I had never seen this picture before. Normally you see pictures of people behind barbed wire with the look of horror or resignation on their faces as you would expect at a concentration camp. This picture, in contrast, shows triumph. They survived the nightmare of the camps. January 27th marked the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
I visited the camp in 1972 and was disturbed by how well preserved the buildings and “facilities” were. It was as if a freight train could have pulled up at that moment and unloaded its cargo of human beings. The entrance behind the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign actually reminded me of the entrances to many German youth hostels I stayed at with flower beds in bloom and a little decorative sign directing visitors to the showers. On January 27th of this year, I watched live coverage on German TV of the official ceremony where many survivors spoke to an audience of world leaders. However, I have also read that 52% of the world doesn’t know about Auschwitz. Does it matter?
The knowledge about Auschwitz didn’t prevent the massacres in Cambodia or Srebrenica or Rwanda or now in Syria/Iraq. And the next massacre will not necessarily be like Auschwitz with trains and gas chambers. Still, I feel compelled to expose my ESL class to one of the greatest human tragedies in recent history. Is there a place for Auschwitz in the ESL classroom? In an ESL grammar class? If Santayana is right when he says, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” then aren’t I under an obligation to make sure my students are aware of what human beings have been capable of doing to each other?
I have asked colleagues about this, and no one has told me not to do it, but there haven’t been many suggestions either. A friend said, “I’m sure that you will be able to somehow weave the topic into your classes.” Another friend suggested that I ask students to think about major events in their countries that caused many people to die as a way of getting students to start thinking about genocide, war, famine, etc.
The Chinese may think of Nanking, the Japanese Hiroshima, the Ukrainians Stalin , the Vietnamese the Americans, and the Russians the Germans. Another part to this dilemma is that I have two German students in my classes. My purpose in showing Auschwitz is not to show what Germans can do, but what human beings can do, but will this be understood?
I lived in Germany for 11 years, and if there ever were a country that dealt in a meaningful way with its recent past, it is Germany. And yet, young Germans to this day are called Nazis by foreigners when they are angry at them. Look at the Greeks and their recent caricatures of Angela Merkel as Hitler. This has left me very unsure, and I am still pondering whether I should pursue this or not. If yes, how?
I’m thinking here of film. Not the documentaries. Every November 11th, I try to explain why we have a holiday on this particular day. I show scenes from the film, All Quiet on the Western Front. It is horrific. We usually are studying adjective clauses, so students can write about what the soldiers had to do when poison gas was dropped on them, or what they did when they found rats in their trenches. The students can use the structures we are studying while watching the film. But the main point here is to show that the holiday was to commemorate the end of the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” This war was such a terrible war that no war was supposed to ever follow it.
With this in mind, perhaps I could use a feature film that dealt with the concentration camps. Again, students can use the structures we are studying to write about what they see in the film. Maybe Playing for Time. Maybe. But it has to be clear that I am bringing this topic into the classroom on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz so that these students are not part of the 52% of the world that has never heard of Auschwitz.