Last Wednesday I spoke with 130 seventh and eighth graders in St. Albans, Vermont. They had recently been studying the Holocaust and had already both read and watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and read The Diary of a Young Girl. I told them my mother’s story, using a PowerPoint presentation with a timeline and a few pictures. I was impressed with how carefully they listened, particularly given the size of the group and the fact that the eighth graders would be having their last day of school in two days.
I came to St. Albans somewhat randomly. I was corresponding with someone in the area via email and she asked about my automatic signature line, which encourages people to look at my website and Tutti’s Promise. Since her child was studying the Holocaust, she suggested I call the school. After a bit of arranging with the teacher leading the unit, and a two-hour drive, there I was.
I left plenty of time for questions and was glad I had, as they had many. Some were the ones my mother reports always getting asked, such as what happened to the money inside the doll. Others were a bit surprising to me, such as the student that asked if the US naturalization process was the same now as it was when my mom was naturalized in the 1950s, although with some reflection I can see that in the current political climate that this might be highly relevant.
One teacher asked what my grandparents would have thought about the book. That made me think. I stalled for time by saying that my grandmother wouldn’t have liked the pictures of herself (she was known for cutting herself out of photos). Then I added that my grandfather might have preferred to keep a low profile and might have been worried that he would have been viewed as a collaborator. We can soundly reject this notion — anyone who is a prisoner, and whose family is also being held prisoner, cannot be considered a collaborator because any cooperation would not be done willingly, but due to the circumstances. My grandfather never profited off of those who were targeted. He did what he had to in order to save himself, his family, and many others. But my grandfather was a worrier.
I worry as well, mostly that stories like my mom’s will be forgotten with time. I am glad that states like Pennsylvania and Connecticut (see correction at bottom of page) have mandated Holocaust education in public schools. Driving home, my husband noted that St. Albans was the first Vermont school I had spoken at, and he suggested not only that I set an informal goal of speaking in all of Vermont’s middle schools (there are over 100), but that I contact our local legislators about Vermont adopting mandatory Holocaust education. To quote one of my characters in Tutti’s Promise, “This is a plan I can live with.” I emailed my legislators earlier today. Now I need to go make a list of all the middle schools in Vermont.
Correction: Connecticut does not have a mandate yet. The currently mandated states are — California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island.