Breaking the Cycle of Hate: A Teacher’s Journey (Jerz’s CCCC 05 Notes)
I met Sondra Perl on the shuttle ride from the airport. She told me her presentation would be on her experience talking about the Holocaust with writing students in Austria. Since Seton Hill has a National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, we exchanged cards and I told her I’d suggest her name as a possible future speaker.
Her description of her journey from an angry woman, uncomfortable with her identity as an ethnic Jew in Austria, among those whose parents were Nazis. She asked her students to reflect on their attitudes towards their own past, and in the process found that her own reflective process taught her much more about herself than she expected. She did not experience the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand, neither did her parents; yet she was taught from an early age to hate Nazis, and by extension, all Germans and Austrians.
The most emotional part of her talk, for me, came in response to a question from an audience member. While she herself does not see how it is possible for the generation that lived through the Holocaust to forgive, she says she feels it’s the obligation of the second generation to start taking steps so that the third generation does not perpetuate the hatred. For instance, she described one of her adult students inviting her to dinner with her in-laws — an elderly couple who had been members of the Nazi party.
Perl said she couldn’t think of how to start the conversation, other than asking the couple to tell their story, which they did. The dinner was well underway when one of them asked why they were so curious about life in Austria during the war, and Perl and her student replied, in German, “We are Jews.”
The old mother-in-law put her head down and said nothing for a while. Then she said, “It happened.”
While that simple statement cannot undo the wrongs of the past, and didn’t seem to satisfy all of Perls’s emotional needs at the present, Perl was insightful enough to recognize the momentous value of that admission in the eyes of the teenaged granddaughter who was eating dinner with them.
This young girl saw Jews and Nazis breaking bread together — a powerful image capable of restoring one’s faith in humanity.
My notes stop at that point — I sat there, stunned by the sheer power of hope.