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Last-Modified: 1995/01/10

The Globe and Mail, "Facts & Arguments" page
October 20, 1994

   COUNTERING SWASTIKAS / Holocaust revisionists may be able to
   influence a student who merely studies history from textbooks. They
   won't get far with a child who has heard the tale from a survivor.

   Hearing history from those who lived it
   By Iona Whishaw

   A BOY in my class, when asked about the Second World War, smirks
   and draws a bouquet of swastikas on the board. "Heil Hitler," he
   laughs, and his friends at his table give him the high five.

   I'm appalled. But I'm also a modern teacher, I don't want to slam
   his ideas in class, or make him feel bad. All I want to do is teach
   a unit on the Holocaust.

   I discover that in all my classes only four kids have even heard of
   the Holocaust. This boy, one of the four, may have seen pictures of
   Nazi youth goups and been attracted by their look of power or their
   snappy red, white and black flagging. Or maybe he has a game on his
   computer. Who knows?

   It's a struggle to figure out how I'm going to teach the subject.
   You know kids today. If they read at all they read Stephen King and
   Danielle Steel. I plan a couple of movies, a novel, worksheets. The
   usual.

   I also asked a speaker from the local Holocaust society to address
   the class. He's a survivor of Polish ghettos and then the death
   camps. I'm a bit anxious that children who have been perfecting the
   shortness of their attention spans with video games will be bored
   with a speaker. They usually grow impatient with me after five
   minutes. I imagine his talk will take longer than that.

   It does. It actually takes two hours. He is not a particularly
   prepossessing speaker. He stands quietly and tells his story. He
   does not use emotional language; indeed he seems to steer clear of
   it deliberately, and simply relates the events of his life. He
   names quietly each loss: his mother, his father, his brothers, his
   cousins.

   The students will tell me later that in their minds they had put
   themselves in his place and tried to imagine his losses, and could
   not.

   The students, these offspring of the Sega generation and the quick
   high, are spellbound. I understand suddenly. They love stories, and
   this is a story. Stories about real people engage them, give flesh
   to events, bind them to the possibility that these accounts could
   be their lives.

   They will tell me at the end of the year that the Holocaust address
   was the best thing we did all year. They will write the speaker
   letters and tell him they want to be more alert about racism.

   With one sentence he had made the Holocaust universal. "This is not
   a story just about Jews. It is a story about racsism." The penny
   dropped for my students.

   He told them that in a small British Columbia community where he
   spoke, the Ku Klux Klan came to recruit, and the students mounted a
   demonstration against them. The KKK left, without having a chance
   to infect their minds. I understand now that influencing school
   children is all about who gets to them first.

   Adolescents are burning with energy, with the urge to find
   rightness, with a profound desire to be involved in something, to
   be at the centre of events. They listen to stories avidly and
   believe them, and side with the good guys.

   Our children don't want to become racists and Klan members because
   they want to be bad. They long to be identified with the persecuted
   and be involved in salvation. Any group seeking to influence them
   knows this. Racist groups no less than religious groups all use the
   same tactics - they tell stories. They offer an opportunity for
   kids to take sides, to take action.

   I understand now the value of stories, of the enormous potential
   that exists in our communities of people who have experienced
   things. Our students need to hear stories, real stories.

   A student who studies the Holocaust in the usual way in a history
   class may be susceptible to the wheedling and persuasiveness of
   revisionists masquerading as rational and balanced thinkers.

   A student who has spent two hours hearing real stories is less
   likely to fall for their arguments.

   [Iona Whishaw teaches in a secondary school in Vancouver, and is a
   writer and translator]

   =30=

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