One of the most powerful books I read as a preteen was Fran Arrick’s Chernowitz. A young adult novel about bullying and antisemitism, I recently revisited it as I read it aloud to my own kids. Told mostly in flashback form, the novel leads up to an episode of revenge by the victim to the antisemitic bully, followed by a school assembly about the Holocaust led by the school principal as an attempted antidote. While the victim goes through tremendous personal growth as he realizes the limits of vengeance, his tormenter is portrayed as blinded by bigotry and beyond redemption.
I wondered how the themes would hold up a generation later and in the context of my own kids’ lives. Given that at the time I first read it I attended Jewish day school and was surrounded by almost all Jewish friends, I wondered how my kids – who are one of only a few Jewish kids at their large public elementary school – would react. I like to think that their Jewish identity is solid and their friendships nurturing enough to feel secure from the ignorance from which racism and prejudice stems. On this, time will tell.
The theme of revenge is also apt in today’s political climate, where cycles of violence are all too prevalent on a global scale. While it can taste sweet at the time, revenge – rather than justice-seeking – all too often leaves a bitter aftertaste. The book succeeds in mining this ethical complexity. I also appreciate the author’s unvarnished treatment of bigotry and the lesson around how important and sometimes challenging it is to keep parent-child communication open and flowing.
But the book’s final scene – that of the school assembly where graphic Holocaust footage is shown to the students – left me wondering. Assuming empathy and awareness are good antidotes to all kinds of prejudice including antisemitism, how much exposure is too much, particularly when it comes to images of Nazi atrocities?
My own kids know that their paternal grandfather was a survivor of Auschwitz. They have heard of Hitler – he is a common word in their vocabulary, for better or worse, and they know something of the Holocaust. But, as I read the final pages of Chernowitz to them aloud, I found myself omitting much of the excruciatingly graphic imagery, which included references to Mengele’s victims.
When it comes to Holocaust education, the consensus now seems to be that graphic imagery should be used “judiciously,” in the words of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum – and “only to the extent necessary to achieve the lesson objective. Try to select images and texts that do not exploit the students’ emotional vulnerability or that might be construed as disrespectful to the victims themselves,” the museum advises educators on its website.
Julie Dawn Freeman, a professor of history, has warned that exposing students to too much graphic imagery can backfire in multiple ways: it can desensitize students to the subject, it can provide students with a sense that classroom trust has been violated, it can unwittingly provide a voyeuristic experience and it can dehumanize as well as stereotype the victims.
On all of these counts, the fictional principal’s shocking assembly, while well-intentioned, probably failed.
For these and other reasons, many of us have tended to focus on individual perspectives. In this vein, Anne Frank’s diary has, of course, had great impact. And many educators have made wonderful use of direct survivor testimony. When my father-in-law Bill Gluck was younger, he made a point to visit Vancouver schools and community centres to share his tale of survival. I have been fortunate to host Ottawa’s David Shentow in my course at Carleton. But, as we know, and as my own family experienced firsthand this year with the loss of my father-in-law, our own loved ones in the form of Holocaust survivors won’t be around forever.
Prejudice, hatred, suffering and revenge are heady themes for kids and preteens. Whatever our methodology for getting students to think ethically, at the very first, we can work our hardest to get them to think about basic impulses like kindness.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.