my students, I try to emphasize that we are not only studying a historical human catastrophe, but how to we relate the behaviors, the actions, and the outcomes to our lives today. I find with younger students (middle school) that come to the topic thinking the Holocaust happened over a number of days versus years. Their bias is to focus on the atrocities of the camps, but it’s essential to pull them back the underlying prejudice and behaviors that caused so many to participate or look the other way.

        • Hello to all of you who have been responding recently,

          I am writing to you from Innsbruck where I am sitting at a beautiful wooden dining table in Margret’s home. It’s so odd to be here, in June of 2015, and to have this doulbe perpsective: the one you are reading about and responding to in the book and the one I carry today.
          I think that everyone who has written so far (Robin, Patrick, Reggie, Stefani, Cecilia, Natalie, Kate and others I have already responded to) is writing about identity and how we embrace or at times reject or hide who we are, especially when it can be the cause for ridicule or resentment. This also leads to how much we can be ourselves in the classroom: when it is appropriate and when it doesn’t fit. In OAS, I probed these issues and struggled with them. Now, many years later, they have become who I am and no longer burden me. In other words, writing about this time in my life and living into it has allowed me to grow into who I am today.
          This story and the book you are reading led me to create the Holocaust Educators Network — and to share these perspectives with you. It may be, I realize, as Patrick mentioned, more than you originally expected when you applied to attend a seminar on the Holocaust. I do ask you to think hard about what it means to teach — not only about the Holocaust — but about how we live today, about what we transmit to our students, about the kind of classrooms we create and whether they are humane places where all voices are welcomed.
          Innsbruck today looks much the same as it did when I first traveled here. The old town, the snow capped mountains, the Inn River all remain the same. But what scared me then no longer scares me. I feel as if I am now a different person, one who embraced the questions I asked in the book and have used them to guide my teaching.
          In other words, since I wrote the book, much has also changed in my life. This story in many ways began with my mother. She died seven months ago. And as I sit here in Innsbruck with church bells ringing across the valley, I am both back in the past and here in the present, knowing that as much as my own life has changed, the questions I asked still call me. I look forward to discussing them soon in person.

          • Sondra, how exciting for you to be back there so close to the time when we will all be traveling to meet you! My heart is happy for you and Margret. I have a similar friendship/collegial relationship with my Assistant Principal, whom we have recently been informed by our school district is being moved to another site. I am feeling grieved and distressed, and thinking we will have to begin an email dialogue as well! Please greet Margret for me – I feel as if I know her, too.
            Merry

            • I often feel as if Margret is very much a part of my teaching and of our summer seminar. Thanks to you and Donna for including her in your thoughts. See you soon…

        • Robin, thank you for that part of your response where you said, “it’s essential to pull them back to the underlying prejudice and behaviors that caused so many to participate or look the other way.” I’ve been so scattered while trying to decide for sure on the lesson plan I will share in NY. I am the type of person who always wants to know where something came from…and I will dig and dig to get some little piece of the root that will help my understand something more deeply. I kept wondering if it was too simplistic an activity! Your statement helped me feel better about what I’m going to share with all of you, because it speaks to the very differences in perspective that set up the conflicts between American Indians and settler society. Thanks for the little sigh of relief you provided! Merry

    • On p. 118, Sondra makes “an important distinction between therapy and teaching. Writing teachers are not therapists and need to know when to send students who reveal troubling issues for help.” This certainly struck a chord with me, especially given two situations that have arisen just in the past two weeks.

      I have my juniors keep a composition book for my Sacramental Living class and often have them complete reflection assignments about given topics related to our study. Three to four times a year, in fact twice recently, students disregard the directions and topics and use their journal to reveal something that is weighing heavily on their mind or something that is going on in their lives. Recently, a junior “P.Q.” revealed that she is being physically and mentally abused by her father. Another young lady, “C.T.” wrote extensively about her struggles with issues regarding sexual identity. In both cases, as with other issues in the past, I immediately share their writing with our school counselors, people who do have the qualifications and contacts to get the students assistance. I certainly am not trained to be a counselor or social worker, but these students confided in me and I have a duty not to just pass them off to somebody else. I try to communicate my concern and offer to continue to be an outlet for them to disclose what they have kept secret for so long–all the while being up front about making sure we keep counselors informed.

      At the same time, Andrea’s writing struck a chord with me, “What right do I have as a teacher to release students most personal inner agonies when they can’t be dealt with?” I think we all face the challenge she raises “listening carefully enough to know how each student feels, in a class of thirty? (117)–times five or six periods with numbers over 150 total. I can’t solve P.Q. problems with the abusive dad, or qualm the fears C.T. has in revealing her identity to her parents, and how could I possibly know of the many other burdens these students carry? Is it enough to be a listening ear, a prayer partner, a concerned adult who can only point them in the direction of those trained to help?

      Christa’s comment on p. 163, “rarely could I glimpse the adolescent girl behind the facade of growing language competence” is so true. With so many carrying so much baggage, how could they possibly expect to be focused? Perhaps it is a good thing that I am not privy to all the challenges they face, how could I function in the classroom at all? Then again, as a dissatisfied Christa who was looking to do more remarked, “The neat and clear-cut curricula were a well-loved safety net.” Our well designed learning objectives needs to reflect more than just course content.

      Chista’s comment

      • Patrick, I had similar thoughts as I was reading this passages. DO I really want to know about the students’ problems, am I equipped to deal with them? When I tend towards not wanting to know is that because I want to protect myself? That while teaching writing classes where I talk about the power of writing to help one think through different issues, academic and personal. One way in which I mitigate the fact that I do not know what goes on in students’ lives is to no never make assumptions, (Parker Palmer also takes about issues like this in Courage to Teach). I am trying (this is a work in progress) to not judge a college student’s attendance record, to not assume that an assignment has been missed because of laziness or indifference. I try to reach out to them before it is too late in the semester to do anything. I say ‘I try’ a lot, I know, because sometimes I fail. I fail especially with the students who do not respond at first, do not want to communicate about what keep them from doing their work.

    • I found myself ordering books this evening, as I continue reading Sondra’s On Austrian Soil:

      Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust

      The Devil That Never Dies: the Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism

      Remembrance and Reconciliation: Encounters Between Young Jews and Germans

      Perhaps I will even have time to begin one of them before coming to the seminar…

    • I am about half-way through “On Austrian Soil”, and the first thing I have to get out there into the world is this: Sondra can write. I have found that in terms of style, organization and just engaging the reader this book is a page turner. I’m finding myself stopping every three pages or so because I need to corner someone around me and share what I’ve read. I’d like to take this opportunity to write and reflect about chapter 2, which I found to be very engaging indeed.
      I have thoroughly enjoyed the approach to identity the book takes: the identity of the author, Sondra’s first attempts at seeking to know more about the identity of the writers she is engaging with as well as the impact their writing course could potentially have on the pedagogy of everyone involved. I was expecting a book about the Holocaust, and, well, I haven’t really been surprised, but I have been pleasantly surprised to see writing as a space to engage and sort out problems as a way to bring people together. I have often found that writing is a fundamentally humanizing process that forces us to both carefully consider our message and also really listen closely to others.
      This was especially apparent in the Austrian teacher who was experiencing significant writing block, and in teaching, it can be very frustrating to try to tease out with someone why words or ideas are not coming. I found Sondra’s description of her approach with them to be both nurturing and inspired by people I love, i.e. Rosenblatt.
      The chapter with the mountain climb was such a gorgeous way to incorporate scenery and setting into the action and thoughts of the memoir. As the teachers struggled to connect with one another they find ease in a space where Sondra had struggled, perhaps the inverse of the classroom writing space. A search for answers, and ultimately, an openness and willingness to stretch out of one’s comfort zone caused some considerable growth and connection. So looking forward to meeting you all, and I will post soon when I have some fresh thoughts and reactions.

      • Thanks, Greg, and everyone else for being such appreciative readers. I feel as if we are all cllimbing mountains — mine was a literal one in chapter 2 — but the teachers in my seminar in Austria were also facing challenges. And I suspect all of us in the Memorial Library program will also be on our own journeys. For some of us, it will come with facing the blank page and needing to be patient to see what it is that stirs in each of us.
        Your comments here have been a wonderful beginning to our shared inquiry about teaching and learning and about the place of writing within it.
        I find that learning how to listen to one another (and bringing this way of attending to others into a classroom) is an important first step toward building what I want to call ‘a pedagogy of hope.’
        More soon….

      • Greg,
        I have also been pleasantly surprised by the direction of this book. So much of what has grown from this experience evolved through writing. It is as you say, “a space to engage and sort out problems as a way to bring people together”. This memoir serves as a reminder to create a culture of writing within each of our classrooms above all else.
        I have often stated my pedagogy as one of invitation but through this memoir, Sondra’s response to your entry, and other books I’ve read recently, I plan to add pedagogy of hope and responsive pedagogy.

    • The third chapter also taught me some lessons. It was so touching when Sondra was recalling her youthful memories and confessing that she didn’t want to identify her Jewry and the trip to Insbruck changed it completely. Then she asks the question: ’ How can one be a full human being in the classroom?’ She didn’t give an exact answer for this question but for me it’s obvious: We must give ourselves, be honest and behave without pretence when teaching. We must undertake our identity, opinions and we should expect and even accept the same from our students.
      It was also really affecting to read Sondra’s letter to Margaret in which she wrote about celebrations. I also have a 5-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, and I have never thought about the feeling they would have to process if they saw and heard the traditions and customs of another religion or culture at times of celebrations.
      Then in the fourth chapter it was quite shocking for me to read about her first met and talk with Margaret. When Margaret asked Sondra how much her children know about the Holocaust. In connection with the response a question identifies in me that I have on my mind alt he time while teaching. I teach children from 7th to 12th grades (ages between 12-18). It is always very difficult to decide the time when I am able to involve them in this topic. When are they actually able to absorb and experience this topic? And I really want to ask, Sondra, when and how you told the real truth about these terrible things to your children.

      • That’s a really good question, Peter, and a hard one. I did not want to pass on the fear and prejudice I inheritied but then what could I do or say that would not scar them?
        I am not sure I ever really did teach them about it. We watched movies like Schindler’s List — and as adults they know a great deal about my work — but the Holocaust and what happened in Germany and eastern Europe is not their issue, at least not yet.
        They seem to be open to differences in people in terms of race, class, gender, and sexual preference and they seem to care deeply about the environment.
        Is that enough? Did I do a good enough job?
        I don’t know.

    • I am also just more than half way through the book. In the first chapter I found myself participating in a lot of introspection. I tried to put myself in Sondra’s shoes. Since I am not Jewish, I started searching for an aspect of my identity that would drive me to go through a journey similar to Sondra’s. At the start of this process I felt “blocked”. I could not uncover an aspect of my identity that I questioned with such conviction. However, as I continued to read, I did start to connect with Sondra’s need to question people who lived in a community where hate and violence thrived.

      I started reading the book while on a service learning trip in Arizona with 32 students from New York. Perhaps my setting shaped my frame of mind. Each day I was only sleeping about four hours a night in a traditional Navajo hogan with twelve teenagers, driving about 200 miles a day, doing physical labor for 10 hours alongside my students and savoring each second of my three minute hot shower. When I got to page 53 and read van Manen’s discussion of love it really spoke to me. I do not know that I have ever taken an education class that connects teaching with love. Yet, I think van Manen is right in identifying this variable as a determining factor of a good teacher. It is apparent that a teacher who has a “love of subjects, love of students, passion for learning and reverence for life” make a good teacher and “ultimately, a good human being”.
      Although I felt some dissonance connecting the academic and reputable profession of teaching with the somewhat fickle and fantasy like emotion we call love, it did in some way validate why it is so hard to quantify a good teacher.

      • Michelle, I understand what you mean about love and teaching. I underlined the quote from van Manen concerning love, “One learns to know only what one loves, and the deeper and fuller the knowledge is to be, the more powerful and vivid must be the love, indeed the passion.” I had two responses to this. One, is it possible for me really to know my students without loving them? Two, how much more would my students learn if they loved the subject?

        • Dear Donna and Michelle,
          Is it too corny to say I love this thread on love? Ok. It is. But still. I’ve been teaching for (hard to believe) 44 years. I may not have adored every single class or every single student — but I find that as soon as I enter the room and look out at who is there, I am often entranced. This is especially true at CUNY where the classroom reflects the amazing diveristy of the city. But in other more homogeneous settings as well.

          I look out and see this amazing array of faces — of bodies — of personalities. They all interest me. I am not saying that I have some unusual gift that others don’t have. I am trying to describe what I mean by ‘love.’ I am drawn to the people who enter my classroom — drawn to what they will have to say in response to what we are studying, curious about where they will go with the ideas, the content, the projects. I see the semester as a journey that we will take together. And as the weeks go by, I am usually excited to see what will happen next.

          There may be hard moments, hard topics, missed opportunities. I may feel tired or uninspired at times. But on the whole, there is an underlying interest and pleasure that seems to sustain my practice. Is that not a kind of love?

          One more comment: When I wrote that line years ago about ‘reverence for life,’ I was specificaly thinking about the Nazis who, undoubtedly, did not revere life — or only revered some lives, not all.

          • I was looking at decals for my computer yesterday, and nearly purchased this one: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” (Charles Bukowski) It’s how I feel about my school and the vision we are trying to realize.

    • As I read Sondra’s book, I wrote words that came to mind about her teaching style: honest, transparent, intuitive, sensitive, and vulnerable. Sondra modeled these traits with her students. While I’m sure the setting helped, a small class of adults, the traits were still necessary to make real connections. On page 102 she talked about how powerful it was for her to watch everyone open up. This does not happen in a class unless students feel safe and free of judgment. Looking back, I think it rarely happened with my own students. I’m sure I could come up with lots of reasons or excuses– large classes, eighth grade immaturity, worries about straying from standardized test preparations, but in the end it comes back to the teacher. Do I model acceptance and even love? I put a bracket and a star around Sondra’s words on page 53, “But it is hard to disagree: love of subjects, love of students, passion for learning, and reverence for life–isn’t this what makes a good teacher, and ultimately, a good human being?” I think somewhere along the way I’ve adopted the notion it is okay not to like my students as long as I teach them effectively. Maybe I was wrong.

    • I love Sondra’s words about “absorbing prejudice” and being born in America. I have never heard it put this way and I love the word choice.

      She goes on to say, “But many teachers I know well, particularly white teachers in urban classrooms, also wrestle with their own prejudices knowing that the roots of racism are deep, that they may have to acknowledge and combat racism in themselves before they can really reach their students.”

      I taught in an urban district for six years and have never been able to admit to myself that I was combating these same feelings. This is very difficult to share. I love teaching and I especially love reaching my students on a deeper level, and I know that the feelings I had are not and never have been acceptable.

      Last weekend, I spoke with my mentor, a college professor and friend, about how difficult it can be to teach about civil rights and to be a middle aged white woman from the south. We were not there (most of us), we did not experience it, we did not have the struggles that we are teaching about. How can we reconcile this with ourselves and still teach our students history?

      • Hi Vanessa,
        Just as we use survivor testimony to help students understand the experiences of the camps, I think this is where I turn to Toni Morrison or to other writers of color who are able to convey the experience of racism and slavery.
        It’s here, where we can enter into another’s experience at least through literature or memoir, that dialogue can begin. It’s here, I think, where the connection can begin even if we are separated by skin color — or race — or religion — or sexual preference.
        Do you agree?

        • I teach in a public high school that is a tangled mess of conflicting ideologies — fundamental Christian conservatism alongside LGBT alongside loud Second Amendment advocates alongside DREAMers (students who are undocumented immigrants, or, even more complicated, students who were born in the US to undocumented immigrant parents — parents who are often deported). I am describing faculty AND student body. With each passing year (I just finished my 12th), I feel more emboldened — obligated even — to present my authentic self in the classroom and to my colleagues. I absolutely believe that teaching is a moral act. When Sondra’s students are beginning to discuss their theses, Sondra says, “…when you do your research, you will have to look closely at your students, your classroom, your school, and the social and political contexts in which you teach. You may discover that you have difficult things to say. I hope that you will think hard about what helps students learn and what gets in the way of learning. And in your writing, I hope you will speak with the full force of your own convictions.” I live in a state that is actively hostile toward public education and certain groups of people. Just today a headline reads “State seeks to again allow ADOT to deny licenses to ‘Dreamers’.” Hateful dialogue and legislation surrounds us in Arizona. Here, we cannot afford NOT to approach teaching as a moral act. I am hoping to be able to focus on what helps/hinders learning while speaking the full force of my convictions. Teaching is also an intellectual act. I want to be smart. I want to be smart AND brave.

          • We are experiencing some of the same issues here in Texas as well. The town I live and teach in is die hard conservative and I will tell you that I have not met anyone here that is openly gay. It is just not something that people here do.

            Immigration is a heated issue as well. I loved your comment about being smart and brave. I want to be able to speak up, but in this small town, everyone knows everyone and a few “liberal” words could put my job in jeopardy. I want to learn to be brave because I owe it my students and my own child.

        • Yes, I certainly agree. I believe that many teachers are afraid to even begin that dialogue out of fear. There are so many beautiful and inspiring texts to begin to discuss these feelings and fears.

      • Vanessa,

        I think many teachers are going through what you are experiencing and they ask me those questions as well. It will always be a learning process, especially in the South (I’m in North Carolina), but I applaud your efforts in the classroom. Many educators have difficulties in reconciling these issues and unfortunately some just don’t try. Thank you for trying.

    • I have just finished ‘On Austrian Soil’ a few minutes ago. There is so much I have swirling around in my head… I am unsure where to begin now.

      I think “response-ability” is one place. I feel a sense of both hope and purpose within this idea: being not only ABLE, but PUSHED to fight against silence.

      Silence is a direction I am drawn to, in sharing with my own students the foundational moral principles: the Golden Rule, charity, human dignity, and that no good may come of evil means. I THINK the lesson plans that I provide will deal with my classroom work here. So much of Sondra’s work deals with a ‘culture of silence and denial’ — I feel that this is the greatest moral dilemma for our time, NOT our kids being unaware of history, but of their not having real words to use.

      One of the concepts that I have to deal with in my classes is that morality is never about ‘what-ifs’; it is always about ‘what is’. As victims or perpetrators, we cannot know what we WOULD actually have done, or HOW we actually would have reacted. We can only truly chose our reactions and actions now, moving toward continued open dialogue and awareness of ‘the other’.

      Supporting the other is a moral choice, seeing value and worth in another person/society, even when we cannot clearly relate it to our own life. Opening ourselves more to their perspectives allows us to find similarity though, and that leads to dialogue.

      With this, I am reminded by Sondra’s book of both Rabbi Mohler’s words to my students each school year, and my mother’s words to me over lunch today. Rabbi tells my students about God’s purposes not being fathomable, and that the Shoah, instead of making Jews (as a whole) not want to pray an celebrate, it encourages greater faith in God — faith in other humans had failed because of human hate, but faith in God and His purposes allows us to move forward with hope. My mother reminded me today (I really didn’t NEED a reminder, but I think her words of support in my studies have been meaningful for MANY reasons) that I, “…walk in two worlds.” My family is Judeo-Christian — intermarried on both sides — and I have lived my entire life with education in both traditions and cultures. Perhaps that has assisted with an openness to dialogue, and a desire to share that with my students, that might not otherwise be present in my life.

      • I like what you say about morality being about “what is”. One of the challenges when teaching material like this in the classroom is to encourage students to not assume a position of moral superiority while a the same time thinking ethically. Thinking about “what is” also introduces a kind of moral thought that is not frozen in time and space. As you say, there is choice, the moral/ethical life is to be chosen every day, it is a living function of our lives not a static formula. Maybe people that “walk in two worlds” are better able to see how this works because they have to negotiate between them on an existential rather than a theoretical “what if” level.

      • I like how you speak to making conscience choices in the moment and not spending time on stewing over the “what if’s.” This could be a real challenge for someone with a past-oriented time perspective, but it is a positive, self-affirming, and self-empowering way of looking at oneself and the world.

        • Dear Stefani, Oana, and Natalie,
          I hear you writing about moral choices and about what empowers them, whether one’s moral stance derives from religious belief or right action. I agree that we can speculate about what we might have done but it’s what we choose to do as actors in the world that is the measure of who we are.
          I also agree that silence — being silenced or choosing to remain silent in the face of wrongdoing — is what we need to address. What accounts for moral courage in those who speak up? Is this teachable?

    • Hi all, I’m about halfway through the book and have been reflecting on the challenge Sondra faced when heading to Austria the first time. After hearing for a lifetime about the Germans and Austrians were so terrible, the challenge of landing on that ground with an open mind to do the work that needed to be done is daunting. Much like I don’t know how to answer when my students inevitably ask me or each other what we would have done if we had been alive during WWII, I always struggle with keeping an open mind about those who have not been so generous with me/my people.

      It really seemed like it was on her second trip to Innsbruck that she was able to access her students’ inner lives only be being vulnerable herself, which allowed them to trust her. It spoke volumes that her class stuck it out in the terrible weather they encountered on their walk through Innsbrick’s Jewish history, although I completely agreed with Sondra’s reflection that the stark reality of the tour’s topics was well matched to the miserable snow and cold.

      • Interestingly, Kate, when I first went to Austria, I thought it would be a one-time event. I had no idea that I would be invited back or that I would want to return. But I did sense early on that this had the markings of a life-altering experience. And if I hadn’t returned, it’s highly unlikely that there would be a Holocaust Educators Network or that we would be having this conversation.
        As to the walk in Innsbruck, I am still speechless. That the teachers continued, that the weather became so ferocious — if it were a movie, you would say it was too much.
        And, today, as I’ve written above, I am in Innsbruck, feeling quite content, still awed bty the snow-capped mountains, and having just returned from walking through the Old Town in 90 degree temperature.

    • On page 9 Sondra asks her Austrian students “Why do you think this is so hard?” This is a great pedagogical question, if asked honestly and without irony. It is a question that helps the teacher move away from the temptation to offer a solution when the teacher does not actually know why it is so hard for that particular student. Sondra returns to this on pg. 49 when she states “Even if I could resolve this issue, I don’t want to.” Here I see a teacher recognizing the power that she has and knowing how to – not- use it. This is when instruction is individualized as answers and solutions will differ.
      This is also a question at the foundation of teaching. Why is teaching so hard? It is not about content, right? It is often about the way in which we deliver the content, and as this book shows, about the way in which we place ourselves in the (classroom) world inhabited by our students who have their way of reacting to that world (pg.51 and I really need to read this book by Van Manen, the ideas Sondra mentions really resonate with me). The proof is in that good lesson plan that succeeds 90% of the time but sometimes it fails miserably because it did not adapt to the people in the room.
      What I liked about the book is that it shows us what takes place behind the scenes in the mind of a teacher. What would we learn if we had only seen, let’s say, tapes of the classroom sessions? But this way we become aware about the complexity of the teaching act. Do we approach every day with this intensity and the amount of questioning? Probably not, and that is a good thing.

      • Hi Oana,
        I would say that teaching is not exclusviely about content — but of course content also matters. A friend of mine once defined it as creating a relationship with students around important content. All three are essential: the teacher, the students and the subject matter. Of course, I know you know this but I thought it was worth saying.

        • Of course, and when I said that is not about the content that came from the thinking that nowadays many college students have direct access to content, they can freely pick up books, access links and read. Because of this unrestricted access to information our mission has changed. I see teachers not as the all powerful possessors of exclusive knowledge but more as curators, as guides, as partners in dialogue.

    • Empathy and compassion are feelings that can be nurtured– much like a skill. It struck me that in the book, Sondra remarks how she “saw a mirror image of [herself]” in Margret, and how she empathized with Margret’s experience– realizing that mere circumstances is what created an artificial divide. Elsewhere in the book, she remarks, in poetic form, that “I have come among you/ You have given me room to speak/ Now I see you with your passion and your pain/ Your humanity becomes visible to me.” This led me to think that maybe the best the way to nurture empathy and compassion is by listening and merely having close proximity with others.

      • Dear Reggie and Natalie,
        As I’ve written below, I am now in Austria and writing to all of you from Margret’s home. So I appreciate your comments about our friendship and how we came to care about one another. It continues til today….

        Gert’s parents are no longer alive. Margret is the head of an amazing new school in Innsbruck, and Cara is finishing up a residency in medicine.

        We still hike together and she fills me in on what is happening with the teachers in our summer group. I tell her about my teaching life and about HEN — about your writing and our summer seminar.

        Next spring, the Memorial Library may actually be collaborating with Margret and her school to mount a version of our summer seminar in Innsbruck. So what you are reading about may now become the basis for another outreach program about Holocaust and genocide education in Austria.

        To me, this is the power of teaching when it is based on authenticity and response-ability. On making room for the other. On listening and growing. It just keeps expanding….and I am very grateful to be a part of it.

    • As a runner, I can appreciate the mental clarity that comes from physical exertion. There were a few times in the book where Sondra mentions her physical state, and how it helped reshaped her mental focus and took her into a reflective state. She stretches herself “beyond her narrow view” and gains confidence in her own abilities.

      • This comment about physical activity (I’m a hiker, but here in the Southwest, our vistas are very different from those in Austria) reminds of Sondra’s observations and questions about landscape and identity, her ruminations as she and Arthur walked to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Do the harsh, craggy, impossible, cold peaks of Austria somehow contribute to the Austrian “character”? Is Jewish identity a reflection of the gentle hills and bright warmth of Israel? What seeps in? What radiates out? I, too, was struck by Sondra’s (and Gert’s and Anna’s and Luis’s) attention to the physical body, its strength and vitality — and the juxtaposition of those images to the images Sondra and Margret see in Chapter 11.

        • One of my favorite scenes in the book was when Dr. Perl went on her first hike with Margret and Gert. As they pull ahead, Dr. Perl begins to reflect on her family’s past. I love how her ascent up the mountain mirrors her own family’s rise and her interaction with different social worlds. In addition to her material world, her hike also reflects her spiritual life, as she needs to stop and reflect/gain her strength along the way. The journey also brings up self-doubt and defensiveness – the three hikers who nearly run her over bring back painful thoughts of “I don’t belong here,” as she experienced in Short Hills. I love the interaction between the physical/spiritual and how the journey brings up unresolved feelings of anger, as intense physical activity is apt to do. The journey leaves Dr. Perl and the reader breathless.

    • I finished the book the other day and began Five Chimneys. After reading the book, I was amazed at the transition that took place from beginning to end in terms of how everyone began addressing an issue as serious this. In reading the correspondence between Sondra and the teachers, I wondered if any would take on the challenge of addressing the Holocaust in the classroom. Thomas’ reaction, both in the letter and at the meeting really caught my attention because I’ve asked myself the same questions in trying to understand everything that happened. Unfortunately I’ll never understand because that means it’s excusable which it never will be. At the end, I was a little surprised at how many teachers overcame their apprehensions and began addressing the Holocaust in the classroom in addition to learning more on their own.

      I really enjoyed reading about the relationship between Sondra and Margret and they were able to establish that bond and have the willingness to tackle tough issues together. Even though I’ve been to concentration camps before, it’s still difficult to comprehend so I can only imagine their emotions when they visited Mauthausen. I think it was appropriate that they visited the camp together. I was also amazed at Anna’s reaction in wanting to learn more. I also agreed with Sondra where she wrote about Cara taking note of what was going and being interested in the conversation. This is key because it sounds cliche but children really are the future and it’s important for them to be a part of difficult topics such as the Holocaust because awareness of patterns can help prevent future incidents. It’s our role as educators to make them aware and start the dialogue.

      • Dear Reggie,
        I was also surprised by Thomas’ reaction and his attitude but we should accept the fact that we are different. Hans’ reaction has the same effect on me, that his only aim is to help his students find jobs without showing emotions.
        As I was reading the book I could imagine how Margaret and Sondra felt themselves on their journey to Mauthausen, as I have already been there too.

    • When I started reading the book, I also read a few of the posts and Sondra’s responses and decided to bend the rules. Instead of responding AS I read, I needed to finish reading and then respond. I knew there would be some sort of climax and transformation – would it be dramatic (Luis Fessler accompanies Margret and Sondra to Mauthausen and breaks down weeping?!) or a slow reveal, no less dramatic, of beautiful and difficult human truths. I had to discover this book privately and in its entirely before opening myself to others’ experiences and observations and Sondra’s reactions to them. I will post then go back and join the online discussion and I so look forward to discussing this book face to face with Sondra and all of you. I think I want to write about content and process/structure separately – there is so much to say! – and I’ll start here with process/structure.

      I love that so much of Sondra’s book is epistolary – that after the second meeting in Austria, students responded to Sondra’s paper in writing (real letters!). Those letters, Sondra’s responses, and of course the journal (then email exchanges) between Sondra and Margret hold such meaning and symbolism beyond their content. I identify as a writer, and having been fortunate enough to attend a Writing Project summer institute twice – once as a TC and once as a leader – I’ve learned that my identity as a writer and my identity as an educator are inextricable. As an ELA teacher, of course writing is part of the curriculum, but its purposes and processes have evolved greatly as a result of my Writing Project experiences. The National Writing Project “spirit” whispers and echoes and soars (like the wind at Mauthausen in Chapter 11) not just through Sondra’s writing, but especially through the epistolary dialogue throughout the book. I relate to and appreciate the questioning and confronting that happens because of and in these exchanges, and I recognize its importance (the questions, as Rilke reminds us, being more important than any other aspect of teaching and learning) in our lives as educators and lifelong students.

      When Sondra and Margret and grappling with Gert’s long-awaited letter, Sondra makes a point (asks a question, really) about raising hard questions vs. coercion in our classrooms in her response to Margret. Sondra writes, “At what point should a teacher back off if students can’t or won’t follow along in the inquiry?…I too believe in dialogue, but what do you do when someone doesn’t want to respond?”

      That “someone,” of course, takes several forms – Hans, Ingrid, Luis, to name a few – and sometimes the long response is to say, “I cannot respond.” It’s something like the feelings Sondra comes up against when walking through the confusion and heartbreak of Mauthausen – she wants to gag, wants to run, but (alongside her beautiful, complicated friend) confronts and confronts and confronts room after awful room truth after horrible truth.

      I think the epistolary habits formed over the course of the MA journey enabled and emboldened most of the participants, and certainly Sondra and Margret (and their husbands, by extension!), to courageously live these confrontations off the page. A few weeks ago, my sophomore students wrote about an “imaginative rehearsal” that their self-selected novels offered them. The prompt was difficult (the good ones always are), and many of them asked for clarification on the concept of imaginative rehearsal. When I broke that concept down into much simpler terms, “What specific, situational lesson does this book teach that helps you – YOU! – live your life more fully, better?” their eyes lit up before they did that amazing things that our students do: lower their heads in complete engagement to touch pen to paper and write.

      • Hi Tricia,
        You capture so beautifully both the magic and the power of writing. And, yes, writing did lead all of us in the seminar into a profound inquiry, even those for whom it posed a challenge. I agree that finding their way into language to express difficult ideas enabled the Austrian teachers to break lifelong silences.
        I look forward to the time when we will soon pick up pens, put our heads down and write.

    • On page 142 Sondra wrote, “In any course I teach, I would want to make room for responses to the material, for probing the question of evil—and examining what we must do to answer. The facts tell one sort or story, but I am more interested in the question of response-ability: Where does this lie for each of us?” I underlined and starred this passage because it reminded me of my own shift in teaching about the Holocaust. In my early years, I introduced our unit on The Diary of Anne Frank by showing shocking photographs that elicited an emotional response. Sure, students were attentive, but I also heard muffled giggles at the naked bodies. A few students in later classes came in almost excited and said they heard we were looking at gross pictures. I felt angry and sad at their response. I tried to discuss social responsibility and even had students complete the Pyramid of Hate, but most did not see a connection to bullying today with killing millions in the Holocaust.
      Thankfully, other teachers and experts in the field of Holocaust education gently guided me toward another approach, one that focused more on resistance and teaching about people who took a stand, even when it cost them their lives. I stopped showing provocative pictures and instead taught about people who demonstrated courage, self-sacrifice, perseverance, and other qualities I would like my students to emulate. Where my earlier teaching had focused almost exclusively on Jews as victims, my later teaching stressed resistance and strength. This gave my students hope and empowered them to face social injustice. I still teach about the facts of the Holocaust, but now I try to personalize the story. I no longer show piles of corpses but instead show pictures of people when they were living their lives and had families and histories, as opposed to being nameless casualties in the multitude of six million.
      Sondra described how she felt as she toured Mauthasusen Concentration Camp. Although I am not Jewish, I could relate to many of the feelings she described. As part of HAJRTP 2013, we visited the sites of many former concentration and death camps. These felt like hallowed ground. I wondered if the tall trees standing today bore witness to the heinous acts of long ago. I’ve shown some of the pictures to my students. Many seem surprised to know these places were real. I showed them the memorial marker at Treblinka for Janusz Korczak, and then I show them the statue of him in the Jewish cemetery in Poland. It depicts him holding hands with the orphans as he is going with them to their deaths, knowing he could have saved himself. He is a hero. This leads to a discussion about what it means to be a hero today and how they can make a difference in the life of others. Some get it and others don’t. But our discussions are about learning from the past to build a better tomorrow. It is my hope that I am modeling response-ability.

      • Donna-

        Your post makes me think of the incident involving Breanna Mitchell, the teen who took a smiling selfie in front of Auschwitz in 2014. Leonard Pitts, a Miami Herald award winning columnist wrote about this incident several times. Her “sunshine smile” and flippant statement, “I’m famous ya’ll” in a tweet shows us that this 21st century generation is “clueless” and “shallow” and has a “fundamental lack of respect” for the sacred places of history.

        We have to remedy this attitude and show our young people that there is a time and a place for making things about themselves and taking a selfie at a concentration camp even 70 years later is not and will never be acceptable.

    • In Chapter 8, “Unexpected Lessons,” when Sondra finally meets Luis and Anna Fessler in Margret’s home, I was struck by the different ways we each cope with talking about difficult things. An old family friend flew for the British RAF in WWII. Once I asked him about his missions – how many and where, I wanted to know. “I won’t say,” he told me, explaining that this is just something he refuses to talk about (he was willing to bring up all manner of uncomfortable discussion and he and I often disagreed animatedly as I attempted to challenge his lingering imperialistic racism). He could state the inflammatory, he could provoke in general, but he refused to go to a personal place with his own involvement in the war (even though he was one of the “good” guys). Similarly, I once asked a brother-in-law who had served two tours in Vietnam to tell me something about his experiences. His response was a stunned look that I would even ask followed by, “I don’t ever think about it, and it’s nothing I want to talk about. An uncle who flew in the USAF during Vietnam also brushes off my inquiries by saying, “I only flew supplies,” before he changes the subject. War, something I cannot relate to or understand in any other way than the abstract, is obviously so difficult to discuss.

      When Anna, responding to an awkward conversation Arthur begins about Vietnam, says, “For us, it was different,” I know she means for her and Luis, for Austrians of her generation. But I also hear her saying this as a woman, and something about her willingness to ask and answer questions, to stay longer, to engage in discourse, to ask for advice about what to read to help her understand Jewish spirituality, seems somehow and overwhelmingly female to me. On the next page after Luis leaves, Sondra describes Anna and Cara wanting to continue the conversation, Cara listening to intently to her grandmother. Three generations of women, carrying on here, Margret acting as a literal bridge between generations who might only attempt to understand each other through talking – but mostly, as Cara demonstrates, through listening! Do men just talk about war differently? “Why are you interested in our history,” Anna asks Sondra and Arthur. She participates in the discourse so differently than her husband and her son.

      I’m wondering if anyone has read David Finkel’s excellent and sobering book Thank You for Your Service (2013) about American veterans returning home from Iraq. Or Art Spiegelman’s MAUS? What are our responsibilities to our parents, to the generations that come before? What are their responsibilities to us? (I’m thinking here of the Great Law of the Iroquois — that our actions implicate the next SEVEN generations.) Much of Sondra’s book explores and even answers these questions, I think, but if we contextualize these questions for today, considering the quagmire in the Middle East and our American responsibility for and to, how do we ask? Who do we ask? What do we ask? Are we equipped, ready even, to listen?

      • Tricia, I read an interview with Art Spiegelman in which he discusses a cartoon he drew. In it he gives his son a treasure box, saying “Hey, here’s this wonderful magical present”—the gift being historical memory—and he opens the box and a fire-breathing dragon comes out wearing an Auschwitz uniform cap and breathes fire on his son and burns him. Maybe there is a hesitancy to hurt those that we love with painful history.

        The interview also contains a great quote as Spiegelman discusses living living in the aftermath of MAUS. He says “I have to keep moving as best I can through the shadow of something that I’m glad I had pass through me.”

        • Dear Ashley and Tricia,
          You raise such important issues about the burden of history and the transmission of trauma across generations. Being ‘burned’ by history is, to me, such a compelling question/image. I’d love to see the Spiegelman cartooon if it’s available. Equally compelling is the notion of engaging in work that heals and whether or not it is gender-based.
          I hope we can do justice to such questions during the seminar.
          Looking forward to meeting up soon.

    • The metaphor used by Margaret for describing her family: “In our garden there is a tree with a bench around it. We all sit with our backs to the tree, facing out, not looking at each other. We all exist in our own separate worlds. With this immense silence in the middle of it.” is a rather characteristic description of a general Central European attitude.
      When we – the majority of the sons of post-war generation – form our opinion about the Holocaust, we are on the side of the victims, we feel their loss as our own, since they were fellow citizens and fellow human beings, after all our brothers! Maybe this sorrow shades our eyes, therefore the “collective thinking” tends to see Hungary as only the victim of the Nazis. This thinking prevents us from facing the truth of the history. Mainly the Arrow Cross Party “orchestrated” the “final solution”, but the silence of the majority society is also responsible for the disaster of the WWII. This silence or little objection against the anti-Semitism supported or at least made easy to cumulate the terror of the Holocaust. I hope that through the right questions about the past, we can face it honestly. Through providing the students with an honest assessment of our part in the past we could help them to raise their voice if a similar behavior against any religious or ethnic group might appear. For forming a well working society we must turn our benches to the tree and enjoy being in one circle despite our differences. If we turn our face to each other we will have the courage to speak up for the needy and the oppressed fellows regardless their color or faith.

      • These were my first thoughts on Holocaust, which I feel justified on the first place by Horst’s summary after guiding the class through Innsbruck’s Holocaust scenes on page 82: “And it was so easy for the Nazis to bend them to serve their own purposes. Very few spoke up against that”.
        On the second place I would add Hungary to Hans conclusion on page 88: “Germans are willing to admit their guilt and say they are sorry, but the Austrians still want to claim they were victims”. It is sad but so true. Recently a new monument was erected in Budapest for commemorating WWII. This monument underlined the victim image of Hungary. Many people protested against this statue, but it still stands on its place.

      • Hi, Marianna! I was also drawn to the striking image of the family sitting with their backs to each other. So emblematic of many of the issues in history and current events: our unwillingness to sit and face each other openly. When you said, “we must turn our benches to the tree and enjoy being in one circle despite our differences,” it reconfirmed for me the importance of dialogue. It is only through seeking to understand each other that we can affect real social change. I look forward to speaking more with you soon!

    • So, in all honesty, it has taken me a while to figure out exactly what I wanted to write about for this posting. I finished reading Sondra’s book and many of your postings last week and have been doing a lot of “wool gathering” as my husband calls it, trying to decide what exactly I have wanted to share. After a significant amount of reflection on teaching, the issues of hate and injustice, and responsibility, I keep coming back to the two components of silence and dialogue in relation to these things and Sondra’s story.

      I know I have many more thoughts than I could adequately express here on the role of silence and dialogue as it relates to the Holocaust and teaching, but I also know these components are a common thread I have come across in my studies and readings. In the opening weeks of my class, as I am laying the foundation, one of the first topics we discuss is silence. I show a video to my students of Holocaust survivor, Kurt Messerschmidt, as he describes his personal experience with Kristallnacht. It is a video from the Echoes and Reflection collection and is quite powerful because he closes his story with “Silence is what did the harm.” You can watch the video at this link: http://echoesandreflections.org/the-lessons/lessons-components/#!/lesson/1/video/0_m0i6jjei

      As a class we discuss Kurt’s testimony and how silence can be harmful. My students write a reflection and from that point forward, silence becomes something we consider in relation to all testimony and stories that we read. So when reading On Austrian Soil, when the issues of silence come to the forefront in the second half of the story and there is a discussion of “the conspiracy of silence,” I once again was drawn to contemplate this idea. This time, however, I looked at it through a new lens – What harm does silence have on the new and future generations? Many survivors recount in their memoirs how the need and purpose of telling their stories and what they have borne witness to is what drove them to survive, but there are probably equally as many survivors who discuss how they could not speak and were silent for many years before they could speak about what had happened. So I am left with the questions: What role does silence play in the breakdown of humanity? When is silence harmful? When is silence needed or appropriate?

      In my mind, these questions about silence are intricately related to the concept of dialogue. The need for communication is a foregone conclusion, but the nature of that communication needs to be positive and productive, as words innately have the power to be equally harmful as beneficial. This leads me to consider the idea of forgiveness that Sondra reflects on so poignantly in the last portion of her story. There is no point to communication if there is not forgiveness and empathy. Yet, I believe these are both the most difficult things to teach and learn. They are the most essential – embodied fully in “the golden rule” and the human struggle. Hence, I am left still thinking, but very much looking forward to our discussion.

      • Dear Angie, I like your comment and I believe that empathy can guide us to break the silence for protecting those who need it and forgiveness helps us to relate healthily to anyone’s guilt. Maybe these two essential aspects are needed to be humans when humanity seems to disappear.

    • I finished reading On Austrian Soil about a week ago. As I look back through the book, I have so many dog-eared pages and highlighted sections; it’s hard to know where to begin. In one regard, the memoir traces the path of Sondra (and yes, it is strange writing about this, knowing that Sondra will be reading it) coming to terms with her initial feelings about Austrians as a group and how those feelings evolved as she got to know individuals, particularly Anna and Luis. Of course, this cuts both ways, as her students came to grips with their conception of Sondra, first as a teacher, then as a Jewish woman and the questions she asked them to confront.
      Nowhere is this change more plainly seen than on page 166, when Sondra writes, “Clearly, Luis sees himself as having suffered. I wonder if he ever imagines what sort of suffering he imposed on others. Is there a shred of remorse in this man or is he still living with lost illusions, justifying his actions without considering their impact?” I was impressed that Sondra was able to step back, and consider the world from Luis’ point of view, no matter how troubling that view might be.
      She then goes on to remark after hearing Anna’s thoughts, “ I find myself feeling sympathy for this woman; her life during wartime could not have been easy. But what about those mothers whose children did not survive? What about those who walked with their babies into the gas chamber? I feel anger rising but remind myself that I came to hear Anna and Luis’s stories. I did not come to interrogate them.” I find amazing that Sondra was able to detach herself, keep her presence of mind and know that there was a larger purpose. Later, she reflects, “Really, I think, it was just six adults and one thirteen-year-old sitting around a dinner table, peeling chestnuts and talking.” That she was able to see Anna and Luis as individuals, doing what they thought was right at the time, rather than symbols in that moment is an ability I wish more people had. How many wars and atrocities could have been avoided?
      The power of seeing individuals cannot be understated. Even after reading diary entries, informational texts, and reading books, visual testimonies and talking with Holocaust survivors inevitably leave the strongest impressions on my students. Students who were so cavalier in their responses while reading, feeling the need to hug a survivor; tears catching in the corners of eyes when hearing about the conditions in the Lodz Ghetto. This connection with individuals provides such a strong argument for the necessity of interviewing and recording as many survivors as possible, while there is still time.
      This bridging of the empathy gap is such a rich and important theme – and one that must be addressed with students, not only in Holocaust, human rights and genocide studies. It is conceivable to step in to the shoes of others, see them as individuals, and understand that it is possible to condemn a person’s actions, but still respect and care for them as a human being.

      • Dear Jeff,
        I would like to react for the 4th paragraph of your response. I also find it really important for my students to meet holocaust survivors. It is interesting that I experience the same reaction on my students, when they meet survivors. Last time when they met one, spontaneously they hug him after telling his own story. I am convinced that besides theoretical knowledge these peronal experiences are the most significant.

    • Throughout the entire memoir, I continued to come back to the idea of responsive pedagogy. Sondra provides an excellent model for all teachers to follow. Sondra was prepared to instruct teachers about writing and research within their classroom. However the question that arose from the experience and situation pertained to what it meant to be a human and our role as teachers in the classrooms. She did not miss the opportunity for relevance in the classroom and in the lives of the teachers she met. Instead of continuing with her original plans, modifications were made. Had the modifications not been made, had Sondra not been transparent and vulnerable, the learning may have simply been academic or superficial in some level. Sondra responded to herself and her students and the writing, the research, and their history became relevant. Sondra enabled her students to “walk in the world with their eyes – full of thought” (p. 104. I want to remember this quote and Sondra’s teaching as models for living responsive pedagogy any time I stand in front of a group of students. It’s too easy to get caught up with curriculum and testing.

    • As I began reading On Austrian Soil, I found studying Sondra’s teaching methods, her style. I think I was looking for insight into this summer. And, I was instantly comforted. I recognized her in teaching many of the practices of the National Writing Project. I found an emphasis on the importance of writing, the freedom to write, writing groups and inquiry— all there waving to me like familiar friends. I participated in my local NWP Summer Institute a few years ago, and I remember the initial discomfort and ultimate joys of opening yourself up to the process.

      But, almost immediately after recognizing this process, I was struck by a self-realization that both embarrasses and confuses me: I have never written about the Holocaust. I’ve taught about it, I’ve spoken to various groups about it, I’ve studied it through travel and research. But, I’ve never written, even on a personal level, about it. I teach a writing course modeled very much after the NWP, and I talk with my kids about writing to their passions, about what drives them. I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of Holocaust education. Why then haven’t I written about it?
      Sondra talks about writing paralysis, both her own and her students’. It appears that I have one of my own. I’m not even sure of its origins or causes, but I am eager to probe it and break it loose.

      This post has turned a bit more self-reflective and personal than I intended, but in many ways, I’m glad that it did. Writing it has helped me to uncover a personal challenge for this summer I didn’t anticipate. And, like Sondra, I believe that being open with people leads to great growth. And, ultimately, it has reaffirmed to me my intuition that this is going to be one of powerful change. I am so looking forward to it.

      • Ugh… *As I began reading OAS, I found myself studying…

        Why is it that we only seem to find our errors after we publish something?

        • Ashley,
          Reading this book has also caused me to reflect on my own teaching practices. I have been teaching a specific class on the Holocaust for 12 years but similar to you I have not really written about the Holocaust. I have taken a number of professional development classes. Most of that writing was reflective about a historical instance or I was prompted to make personal connection to a historical situation. Most of this writing was centered around content. I have never participated in a National Writing Project institute. I am excited this summer to get a chance to delve into the writing process and have the time to do some meaningful writing about the Holocaust. I am hopeful that by going through this process I will gain invaluable insight that will make me a better teacher and writer.
          Michelle

      • Ashley – As a Writing Project teacher as well, I also noticed the familiarity of Sondra’s approach it was nice to see the way that another teacher utilized those methods. Your other thoughts concerning writing about the Holocaust struck me as well. We are very comfortable asking our students to write their responses, yet sometimes we forget to model this in our classrooms – at least, I know I forget at times. That brings it back to the theme of being authentic in the classroom…

        • I feel the need to say this, especially to non-Wiriting Project folks:
          Facing the blank page is (almost) always daunting…for those who write a lot and for those who hardly ever do. Our promise to you is that we won’t leave you hanging….the seminar is constructed in such a way that there will be many opportunities to write with many sorts of supports in place, what we call ‘ways in….’ and there will be opportunities to sit quietly and pause to see what one wants or needs to say….or to talk quietly with others about one’s work. Perhaps this also sounds daunting….but in practice, it can work and can also be fun. My two cents for today.

    • After I finished reading Sondra’s book these thoughts came to my mind:
      Her honesty to herself, being ready to express her own doubts, fears, hatred made her an honest teacher. The readiness for a dialogue which meant to be ready to reconsider and change her thinking helped the students to enter the dialogue too. The wonderful outcome of the journey is the kind of reconciliation with Gert’s parents. By understanding that the history sometimes gives little choices for the individual to see the whole picture, she can look at them with different eyes. Forgiveness opens a new way to relate differently to the Austrians and to Austria. The big question, the God question seems to remain open though. To be honest it is an open question for me too. Recently a new film on the Holocaust has been released; The son of Saul is directed by a young Hungarian director. The film intends to share the hell of the gas chambers with the audience. The protagonist of the leading character sad that; after all he thinks God was with everybody and kept everybody’s hand in the moments of horror! Tomorrow I am going to watch this film and hopefully I can share my experience with you when we meet in just 13 days!

      • Marianna and Peter and many others of you,
        You are highlighting what are for me two of the biggest questions in the book: faith and forgiveness. I find the question of post-Holocaust theology to be an important and fasincating one. Some Jews went to their deaths saying prayers and some survived with their faith intact. Others did not. In Night, Elie Wieset seems to denounce God. Many years later, he apologizes for his loss of faith and recommits to the Almighty. Who is to say where we each stand and what that stand is based on?
        For me, all of these questions lead to dialogue and learning how to listen to those whose beliefs differ from our own.
        More to think about as we near our days together…

        • I’ve been thinking about the role of faith, more precisely, the students’ faith, in the way in which they approach, understand, and situate themselves vis-a-vis the Holocaust. May of us teach in areas that are more conservative, faith playing a huge role in students’ lives. I am wondering how we can bring this into the classroom as a way to discuss issues of forgiveness and compassion, to complicate simplified responses. This is something I have not researched yet but it has been at the back of my mind for a while.

    • After reading Sondra’s book a lot of thoughts came into my mind. As a History teacher Sondra’s authorial style really enchanted me. This style made it more gripping when, on the one hand, she recalled situations from her life and past that were determining for her, on the other hand , when she was in Austria, we flew back to the 1940s bringing up the history of the then Austria with the terrible deeds of the national socialists.
      And answering those ’serious questions’ made me face myself too. I have already drawn the same question can be found on page 71: – But where was God? (I still have not found the answer, yet.) Then, from this question a long talk developed through what the story of Tyrol and Voralberg revived from the 1930s to the 1970s. For me – surely as I’m a History teacher – this part of the book was the most readable and exciting.
      And in chapter 10 the questions and the sayings from her family Sondra had to face when talking about her Austrian experiences in the USA.
      This weekend I went on a class trip with my 9th graders to Sopron (a town very close to the border), and we travelled to Austria too. After reading the book, I thought a lot on Sondra’s Austrian experiences and memories, her questions that had not come to my mind before reading it. It was a really interesting ’journey’ for me. I arrived home tonight.

    • I was surprised by the words of Hans on page 49: “…but I am not in the business of making better human beings. I want my students to succeed, but their values and their humanity are not my concern.”

      I have known educators who have this teaching philosophy. They have a job to do and a curriculum to teach and anything else does not concern them. These are also the teachers who had absolutely NO empathy or compassion for students who were struggling academically and/or behaviorally.

      To be an educator today is to teach the whole child. We have to teach them social skills as well as our curriculum. We have to model the proper behavior and hold their hands along the way.

      This is why standardized testing is not successful in educating children and preparing them for life after school. We cannot put children in little boxes like the state of Texas does (and other states) and label them as Hispanic, Special Ed, ESL or LEP, African American, Asian, and Caucasian.

      When these students are in our classrooms, we are tasked with teaching them everything that they need to learn to be good human beings. For the educators who believe that we are not responsible for making better human beings, I say to them: leave the profession or change your philosophy. There is no relinquishment of responsibility when it comes to educating a child.

      • Vanessa – I agree that it is really difficult to imagine teaching, for me, without the component of explicitly trying to provide opportunities for students to decide what kind of person they want to be, not just what kind of paragraphs they want to write. That’s what draws me to teach English rather than Science or Math – English allows for so much inquiry. It might begin about the literature, but it usually ends up acting as a mirror reflecting humanity back at us.

      • That statement by Hans made me startle too because it seemed too cold in the context of the book. However, at college level I see this attitude daily, especially from students who see their classes as a way to a job not as much as a way to enrich themselves and become better human beings. This attitude is also embedded in the whole “crisis in the humanities” discussion. I think topics like the Holocaust can show that professionalism without its ethical framework, without humanity, without grace, and compassion, can be disastrous.

    • I finished reading the book last night and today I have been going through all of my annotations from the second half of the book thinking about what I wanted to post tonight. Chapter 7 appeared to be a place where I did a lot of reflecting. The concept of response- ability kept running though my mind. There were two quotes that spoke to me. The first was written by Sondra and the second by Margaret:

      “… if I ever teach a course on the Holocaust, I would not be willing to teach this material merely as topics in an historical drama, highlighting facts and information: the growth of anti-Semitism, the rise of Nazi Germany, the development of the camps, the resistance movement, the current revisionism, etc. In any course I teach, I would want to make room for responses to the material, for probing the question of evil- an examining what we must do to answer.”

      “But how can you teach compassion and empathy for the victims without teaching hatred for the murderers?”

      I think the reason both of these statements stood out to me is because I teach a course specifically about the Holocaust to high school seniors. My ultimate goal is to teach students response-ability and provide them with the tools to stand up to evil. As my students examine the Holocaust they learn to identify the victims, perpetrators, upstanders and bystanders. In class we talk about the economics, politics, psychology and social climate of various places during this time period. Each year I am always concerned about making the story too black and white: Nazis are bad people and victims are good people. I do not want my students leaving my class with feeling more hate. I want my students to learn how to analyze the shades of grey in history and within the modern world in order to come up with their own judgements and interpretations. With that said, I never want them to empathize with perpetrators but I do want them to understand how everyday people are capable of evil. My goals are lofty and some may even say they are unreasonable. In the past 12 years that I have been teaching this class I have my stories of success and failure. Sondra points an area that I believe I need to work on. I want to “make room for responses to the material, for probing the question of evil”. I do this a lot through discussions, debates and essays but I would like to develop techniques to help my students do this with personalized writing.

    • I see that Donna and Michelle have already spoken to this, but I too felt drawn to the passage that reads, “Teaching and research are supposed to be intellectual acts. But it is hard to disagree: love of subjects, love of students, passion for learning, and reverence for life— isn’t this what makes a good teacher and ultimately, a good human being?”

      I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. Friday was our last day of school, and as I hugged many of them good-bye, I said, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” It surprised me a little as I said it, but I felt this compulsion to let them know right then and there. I told every class that too. I told them, “I love you. Each and every one of you. Even when you’re flawed, I still love you.”

      And it’s true. Though I don’t fully understand it at times. I had two boys this year, twins (thankfully not in the same class), who challenged me in so many ways. I struggled all year to find something redeeming in them. I know how awful that sounds. But, I watched all year as they acted selfishly, cruelly and heartlessly. If they did something kind or good, it was only because there was an immediate reward, immediate self-gratification. In my 8 years of teaching, I’d never seen anything like it. And despite it all, despite their meanness, I loved them still. I don’t know why. They hadn’t earned my love. But, maybe love isn’t something we earn. Maybe love is something we give.

      Before I started teaching, a visiting pastor came to speak at my church. I don’t remember his name. Frankly, I don’t remember anything about him. Except, I remember how he spoke of love. He said, “Love that goes outward is affection. Love that goes upward is worship. But love that stoops is grace.” And in that moment, I knew I wanted to teach with grace. I committed to stoop for my students. Perhaps these boys were sent to me this year to remind me of that promise.

      When speaking of love, Sondra says it’s embarrassing to speak of it in this context. And, I feel that too. I feel my cheeks redden at the thought of posting this, but I’ve committed myself to being open this summer. I sometimes wonder what I’m really good at as a teacher. I feel my weaknesses in data tracking. I’m awful at sticking to a schedule (as evidenced by my lateness to this forum.) I’m disorganized (you should see the grading pile waiting on my desk for me.) But, I’m really good at loving kids. And even though I know it’s enough, sometimes, in the face of state testing and data tracking, it doesn’t feel enough. And, in a lot of ways, it feels silly. You don’t see people getting Masters degrees in love, do you?

      I could write more about this, but it feels like I’m just scratching the surface here. Hoping to explore this more as I have questions about this kind of love of students and how it relates to humanity.

      • I had to reply to this post, I just had to. So here we go: love is so vital to teaching. We want our students to love each other, grow up into people who love their work and enrich the lives of others. I agree that there is that feeling of wanting to blush saying it, or saying it to students, but of course we love them. We expend so much energy helping them and sharing our lives together that I think it’s important to know that we do love them. One of my favorite people on this planet is Krista Tippet, whom I have never met, and yet, I love her. She talks on her show ad nauseam about words that have lost all meaning in our culture, and “love” is a word she is constantly dissecting and observing to try to better understand. I would love to talk about this more with all of you…. perhaps in New York City. Thanks again, Ashley!

        • Thanks, Ashley, for having the courage to return to this topic. How is it that we have become so obsessed with data tracking and numbers that we seem to have missed or ignored or forgotten the bedrock of human connection in teaching? Of the importance of relationships based on trust? And, need I add, the need for humor and fun in classrooms?
          Among the few academics who is not embarrassed to talk about love is Parker Palmer. Others on this forum (Oana, maybe?) have mentioned him. He writes often about the courage to teach and how there is no doubt that authentic teaching comes from and builds on our capacity to love.
          I love your description of your last day of class and your musings on the twin boys.
          To be continued….

    • Well, I finished the book in the nick of time! As I completed it this evening, I really enjoyed the epistolary section (as mentioned in someone else’s comment as well), especially that between Sondra and Margret. It’s not often that we have a chance to see the slow progression of intimacy growing through letters, and reading as the two women opened up more, especially about how difficult it seemed to be to do so (147-8), made me more comfortable about the work we are all about to embark upon in a few weeks.

      Given the nature of what we are gathering to study, and the fear of saying the wrong thing, or saying the right thing in the wrong way, and the emotions and backgrounds we all bring, this work can feel intimidating as much as it often also feels invigorating and important like little else that I do. Knowing that the people who will be leading us through this process also grapple with these same issues is of some comfort as I prepare to journey east for the Seminar.

      • Kate,
        I also thoroughly enjoyed the “notes” they were sharing in class. This also made me think about how dynamic classrooms are; the history between students, the neighborhoods they live in, as well as their participation in social media. Relationships appear so simple from the outside, but are so very complex. I found this especially striking when the other participants in the course felt like they were out of the loop, or hadn’t noticed this had transpired. This can certainly help to situate classroom environments, and help use to be more responsive to students discussing serious/potentially complex topics.

        • Two words from Kate’s post resonante with me: That this work is both ‘intimidating’ and ‘invigorating.’ Yes, it is both, constantly and always. Always as we find ourselves facing the darkness, the void, the abyss of human cruelty and despair and somehow sustaining and invigorating as singly and together we find language or other means to express what moves within us.

    • Apparently I’m the last member of the group to jump into this discussion. Though this isn’t my preferred approach to participating, one benefit is that I get to read through all these diverse perspectives as a way to deepen my thinking—as I read.

      Though I’m finding Sondra’s book to be full of comments and thoughts that make me asterisk, underline and ponder, the one nagging me currently is the one on page 61 regarding what is “reasonable” when she is considering the possibility of taking her students on the Innsbruck walking tour: “The idea, I worry, may not seem reasonable at all.”

      This thought seems minor at first, as I rush forward through the story, but then I catch myself. It strikes me that if we as educators plan to accomplish anything of significance, we must push up against the boundary of what the world around us communicates as “reasonable.”

      Constantly, I find myself pushing up against this boundary in my own teaching. An unconventional approach to teaching a difficult subject hits me as I awake one morning, but it asks students and colleagues to think very differently about learning. So is the approach reasonable? I discover an edgy piece of literature that deals playfully and skillfully with challenging topics, but it breaks many of the “rules” we accept about appropriate literature. I want to share it with my young students, but is this reasonable?

      Often, I find that when educators push up against Sandra’s question, they shrink away automatically. Too much risk. Too much trouble. Too much possibility of criticism or rejection. Better to remain within the standardized notion of acceptability.

      Strangely though, in my case, I find that my best teaching happens when I walk beyond the boundaries of what the world considers reasonable. Embracing this “walking beyond” can lead to criticism, rejection and judgment, but time, effort and persuasion can soften attitudes.

      I find this approach to teaching to be powerful in general. If I encounter a boundary regarding how we speak to one another or how we act, I enjoy moving over that boundary though carefully, thoughtfully.

      As a parent and as a teacher, I find that nurturing a willingness to question normalized expectations is a priority. If these boundaries are sensible, they should remain, but if they are hurtful or limiting, they should be pushed aside.

      • Hi Peter,
        You have just written a beautiful statement of one of the large purposes of teaching: to push beyond what is seen as reasonable with care, tact and thoughtfulness. There is so much one could say about the fears we have as teachers and the desire to remain safe ourselves and not face criticism or rejection by peers and administrators — and at times, of course, that is the sensible way to proceed. But I agree that we need to take risks when a ‘teaching moment’ arises and we sense the possibility of learning and growth on the other side. I doubt if there is a rubric for this sort of teaching….what helps me on such shaky ground is having a community of likeminded teachers who share my values. It is to them that I turn and what we hope to offer in our work at HEN.
        See you soon….

    • As a result of this book, I’ve had so many excellent conversations with friends and colleagues; in short, it has meant so much that it was hard to sort out what I wanted to say to all of you because, well, you read it too.
      I felt like a participant on this journey to Austria. I felt like a participant in the writing course as well. Having done the writing project at Illinois State, I know the intimacy that writing together can create, deepen and strengthen. The thinking of the researchers that were integral to the course also drew me and lead to some additional reviewing and researching. I can’t wait to meet you all. I think this book begins with big universal questions and ultimately finds itself immersed in the ether between history and this very moment, between the whole world and just two people drinking Champagne in Innsbruck. Our journey will be unique, but I look forward to sharing our struggles, successes and concerns. Until then!

      • Hi Greg,
        I am thankful that you mention the journey that is about to begin for all of us. One of the reasons we ask all of you to read OAS is so that we can begin this journey — into the past, into our own identities and responses to the past and into writing — before the seminar begins in NYC.
        You also mention that as readers we are located ‘in the ether between history and the present moment.” As I’ve responded to others a few days ago, that is precisely how I feel. For those of you who may not have read my responses, I will mention again that I am in Innsbruck — both recalling so much of my past here and what was evoked then and living it today in the present. This double vision is quite exhilarating….the historical past, my own past and all the living that has occurred since…and the friendship that has grown and deepened between me and Margret and our families. I will ask now and will repeat, I imagine, when we meet up in person: What does it mean to carry the past into the present? How does history live in us today? How do we truly embrace and live into the questions that arise?
        I look forward to our shared inquiry as June 20th approaches and we meet up at the Memorial Library in NYC.

    • I found the question from Andrea, “Do you think education is connected to morality”? very interesting. I think that morality definitely plays a part in the classroom. We as teachers do not or should not give our opinions in the classroom directly. Our job is to make the students think. After visiting Germany in 2008 I found that teachers there did not teach the Holocaust. Only during that school year were the teachers given permission to teach about it for one day. I have had several German foreign exchange students who were shocked when I was teaching about the Holocaust. “I have never heard about this” was their responses. I was extremely surprised.
      As I started the book I shared some of Sondra’s anxiety. I moved from Northeast Ohio to Brownsville, Texas in 1988. I wondered how I would be perceived being an “ANGLO”. But through questioning and listening the problems didn’t disappear but an openness became apparent.
      Ingrid’s response shocked me at first in regards to calling Sondra unprofessional.
      Through this book I see transformations in my own teaching.

    • Posting this from the Columbia dorm room. Here’s a link to an op-ed I just read. It’s as if the writer, Roxanne Gay, is sitting at Olga’s table with us here.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/why-i-cant-forgive-dylann-roof.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region

  • Michael Franke wrote a new post 9 years ago

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    • Chapter 1 of “Five Chimneys” is stunning; both in its matter-of-fact writing style and the heartbreaking depiction of people who thought they would be safe, because, who would would kill doctors and good citizens? 96 lives shoved into a train car without food, water, or toilet is enough to break down even the most polite people. The element of the story with the most complete absence of humanity, in my opinion, is the Nazi’s refusal to remove the dead bodies they were crammed in with. I look forward to reading the rest of this book, as sobering as it is.

      • Jennifer,
        It is shocking, isn’t it? Olga’s way of telling the story is also very compelling, I believe, as she juxtaposes the life she had and her last glimpses of it (through the description of the fairytale forest) with the horrors of the arrival at Auschwitz. I believe it masterfully puts each reader into her shoes and how unreal it all was. The systematic deception of the Nazi ideology is astounding. I am eager to discuss more with you as you read further.

    • So, interestingly, this is one of the pieces that I teach in my Examining the Holocaust Through Literature class. I have so much to say about this memoir, and the discussions in class are always so intense. I have taught the book twice now, and read it four times. I can say this…my students connect very deeply with Olga’s story and are truly moved by her personal journey.
      In our discussion, we begin by having an in depth discussion of how she opens the book and why. (Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!) It is a line of prayer as young Catholics they are very familiar with, but raises such interesting reflection for them. The concept of survivor’s guilt is something many students have not considered in relation to the Holocaust, but I do believe it is critical to understanding the depth of the emotional toll of the Shoa. I also found that teaching this while using many of the video testimonies from the Echoes and Reflections curriculum from the ADL is also helpful in reinforcing Olga’s purpose in telling the story.
      It is such a powerful memoir…I am eager to discuss it with adults.

    • I think Olga Lengyel had such horrific burdens, I can’t imagine how she persevered. The fact that she was of the medical profession made everything so much harder for her to witness – the filth, the cruelty, the torture disguised as science. Her knowledge must have made her experience doubly painful. Yet she worked hard to help others and to ease their suffering, and even served for the resistance. The fact that this book was published in 1947, so soon after the war, is a wonder to me. I find so much of what she wrote echoed in modern books and scholarship about the Holocaust. What I have read about her life has intrigued me. I want to read more.

    • In describing the behavior of the evil “blonde angel”, Irma Griese, Olga Lengyel writes, “Were a novelist to compose such a scene, his reader would accuse him of the wildest imagination. But pages from real life are often more horrible than those in novels” (160). For me, the pages of Five Chimneys described scenes more horrible than many of the other Holocaust memoirs I have read.

      Chapter X, “A New reason for Living” was certainly one of, if not THE most nightmarish account I have ever read, perhaps ever written! Yet, most every chapter evoked such a strong emotional response prompted in part by Lengyel’s frank, straight-forward, mission-driven reporting of the atrocities she was eyewitness to. The constant refrain as I read wondering how human beings can act in such inhuman ways became more and more haunting. I found this book to be very difficult to read, and it has been even harder processing my thoughts and feelings about it. I am reminded of the July 19 correspondence sent by Sondra to Margret from ON Austrian Soil when she wrote, “I realize that I want to look clear-eyed without flinching, at what happened, facing the knowledge that millions were tortured and murdered” (141). Even after numerous seminars, trips to camps and volumes of written material, I flinch.

    • Always looking for material to use in the classroom, I must admit I would be reluctant to use much from Five Chimneys. I am keenly aware that the subject matter is not easy and even though my course is called “Confronting Hate”, it is not my intent to traumatize students. If I err, it is on the side of shielding them from the more graphic descriptions, photographs and film footage.

      I am curious if others see in book usable as stand alone short stories within the context of a Holocaust unit or course. I use Sara Nomberg Przytyk”s book, “Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land” that way, selecting two chapters from her memoir. From Five Chimneys, I might excerpt Chapter IX, The Infirmary, and the scene with nurse Eva Weiss who contracted scarlet fever. To spare her comrades the torturing anxieties awaiting the arrival of the fake ambulance that would take them to the gas chamber, she convinced them that they would be taken to a larger hospital for treatment. The moral dilemma of telling a lie to ease suffering against the right to know the truth is an interesting one. I use a chapter from Sara Nomberg Przytyk’s book where she, also in an infirmary has a similar moral dilemma. She knows that a group that is passing throughout the infirmary has been selected for the gas chambers but they are completely unaware. She wrestles with the decision to tell them the truth or to remain silent and not cause them frightful anticipation of death in their last hours.

      I so look forward to reading, discussing and hearing from all of you. Thank you in advance for helping me to process and be a more effective facilitator of authentic learning in the classroom.

      • I agree, Patrick. This year, I taught 8th grade–there is no way I could set this book in their hands. I did read some excerpts, specifically about Olgo’s family leaving and arriving at the camp. I found it difficult to read as an adult.

    • In my study of anti-Semitism, Judaism, and the Holocaust, at some point one would think there would be a toughening of the skin. Perhaps the fact that this hasn’t happened is a good thing. As I read Lengyel’s account of her experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau, sitting in silence reading, I found it hard to keep my composure. Each survivor story that I have read or heard has been profoundly unique in the person’s ability to persevere, but cruelly the same in the inhumanity of the perpetrators and treatment they received. The clarity and matter-of-fact writing that Jennifer commented in in her post, gave me the sense that Lengyel writes—and understandably so—in a state of shock. Lengyel’s account of the cruelty and indifference of the perpetrators rises to a level that is incomprehensible to me and left me numb.
      Tomorrow at 4:30am, I depart with 100 8th graders for a week in our nation’s capital. Our trip includes visiting the USHMM. My teaching team and I have been preparing our students for the visit leveraging the Echoes & Reflection curriculum, but I also found reading expert’s from Lengyel’s memoir powerful in answering the class’s questions on why the Jews did not fight back, why would they go without a fight, why not resist, etc. As mentioned in prior post, they often have the idea that the Holocaust was sudden. Testimony—whether heard or read—is so powerful in helping the students better understand the cause and effect of racial/religious prejudice.

    • I have noticed that there hasn’t been that much discussion on this optional discussion forum. I know everyone is swamped with the end of the school year, and many may not have had time to read Olga’s memoir. I have read the memoir a number of times now because it is one of the texts I use in my course “Examining the Holocaust Through Literature” with my seniors. I just wanted to post here a word of encouragement to read the memoir if you can, even if it is on the plane on the way to the Seminar. It is such a powerful piece and, in my opinion, eye-opening to the depth of the horrors of the Holocaust not conveyed in some pieces. just my two cents of encouragement. 🙂

    • I am still reading ‘Five Chimneys’, but last night with it was very difficult for me. I have heard many survivor accounts, quite a few face-to-face; none have been as graphic or detailed as Olga’s.

      Three issues have been particularly disturbing for me. Te first deals with the SS’s masterful, twisted use of human psychology. We have the desperate need to shelter ourselves from harm — and to believe in the good of humanity — in order to save our sanity.

      Second, the moral issue is always at the forefront of my mind — not surprising, since I teach morality. I am struggling through the decisions which Olga recounts, particularly that of her having to kill infants to save the lives of their mothers from execution, too. Her self-condemnation for this repeated act is gut-wrenching for me, and really brings to light the fact that moral choices are always in concrete situations — not ‘what-ifs’, as I call them with my students — and that they are truly life-changing tests of virtue.

      Finally, I was kept awake all last night, unable to the image out of my head of Nazi mattresses, made out of human hair. I kept SEEING them, powerless against a feeling of drowning in humiliation. I KNOW that it doesn’t compare — not even a drop in the proverbial bucket — but I kept feeling the same emotions as I did just over a year ago, when I had all of my hair cut off at the start of my chemo an radiation treatments. It was a feeling of losing my femininity, of fear of pain, fear of the unknown, being less than I was just moments before… of somehow standing exposed and raw and small. The sheering of hair, and the idea of someone else sleeping peacefully on others’ pain and suffering, is VERY ‘LIVE’ for me.

      • Dear Stefani,
        What a brave and honest response. Olga’s book is stunning (as others have also commented) in its proximity to the events, in its honesty, in its searing pain. But you bring us into the present sharing your own vulnerability and what the loss of your hair meant to you. Past and present colliding, once again, in images, however different the context.
        Thank you for sharing your gut wrenching response; thank you for your courage.

    • Olga’s book is very powerful. It has taken me a few days to complete because it’s difficult to read about such human suffering page after page, such as the killing of the babies to save the mothers and Olga’s lament that “the Germans succeeded in making murderers of even us.” It is all so heart-breaking. I have read other accounts, but this book does a very good job of explaining day to day life and what Olga witnessed while there.
      I toured Auschwitz and Birkenau in July 2013. I find myself picturing the camp as she talked about it. One memory I had from our visit there was of a Jewish man leading a group of Jewish teenage boys in some sort of memorial service near the area of Birkenau that once housed the crematorium. We all got choked up as we watched this generation that was not supposed to exist remember their ancestors.
      I was also struck by what Olga said of the Hungarian police. On page 127 she wrote, “This mass extermination was undertaken with the active complicity of the pro-German Hungarian government. Indeed, Hungary was the only country to send official commissions into the camps to come to agreement with the administration on the rate and speed of deportation.” We have a local Hungarian Holocaust survivor who often speaks at our Holocaust related events. I even brought my eighth graders to the synagogue to hear her story. When I told her last summer I would be visiting Hungary and asked if I could bring her back a souvenir, her expression hardened and she said she wanted no remembrances of a country that turned its back on her and her family. Now I understand why.

    • I just finished Olga’s book. There are basically no words to describe what she saw and endured. The opening of the first chapter where she feels she sent her family to death almost caused me to lose my composure. I know several Holocaust survivors here in Houston who were in Birkenau. Their stories mirror hers. Having visited the camp, I could envision the places to which she referred. This book along with Filip Muller’s Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers gave me detailed accounts of their lives in this particular hellhole. It is amazing and sickening how the Nazi’s planned out every last detail. Nothing was left to chance.

    • I agree with you about the toughening of the skin. My stomach has a rough time also. I don’t pretend to know that much about the Holocaust even though I have studied it for many years. But I am amazed and stunned at “new things” I discover.

    • I just finished reading Olga’s memoir and like everything else, it was very difficult to get through her memoir. Having seen Birkenau, some of the memories I had were intertwined with what I was reading in this book. It’s still difficult to comprehend everything Olga and the others went through. It’s even more difficult to have walked the same areas they did and imagining all that went on. One of the themes that stood out to me was humanity where Olga described how there were still people who did not submit to the cruelty by becoming what they were seen as, which is inhuman. The fact that they were able to endure so much and still maintain their humanness is a testament to their strength and spirit. Like Olga mentioned, these stories need to be told so that something like this never happens again.

  • Hi everybody,

    I just wanted to take the opportunity to say hello as well and let you know that I am really looking forward to meeting you all – first here in the forum and then in person in New York.

    At the […]

  • Michael Franke posted a new activity comment 10 years, 7 months ago

    In reply to: Michael Franke changed their profile picture View

    Hi Marcia,
    Please don’t feel bad – because the page is not there yet! It is absolutely not your fault 🙂
    I would set up the forum pages but I need more information from you. This is what last years book discussion looked like:

    Entry Number 1:
    Fall Online Reading Group
    In the beginning of October, we are planning on using our website to host a…[Read more]

  • Michael Franke changed their profile picture 11 years, 1 month ago

    • Hi, how are you? I am missing the group but excited to get back into the classroom and share my new knowledge. Thanks again for all your help.
      Karen

    • Hi Micha, I’m trying to get a handle on the book group and looking for where it is on the site. Imagine this: I am lost!
      Will you let me know what I need to do and how I do it? Ha-ha.
      Thanks,
      Marcia

    • Hi Marcia,
      Please don’t feel bad – because the page is not there yet! It is absolutely not your fault 🙂
      I would set up the forum pages but I need more information from you. This is what last years book discussion looked like:

      Entry Number 1:
      Fall Online Reading Group
      In the beginning of October, we are planning on using our website to host a…[Read more]