A Teenage Girl Faces a Nazi Salute
I wonder how many other Jewish kids in schools where there isn’t even a Jewish minority (Minority: Population One or Two) face Holocaust studies with trepidation. My wife grew up in a big Jewish community and counted Auschwitz survivors in the family. Me, I grew up aware of my Jewish background in a community with three synagogues, two of which thrive.
How I wish Amelia’s experience was a school in Appalachia collecting paper clips.
When we moved to Winterport, what is essentially a bedroom community for Bangor, we found that little slice of heaven for ourselves. My daughter loves Maine, too, but many of her peers make it difficult.
First and foremost, this part of Maine is “Trump country.” Amelia, who is as Hispanic as she is Jewish, has endured the fun local commentary on the Puerto Rican part. She gets either racist disbelief, “you don’t look Hispanic” or “they need to build that wall and send you home,” missing the part where Puerto Rico is a territory, and um, both it and Cuba are islands.
The jokes started immediately when they started the curriculum. “The Jews did Nazi that coming.” Kids joking about Hitler and exhibiting they didn’t take the class seriously. Sure, some of it is normal teen behavior, especially when the connective tissue to anything but five or more generations of white and Christian is in play.
And the teacher doesn’t help sometimes. “The Holocaust wasn’t focused on the Jews,” the students say, and the teacher unhelpfully affirms that. No, they weren’t the only victims, but they were the primary Other that Hitler and the Nazis put forth as the adversary of freedom and light. They were the primary topic of the Wannsee Conference. There was a Jewish Question, and as it nearly brought the center of the Jewish world to extinction, it’s okay to focus on the Jews. A well-intentioned teacher walks into the anti-Semite’s and denier’s canard: Jewish suffering in the Holocaust is overstated.
Then she saw the coterie of school jocks rendering the Nazi salute to one another. One of them did it to her at the school dance and offered one of those mumbled apologies, deliberately insincere to amplify the insult.
She takes it all with poise. She takes it all with the same fortitude she deals with the boy who never gets in trouble for commentary about her breasts. She takes it it all with the same strength she musters for the boy that attempted to send her and her friend pictures of his penis.
She’s already enduring a culture of harassment at school, so sure, why not add the most offensive of anti-Semitism to the mix?
This isn’t Maine. I serve on the Maine Multicultural Center board out of Bangor. Though I haven’t really found my purpose in being there, I see the content of Maine’s character when it comes to minorities and immigrants. In joining the Maine GOP earlier this year, I’ve found nothing but philo-Semitism and kindness. There is some racism and anti-Semitism on all our fringes, but it is not Maine.
Whatever these kids are doing, I really don’t believe it’s learned at home. I think most of their parents would be shocked and dismayed if they knew their children are doing it.
But will they correctly and guide their children into better behavior? Will the administration do something meaningful about it?
We’re focused on the improbabilities of school safety. We’re focused on all sorts of sensitivities, to the point where I can only speculate if we’ve turned them into caricatures. Is it a formula for teenaged cynicism to take seriously?
I don’t know what to think. I don’t know why it’s happening. It didn’t happen to me, at least not in that way, and it didn’t happen to my wife. I trust administrators when they tell us they will deal with it, but I wonder if they or anyone know how.
In the meantime, my daughter, still coming into what it means to be Jewish after her bat mitzvah, has to include these events in her consideration. I don’t envy her. Both her mother and I wear, literally, our Jewishness proudly on our head and sleeves. I’ve had my troubles, and my wife has faced indignities, but we’ve never faced this.
But face it she does. Amelia’s speech about this topic unequivocally excoriates her teacher and fellow students. She talks less about the experience of Shoah, and why it’s important to take it seriously. I’m not going to let her fight this battle on her own, but I’m reasonably certain she could.
Image is Amelia’s Theresienstadt project for school.