School children are deliberately kept in the dark as to why they’re viewing one ghoulish aspect of the Holocaust in what becomes an anti-bullying workshop.
The emphasis in the program, called “Steps,” is for children to literally map out who did what to whom as civilians witnessed their Jewish neighbors being targeted by the Nazis. Little do the pupils know — ages 10 to 12 — that the four major roles they’re examining — which individuals were forced to choose from in the Holocaust — will come full circle in their world of epidemic bullying.
They, too, are forced to choose among those four options as they watch a bully target one of their classmates. Those few choices include: 1. Perpetrator 2. Victim/Target 3. Bystander 4. Ally/Hero.
One of the first questions adolescents are asked in the four-part workshop hints at the program’s deeper message: “What role did most civilians play in the Holocaust?” says a docent before her 5th and 6th grade audience. She is one of a team of presenters who can take advantage of the elaborate Nazi exhibits where the 2½ tour/workshop is conducted: The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, an internationally renown history and civil-rights center.
Children do not always confine their answers to the facts laid out for them in their guidebook, called an “Explorer Notebook. ”It clearly establishes the end result of what can happen in a world filled with bystanders. “That answer is simple,” says a 6th grader from a Jewish school. “They chose the easy way out” he asserts and correctly points out civilians (mostly) acted as “bystanders.”
All of the students start the tour by watching a short-introductory film on the Holocaust which offers a glimmer of hope from this dark chapter in history. The mini-documentary features the “lucky” few Jewish children, now speaking as adults into the camera, who recount their inspirational stories of having been saved by kind Christians.
Later adolescents learn the startling statistic that 99 percent of the civilian population acted much differently as the Nazis exerted their power in Europe and the Middle East. They looked the other way, in nearly every country.
Mid-way through the program, children learn they, too, face the same terrible odds when they find themselves targeted by a bully. When push comes to punch (literally), the reality is children are more likely to join the bully, then act as a friend of the targeted victim. But most act as bystanders.
Adolescents can easily grasp the ultimate aim of the workshop. “People got to choose the role they played,” says the docent. “Only one group didn’t get to choose,” adds the presenter. Putting a human face on the role of victim/target, the docent asks: “Did Anne Frank and her family get to decide their fate?”
One of the children wants to know who “told on the family,” and the other Jews who shared their hiding place in Amsterdam. “We don’t know for certain,” says the docent, “but it was suspected that a neighbor (Nazi sympathizer) turned them in.” That definitive answer has been lost to history.
Children appear to seamlessly absorb the dynamic of — who did what to whom — in the phase of the tour that allows them to actually examine remnants of World War II. They are ushered into the “Artifacts Room” and do not appear the least bit shy about rummaging through black boxes teeming over with objects from concentration camps and reminders of Nazi racial policies. Pupils are broken up into smaller groups and they become extremely animated as they match up the artifacts to the four major roles. (The items are encased in protective plastic with children man-handling the items in a constant stream of tours.)
“Did this come from a concentration camp?” asks a 5th grader from the Jewish school. He is holding up the dreaded yellow star Jews were forced to wear. “Let me see,” is a constant refrain heard from pupils seated next to one another.
Many of the items, explains the docent, were collected from death camps, but she isn’t certain of the star’s original collection site. But, “yes, it’s real,” and formerly worn by a Jewish victim.
Another student gravitates toward an item referred to as the “Hitler Doll” which was once a popular gift in Germany (circa 1930s and 40s). He wants to know whether the Storm Trooper toy is wearing a Hitler mustache. The doll, adorned in military uniform and Nazi insignias, doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Adolf Hitler.
“Did Hitler have blond hair and blue eyes?” asks the docent remarking on the doll’s “ideal” Aryan physical make-up. She holds up a popular portrait of Adolf Hitler (circa 1930s and 40s), pointing out the German leader failed to fit his own Ubermensch model of racial superiority. “Does that make sense?,” she asks.
Sometimes children offer answers that demonstrate insights far beyond their adolescent years. “It doesn’t make sense,” says a 5th grade boy from the Jewish school, “because racism doesn’t make sense.”
Ultimately children must make value judgments and match up the artifacts to the actions people took. “This is a no brainer,” says a student holding up the yellows star. She places the artifact in the pile marked “victim/target”. As for the Hitler doll, the children decide on the role of “perpetrator,” But the docent points out the Christmas “stocking stuffer” also qualifies as a “victim/target,” because children cannot decide on their own indoctrination or exposure to Nazi ideals.
The bridge between the two worlds cannot be missed as bullying becomes a worsening epidemic. Educators have found increasing cruelty among children, regardless of a school’s zip code. Pointing out the main goal of the workshop — the docents circle back to the role of “ally-hero”. (Historians estimate that a minuscule 1/10th of 1 percent of the civilian population acted as heroes, rising above the herd mentality in their countries.)
“What does it take to be a hero?” asks the tour guide. One child offers a sophisticated answer rarely heard: “You have to decide (that) your life is not the most important thing.” Chances are excellent many of the Holocaust heroes, including the multitudes never recognized, made that very decision. Typically children give answers reflective of their innocent age: You have to be “brave,” “courageous” and above all “kind.”
Where all of this leads is best summed up by the actual anti-bullying segment. Children become the most vocal and involved in this phase of the tour. They appear riveted by questions delving into their perceptions about today’s world of bullying. “Have you ever been bullied?” qualifies as one of the numerous questions that appears on an overhead screen in what’s called the “Blue Room”. The children can be heard giggling nervously as they answer — anonymously — hitting their remote controls, and watching their responses immediately tabulated on screen.
Sixty-five percent confirm they’ve been on the receiving end of a classmate being mean to them. “Do you always report a bullying situation?” receives a slightly higher 70 percent. When the docent asks “why” wouldn’t someone report the problem, one student admits the obvious: “The bully might come after you.” The docent wants to know whether heroes in the Holocaust had the same fears about rescuing their Jewish neighbors, or even complete strangers. “Did they fear the Nazis would turn on them?”
The final segment of the 2-12/ hour tour culminates in what’s considered the most important part: Children can hear from a Jewish survivor (actually) telling them what it was like to escape through what was considered the “invisible hole” in the Nazi dragnet. At this juncture, adolescents are reminded of their special place in history. ’Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness,” says the docent quoting author and survivor Elie Wiesel.
It is the luck of the draw who the youngsters hear from. Dorothy, now in her late 80s, serves as their speaker and is a seasoned volunteer at the center. She fits the profile of most of the Jewish survivors in the “Steps” program: She was placed in hiding.
When Dorothy learns the children are Jewish, she takes a few liberties with questions she asks her young audience. “How many of you believe in angels?” she says.
Her question is met with a sea of raised hands. The children appear fascinated by the part of her story detailing her narrow escape from local Nazis in Poland. She was a girl of nine, trying to make herself invisible in a pile of hay behind livestock on a small farm. The bugs, she remembers, were “eating (her) up alive.” At that time, her parents had placed her in the care of kind Christian neighbors.
Miraculously the Nazis — using a German Shepherd — failed to pick up her scent in the search. “What do you think saved me?” she asks. One fifth grader ventures an answer: “A bug jumped in the dog’s mouth,” he says believing that stopped the dog from barking. The survivor waves her hand indicating that was not the correct answer.
More than 75 years later, Dorothy is convinced that it was an angel that protected her from arrest and deportation to a death camp. It was that same miracle that guarded her host family, she believes. The farmer later learned a neighbor had denounced them for hiding a Jewish child.
“Why weren’t there more angels?” asks a pupil who seems to factor in the bigger picture of Jews who were far less fortunate. The survivor appears to have not heard the question, and moves on with her story. It is obvious she is in fragile health, and this group of children will be among the last to hear her story. She will pass away less than a year later.
In this case, the child’s inquiry about the shortage of angels would be one of the many questions that goes begging in the Holocaust. Tragically there was never a shortage of bystanders.
Robyn Dolgin is a contributing writer to Kiddish magazine.