Maybe you’ve seen that recent drawing in the news, showing a child being asked how many refugees were in his classroom, and answering “I don’t know, there are only children in my school!”. When teaching, I feel the same, but today in my classroom, I experienced first hand how children from different social or ethnic background interacted with each other.
Two teenagers were sitting next to each other. A girl and a boy, both 14. The girl is Muslim, the boy Catholic. I don’t know how from German irregular verbs we came to talk about religion, but the boy asked the girl: “Do you pray?”. The girl answered she did. “How many times do Muslims pray, it’s five times isn’t it?” he asked further. “Yes it is, but because I’m going to school, I can’t pray all the time. But I wake up at 5:30 for the morning prayer, and then I sleep a little bit more”, the girl answered. The boy was really impressed, and said that the only thing he did as a Christian was to get baptized. It was the girl’s turn to be curious. “What does baptize make to you?” she asked. The boy thought for a while before saying “I don’t know, it makes you Christian I suppose. And I was baptized with water from the Jordan river!”
No matter how hard one tries to avoid religious or political topics in the classroom, they often come up at the least expected moment. Or sometimes they do because of a special anniversary. At the beginning of the month, as I was asking what meant the 8th of May in the world, one of the Syrian boys answered: “Mother’s Day?”. The whole class started to giggle. He was right though, this year it was Mother’s Day in some parts of the world as well. I specified the year. What does May 8th, 1945, mean in the world? And here you see the cultural and educational differences as the kids born in Europe could immediately refer to WW2, while the others, their heads full of more recent conflicts, didn’t find out as quickly.
I’m here to teach German, but to me, a language goes hand in hand with the country’s culture and history. And they arrived in such a complicated country! Understanding it is almost as difficult as understanding its language. So I decided to teach them one thing or two in terms of Germany’s heritage. We talked about nicer things, but on this particular occasion, WW2 had to be mentioned.
I walk across the tables, starting a brain-storming session. “When you think about WW2, what comes to mind?”. The answers come at once “Death!”, “Concentration Camp”, “Hitler”, “Jews”, “Ghetto”. I’m surprised by the latter. It comes from two Polish kids. They were already taught all about the war, all about the camps. For the Palestinian kids, WW2 is Hitler, beyond that is a big blur. I wish that some things could remain a blur forever but reality will kick in, eventually, so why not unveiling them as smoothly as possible. They will find out, so why not trying to ease it by being there to explain what, even for adults, can be unexplainable? Things are made lighter when one of the Syrians asks, amidst explanations of WW2’s chronology, “Miss, how tall is the Eiffel Tower?”. General laughter.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. One of the Palestinian kids shouts “oh I don’t like Jews!”. “I don’t like your tone”, I retort. For him it’s a joke, but I can’t tolerate such sayings in my classroom. It always starts with jokes, stereotypes, segregation, and then worse. I can understand where he comes from (Gaza, as it happens), but during the next half-hour, I explain to him, to them all, what not only Jews, but also other minorities, including Muslims, endured under Hitler’s reign of terror. That victims of Nazis were Jews, but not only, and that although antisemitism found its roots way further back in history, it didn’t make it right, not then, not now, not ever. I find myself explaining the UN resolution that gave way to the creation of Israel in the outcome of the war. After our exchange, nobody feels like joking about Jews anymore, or about any other religion or minority for that matter.
I’m surprised at how this conversation evolved, because I learn from them as much as they from me, at their reaction to it all. I had initially just thought of giving them some key-facts, key-figures to roughly understand WW2. But Stauffenberg, Barbarossa and Hiroshima will have to wait. They want to know why it is called an international conflict, they want to know why Europeans brought this war to Africa and who fought against whom there. I dig up some stories about Patton and Rommel, show them some places on a world map. But they have something else in mind. The unspeakable is what they want to find out about. They want to know where were the camps, and can’t believe it was in the very heart of Europe. Except the Polish kids. They have heard those stories ever since they were little, as more often than not, family members had horrible memories to share. The others can’t believe their eyes when I show them some camps that are so close to Berlin.
And then, comes the biggest surprise of this strange day. Of all the questions, this one stands: “Miss, is it possible to visit one of these camps?”. “Yes”, I say, “these are now here so that we will never forget the evil that took place there, so that we will never repeat the horrors of the past”. My grandiloquent speech is welcomed with enthusiasm, as three or four of them are now asking “could we go please?”. Everyone is silent now, all eyes fixing me. I’m taken aback. Kids including some that are just out of a war, wanting to see another place of death. I try to explain once again the millions of dead, the hardships they endured in those places, the abandoned suitcases piled-up, and so on. It doesn’t deter them. They are 15-16, they are kids going on adults. I try and think quickly about when German kids get to do that atonement visit on behalf of their ancestor’s heavy past. I try to ponder, is it good, or bad, is it too early or is it ever the right time? Probably not. “Would you really, really like to go there? It’s no fun, it’s not your regular excursion, do you understand the implications it has? It is a very, very heavy decision to make”, I say. They all look very solemn. They look at each other and whisper in groups of three or four.
Now I just want to protect them, I don’t want to unveil any evil things to them anymore. I wish we hadn’t talked about it at all, but at the same time, I’m so proud of them. They are ready, it’s me who worry about them too much. They say again they want to go, to see “how it was”. “Alright, I will ask if we can go together then. No promises yet”, I say. In the meantime, they say they want to know more about WW2. They want to understand this world, to make sense of something that doesn’t have a rational explanation. Knowledge is power. I just fear I opened Pandora’s box for them this day.