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is amazing how much young children can comprehend when one takes them seriously
and talks to them in a straight-forward manner.
Years ago, as president of Moorhead State University in Minnesota, I sometimes talked to grade--school pupils of the college laboratory school. Recently I was "drafted" to talk to my granddaughter's fourth- grade class in Olympia, Wash., about Germany and my childhood experiences there. Here are excerpts.
"I HAVE been told that you have discussed Nazi Germany in class and that you might be interested in the experiences of someone who was your age around the time the Nazis were taking power. When my son, Roger, the father of your schoolmate Leni, told me that I would be speaking to you this morning, I wondered where to begin. Then I came up with the great idea of beginning at the beginning. That is not as easy as it sounds. Of course, I began when I was born. You might say, yes, that is a good way to begin. But actually, the background history of Nazi Germany began long before that. So there is more than one beginning. One is when Germany first became a united country."
I told the class how the first German Reich under the Kaiser was established in 1871, as a result of Count Bismarck’s military and political policies, then about World War I and its aftermath, including the second German Reich (the Weimar republic), then about Hitler's Third Reich, and the partition of Germany following World War II, and finally about ,the recent reunification.
I described the misery, inflation, and depression that occurred after Germany lost World War I and tried to show how this helped the National Socialists (Nazis) and their leader (Fuhrer) to come to power. I talked in some detail about the terrible conditions in which the unemployed lived in the 1920s, explaining that it was far worse than the kind of poverty and homelessness that still prevails even in a wealthy country like our own.
I continued: "Since we are talking about the history of the Nazis, let me say something about history. Many people believe that ‘history’ is whatever happened. But it isn't quite like that. For example, I must warn you that when I tell you about Germany, it is the way I remember it and understand it, but that is not necessarily the way it happened. One way of telling the difference between history and what really happened is to stress that it's HIS-story or, of course, HER-story. (It's very important to remember that it is not necessarily his story, because it could be her story; after all, girls and boys are equally worthy).
"It was in 1931 that I myself was a fourth-grader -- a long time ago, as you can tell by my gray hair. German elementary schools then were quite different from the airy, colorful, carpeted schools you go to. When I first went as a six-year-old, the schoolroom was drab and crowded. There were 56 of us in the class - all boys. I was kind of sorry there were no girls, since I liked girls, too (laughter). Actually, I think, it is better and more natural for boys and girls to attend the same school, as you do."
I recounted my beginning school days, explaining that the German school year started at Easter (to my listeners' great astonishment). I described how we were separated into three divisions for religious instruction, and how surprised I was when I was assigned to a small minority, the Jewish group. Up to then, I had learned much more about being German than about being Jewish. I also explained how Jewish women were brought as prisoners of Teutonic soldiers to the Rhineland 1,700 year ago. It was their offspring who constituted the first Jewish settlement on German land.
In response to a comment, I added: "Of course, it's silly either to praise or blame someone for being born Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or whatever religion -- or lack of it. No one is responsible for being born a boy or a girl, rich or poor, in Kansas or Kazakhstan. Take for example the bitter argument our country and others are having with Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait. Of course, no one in Iraq was asked where they wanted to be born. So why shouldn't I care for the children of Iraq as much as those of the United States or Germany? I do. Iraq may be temporarily an enemy of the United States, but it isn't the fault of the children." At that point a boy remarked that it was the fault of the leaders; several of his classmates agreed.
In response to a girl's comment I said: "Yes, after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, many people were persecuted, particularly those who belonged to working class parties like those called Social Democrats and Communists. Too, people were persecuted because they happened to be born Jewish. (While some Jewish people may not be very religious, they are still Jewish, for example, culturally.)"
After explaining the political and economic reasons for scapegoating, I continued: "It's just as unreasonable to hate people because they are Jewish, as it is to feel that way about people who are called ‘black.’. You know some of us are called ‘white’ and -others ‘black’. Actually all human beings are colored- many different shades, but none of us are either white or black. (I showed them a white page and pointed to the blackboard by way of illustration). It's terrible to be persecuted for any reason. And surely being lighter or darker or being of a different religion makes people neither better nor worse. Unfortunately, in all countries injustices have been committed. In our own country people with darker skins were enslaved for hundreds of years."
One of the pupils recounted how he had just seen a TV production on the Civil War and how slaves were freed as a result of the war.
"Prejudice is often based just on being different. Sometimes older people look down on and are prejudiced against younger people and sometimes young people are prejudiced against older people, thinking of them as old fogies (laughter). But if we want to be friendly with each other, we have to overcome prejudice."
The children: listened soberly when I told them how prejudice against and persecution of the Jews led to the Holocaust -- the killing in Nazi concentration camps of about six million European Jews, a third of the world's Jewish population.
Responding to a boy who said that his dad was German, I said that it wasn't fair to dislike anybody because of their nationality. "German children are just as good as other children. But people need to be given a chance and be educated in the right way."
For an hour and a half, the fourth-graders were attentive, asking questions, and commenting on life and death in Nazi Germany and other issues of our time. They renewed my hope for tomorrow.
|Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-1972. For the last 18 years he has been Professor of Philosophy and Social Theory at Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month.|