Category Archives: Trip to Berlin and Amsterdam

The Good Mother

I remember being 27 and pregnant with Mia; my first child when  I read a book titled “The Good Mother” by Sue Miller. Very briefly, the book is about a woman who faces losing her daughter in a custody battle. Reading that book, I realized there could be nothing worse than a child being forcibly separated from his or her mother.

I thought of that book when I viewed the memorial Trains to Death – Trains to Life at Friedrichstrasse Railway Station in Berlin. Unlike most of the memorials in Berlin, this memorial is not abstract, instead it depicts children, life-sized children, on a journey.  “The monument depicts seven life-sized children on a bronze railtrack plinth. At the back, two neat children in brown bronze, their smart suitcases and violin case upright, look ahead to the West. In front, East-facing, in black bronze, are five anguished children in shabby clothes and laceless boots. Behind them is a huddle of black battered suitcases gaping empty but for a tiny naked baby doll missing one leg in the corner of one case.” (Bronia Veitch)

Memorial Trains to Death, Trains to Life - These children are heading west to safety

These children are heading east to Auschwitz and death

From November 30, 1938 to September of 1939, 10,000 children were sent by their families or sent from orphanages if their families had already been arrested to possible safety in England. Most of their parents and grandparents would be killed in concentration camps.  Some of the children, such as my friend’s mother Ingrid, went to Sweden and safety. While Ingrid’s parents would never know that their daughter survived the Nazi regime, they at least knew they had made the right decision when they brought Ingrid to Friedrichstrasse station to put her on a train to Sweden in 1939. Three years later, Ingrid’s parents were among the 140,000 Jews deported to Theresienstadt. Approximately 33,000 died there, while 90,000 were sent on to extermination camps, such as Auschwitz where both of Ingrid’s parents were murdered. While 10,000 children were saved by the kindertransports, it is important to remember that 1.5 million children met a different fate during the Holocaust.

There is much more to this story; there is the complicity of the German state railway system which ran trains that eventually transported 1.5 million people to their deaths. The German state railway did apologize for their significant role in the Holocaust. But when did it apologize? A full 62 years and 7 months after the end of the war in Europe. 62 years.  Our group visited another memorial at track 17 of the  Grunewald S-Bahn station from which more than 50,000 of Berlin’s Jewish citizens boarded trains taking them to extermination camps. This memorial was created in 1991 and lines the platform of the railway.

The memorial with Yarzheit (Jewish memorial) candles

Each panel along the tracks gives the date and number of Jews deported and to which concentration camp they were sent

On my free day in Berlin, we happened to walk by the Friedrichstrasse station and see a mother with her two children standing in front of the memorial. Her children were having their pictures taken with the ‘kinder’. The little girl put her arm around the bronze child almost unaware that her mother was taking a photo. She was just a child at play. But any mother looking at the statue can’t help but ask, would I have been good’ enough to send my child off to an uncertain fate knowing that in all likelihood I would  never see my child again? Most Jewish mothers were not given this ‘choice’; their children were ripped from their arms and sent to their untimely deaths. And the kindertransports lasted but 8 months.

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A Berlin Memorial and a Philosophy of Education

Why do we teach? I thought about this question while reading a blog by a newer teacher describing the oppressive nature of some school systems and the teacher oversight ala Michell Rhee and other ‘rock star reformers’ .  Teaching in some urban schools  has become so prescriptive that the human side of teaching, the reason most of us went into the profession, has been eliminated.

While in Berlin, I asked my two fellow study tour participants, why and if it was important to teach about the Holocaust. More specifically, I asked if it was worthwhile to teach a detailed unit on the Holocaust to secondary school students. We didn’t immediately say yes. We grappled with this as we visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Wannsee (where Heydrich and other Nazis finalized the plans for the ‘final solution’), and Gestapo headquarters. When we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe the question became philosophical. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete pillars or stelae  of varying heights. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman the memorial is large and open to the Berlin streets; it beckons the visitor to walk through the stelae. “One of Germany’s preeminent architectural critics, Heinrich Wefing [describes the memorial as] …a beautiful abstraction that does not dictate what its observer should think or experience, but is nonetheless thoughtful and moving.” (pbs.org). When I entered the memorial, I felt off-balanced and calm, but soon I saw a child and a father chasing each other through the pillars, a couple of teenagers hanging out on top of a lower concrete slab, and a girl having some glamour shots taken against the pillar. My calm was gone and my discomfort began. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this much freedom.  Peter Eisenman, when talking about the uses of the memorial says “that is something I have no control over. When you turn a project over to clients, they do with it what they want — it’s theirs and they occupy your work. You can’t tell them what to do with it.” The German government has not been as free as the architect. They have covered the stelae with an anti-graffiti coating and posted rules such as no running or yelling; enforcing the rules is a bit harder. Still, the memorial is open to individual interpretation and the visitor is largely responsible for his or her own behavior within the 2711 pillars. There is no script for how a visitor should feel about the memorial or about the Holocaust. The architect has created a place of memory, but the individual must decide ‘what to do with it’.

Schools and classrooms are also guided by a philosophy. There are schools such as Waldorf Schools which try to develop the whole child. Similar schools try to create an open learning environment where students can engage freely with classmates, develop skills  at their own pace, and pursue their own interests. On the other hand, we have the prescriptive learning of programs such as Balanced Literacy or Success for All, with a script for teachers to follow. Perhaps the analogy between democracy and fascism is too obvious. I’m not sure if it is too strong. I do know that the children who attend Waldorf Schools and other open learning schools are from progressive, free thinking families, where the parents take an active role in their child’s education (think the Obama and Clinton family).  I also know that the students in balanced literacy classes and other prescriptive programs are overwhelmingly poor and minority. Trust and respect are the key philosophical underpinnings of private schools and wealthier public schools. The school trusts that the student and his or her family will take an active role in the educational process. The school’s role is to foster an environment that encourages intellectual exploration, open discussion, and analysis of information. In many urban schools, the students, families, and teachers are not to be trusted. Instead an administrator or more and more often a politician decides what children will learn and how they will learn it.

This philosophy is antithetical to a course on the Holocaust or any course that explores human behavior. In these classrooms there can be no script. The topic is human behavior.  The difficult issues and the uncomfortable ideas are grappled with and brought to the forefront. The education belongs to the students and they do with it what they want.