I heard Joe before I ever saw him. Late on a Wednesday afternoon, I sat in my office, hunched over a pile of papers, becoming more agitated as the clock pushed toward five, rushing to finish a set of responses for my morning composition class. In the background, Joe’s high, reedy voice rose and fell in conversation with a professor from another department.
I refocused on the papers in front of me. Seconds later another conversation began…this time between Joe and one of my colleagues, just two doors away. A conversation with a visitor was not what I needed, and this fellow seemed to be working his way down the hallway. I remember thinking “if I pull the door closed right now, before he comes any closer, he won’t know the difference.” As I quietly moved the door into its frame, Joe’s words hung on the air.
The next morning, I rounded the bend from my office to my classroom, coming face to face with a short, trim man, his white hair cropped in military style. This had to be Joe. “Good morning!” I called out, anxious to make up for the click of my door against him the night before.
“Are you faculty here?” he asked.
“Are you teaching a class today?” Gesturing at the professional-looking camera hanging around his neck, Joe identified himself as a graduate of our university, on campus to attend his 50th reunion. “I’m taking pictures for the Coast Guard auxiliary newsletter. Would I be able to visit your classroom?” Papers done, eager to be the ever-accommodating teacher, my conscience now slightly assuaged, I led Joe into room 321.
Joe told me a little about himself while we waited for students to settle in. After WWII, he’d come to our university via the G.I. Bill, and the changes on campus since then amazed him. “I didn’t recognize the place,” he said, as much to himself, as to me.
“It’s a coincidence that you’re here today,” I told Joe, just before he walked to a seat at the back of the classroom. “We’ve been reading and writing about WWII, the Holocaust really. They’ve just been to the Holocaust Museum on Monday.”
A few years back, a friend in the department and I developed a first-year shared-reading curriculum focusing on social justice issues. During their first semester, all of our students visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of their Fiat Lux course (Latin: “let there be light”), and the idea for our project came from a student comment during a classroom discussion of their trip.
“I’m just so glad that the Holocaust is over,” a young woman said. “It’s such a relief that nothing will ever happen again.”
Images of Darfur and the Sudan crashed against her statement. I responded by listing genocides that have occurred since the Holocaust, but I knew a list of names was useless. Over lunch, I shared my experience, and from that unsuspecting student’s words, a curriculum was born. Broken into three parts--Gazing into the Abyss, the Burning of Human Beings, and Watching the World Burn--the middle section is rooted in writing about the Holocaust.
My class, on the day Joe visited, had just finished reading from that section: segments of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus and Marione Ingram’s essay “Operation Gomorrah.” As a class, we’d been concentrating on eliminating the general from our writing, and these richly textured pieces helped the students to see complexities they hadn’t considered before.
We began class by discussing their visit to the Holocaust Museum earlier that week. I asked the students which exhibit took the Holocaust from a historical notation to reality. They told each other about piles of old shoes, covered with a blue patina of mold; about the boxcar, some hesitating to enter, some offering a prayer as they walked through; about the pictures drawn by children, the recordings of survivors, the silence of visitors. All of them mentioned the Tower Room, a room stretching upward for three floors of the museum, four walls covered with photos of the 3,276 Jews of Monastir, Macedonia, none of whom survived their deportation to Treblinka. The photographs, while submitted to the local Nazi regime for tallying purposes, are poignant signs of ordinary life stopped short—graduation and wedding shots, families picnicking on summer lawns.
“It could have been me,” one of the students shared.
“It could have been any of us,” someone responded.
“What if my father had been a Nazi?” a blonde, blue-eyed boy asked. “Would I have been able to turn against my parents?”
Granted, this may have been the most difficult class of the semester, as students confronted the reality of human betrayal. Our journey through the semester would eventually take us to a brighter place, in our research of people and organizations that worked against oppression.
But, on this day, we still had to view a film clip from Sophie’s Choice. (If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, William Styron’s beautiful mix of American naivete and the residual effects of the Holocaust, put it on your list). The clip shows Sophie’s arrival at Auschwitz with her two young children. In a desperate plea, Sophie tells an SS officer that she’s a Polish Christian. He responds by offering her a choice of which child will be allowed to live. The clip ends with Sophie’s little girl screaming for her mother as the officer carries her away under his arm.Pushing the button to start the clip, I remembered Joe. I’d looked back at him several times during class. He’d stopped taking pictures a while back, and he sat upright, with a deep look of concentration on his face.
The room was silent after the clip. I turned on the lights and honored the silence for a bit. “Well?” I asked. “Let’s put this all together. Reactions?”
Our recent class discussions examined the impossible choices represented in our sample of writing about the Holocaust. The students picked up that theme again, centering on the tragic resonance of Sophie’s choice and the implications for survivors, on the legacy of grief. Though the film clip is hard to watch, I’ve shown it so many times, led the ensuing discussion so many times, that I could predict the outcome.
Or, so I thought.
“May I say something?” Joe asked from the back of the room. The students seemed to have forgotten him there. One or two turned toward him.
“I was eighteen years old,” Joe began. “I was there.” The change in the classroom was physical. Every student—the majority of them just eighteen—moved, as if part of a rippling wave building momentum, adjusting their seats to look directly at Joe.
“My unit went to Auschwitz. We were one of the first at the camp.” Joe said. “It was…it was…,” Joe continued with a sob, raising his hands to cover his face, and the rest of his story became wet words wept into his hands. In that moment, history came alive in my classroom. Movie images faded away, and, for us, it was Joe standing at the gates of Auschwitz.
“Joe,” I began. My knowledge level plummeted, and I failed to find words significant enough. “Thank you for being there. Thank you for sharing with us.” The students nodded, almost in unison. One or two stopped to speak to Joe, and he was gone.
His presence was still in our classroom on Monday when we met again. The students wrote about him, and many stopped by my office to discuss his visit. I told his story over and over again, knocking on colleague’s doors, ironically modeling Joe’s behavior on that previous Wednesday afternoon.
I could sense their withdrawal when I began my story. “Oh, that guy. I heard him in the hall, too,” was the universal reply. Some told me they also closed their doors, anxious not to be disturbed. But when I told them about Joe’s role in the liberation of Auschwitz, their faces changed, softening, welcoming the idea of my unannounced visitor.
As for me, I will always be rushing to finish a stack of papers, but Joe’s visit will stay with me for a long time. What did I learn from him? Lessons are everywhere, my friends. Sometimes history breathes. Don’t close the door. You might just miss it.
Reprinted with permission from JAEPL's wonderful editor, Dr. Joonna Trapp, Chair of Communications at King College.
Sunday, Jill Moyer. "History Lesson 101." JAEPL Vol.18 (Winter 2012-2013): 133-134. Print.