Teaching the Holocaust: how one student's memory was triggered

Teaching the Holocaust: how one student's memory was triggered

“She was locked in a closet for days and starved. Her crime was resisting her Mom’s boyfriend from touching her”.  As we traveled to many schools in Illinois and Wisconsin helping students to understand the Holocaust we were surprised by the comments made by them.

After each class the students received an evaluation form to fill out and comment on what they had learned.  They were not required to fill out their name but only to be honest about the lesson.  We had learned that the students needed some help in writing their comments. We asked them several questions to stimulate their mind and focus on the subject.

One of the questions asked “What is the most disturbing fact that you learned about today”?  The answers were varied as the students are varied. After they completed the evaluation form we scanned through the answers so we knew what the student was thinking.

It startled us to read one particular student’s comment: “The most disturbing thing I learned today was about the beatings, but basically everything. I thought it was crazy about the urine and bread but it’s understandable. I come from an abusive, neglected and a rape background. I had been starved and locked in a closet for days when I bit my Mom’s boyfriend for touching me, etc. So I understand the feeling of starvation and the feeling of knowing you’re going to die”.

At first we wondered if this student telling a story or the truth.  After talking with her teacher we were told every word was true. She was an abused child who had run away from home on numerous occasions, got into trouble with the law, shifted from foster home to foster home and did not do well in school.  We were further informed that through counseling and finding a loving home, she was able to enter society and the educational system and now was a model student.

The teacher introduced us to the student and we were told further horror stories about her abusive background. They truly shocked us. She was affable, even charming, well adjusted and learned to move forward with her life and not look back. One particular part of our lecture awakened her nightmare and caused her to vent her comments.

Earlier in the program we had talked about starvation, not being hungry because dinner is late but real starvation when you don’t know where next morsel of bread would come. We told the students about a person fleeing the Nazi’s that had not eaten in several days and was starving. He found a piece of bread someone had thrown away and went on his hands and knees to recover the bread, only to find it very hard. He had to eat that bread, his head ached and his body growled with pain so he did what he could to eat some of it. He urinated on the ground to soften up the dirt and then took the bread and soaked it into the mud and urine. Now that’s hunger! He proceeded to eat the bread the best he could and saved his sanity and life for another day.  That man was my Father-In-Law who was fleeing from Germany, escaping the onslaught of a country gone insane.

The student, after hearing my wife tell of her father’s brush with death understood more than most, the terror he felt, the pains of hunger and fearing the end will come any moment.

Many of the students commented on how skinny the people were and couldn’t imagine in their young minds what real starvation felt like. The young lady that shared her story with us is now an adult and living a normal life.  Our hope was the lesson she learned from us helped her to further stabilize her life

Memories light the corners of my mind. The memory of this young student has become part of my consciousness.

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