History is Personal-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan.

(Justin Regan) This is the third and final episode of a special mini-series where I interview Holocaust educators about their thoughts on Holocaust education and remembrance today. This genocide is also known as ‘The Shoah’ which is the Hebrew word for ‘destruction’. In part one we heard from a Holocaust survivor who became an artist and speaker. In part two we listened to a Rabbi who is the child of survivors. Today we’re going to hear from three people in two separate segments. First, a college professor who teaches classes on the Holocaust. And then from two screenwriters who wrote a children’s book starring Anne Frank’s cat. 

History is Personal 

(Regan) I first got the idea to do a special series on Holocaust education when I was on my road trip. In Virginia, I had the unique opportunity to catch up with a former College professor of mine from my time at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. He taught one of the most powerful classes I have ever taken. A history course on the Holocaust. 

(Dr. Martin Kalb) Hello my name is Martin Kalb. I’m an assistant professor of history here at Bridgewater College. And I came from NAU so that’s how I know Justin.

(Regan) Dr. Kalb doesn’t just specialize in Modern European History, he’s lived it. He always introduces himself to a new class with a photo of him as a smiling nine year-old in front of the Berlin Wall, hammer and chisel in hand.

(Kalb) That was one of my memories growing up in a divided Germany and also seeing and being a part of when it reunited. And that shaped me on some level as did the previous family history. And the memory in Germany is pretty weird on some levels. On one hand there is a clear effort to address the past, the Holocaust and these sorts of things. On the other hand there’s sometimes the story begins in 1945 the rags to riches story ‘and we rebuilt’. So disentangling that. I never had the, I guess privilege on some level, to talk to my grandparents about their experiences in World War II so it was always channeled through my dad which has some limitations. But yeah, you wrestle with that identity, you see it more as a responsibility of keeping certain things in the limelight especially more recently. For some reason I ended up as a historian. I was deeply interested in that stuff. I think history is personal in that sense. 

(Regan) Kalb has taught classes on the Holocaust, Holocaust memory and genocide. And he makes sure to bring up the subject in any other class he teaches. Kalb says most students already know what happened. But getting to the why is crucial. And that requires moving off of preconceived notions.  

(Kalb) So one point I try to make clear is the role of Eastern Europe in the war in general. So the war fought in Eastern Europe that’s where it’s a racial war, that’s where the Holocaust happens, ‘the Bloodlands’ as Timothy Snyder refers to that region. And just to get them away that it’s the U.S. that it’s not all about the U.S. Which, not surprisingly many think because they grew up in the U.S. And of course, that front matters as well. And then to think a little more clearly about the role of individuals and not just Hitler and the top Nazis. To implement a genocide on that scale millions of people have to be involved on some level. And what does that mean? How do you get to that point where it is socially acceptable to call someone certain terms and then eventually be even okay that one day they just disappear?

(Regan) It’s a common topic Kalb brings up again and again in his classes. If you see every perpetrator as a monster and not as a human, then you can’t fully grasp how a genocide can manifest. One book he likes to prescribe to students is Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. It’s about a group of German soldiers who are tasked with carrying out mass executions of Jews. As the title implies, Browning paints these mass murderers as typical people. They are not blood thirsty zealots, but soldiers carrying out an order at the front lines of the Holocaust. Some have reservations, some get shaken up by it, some have friendly conversations with their victims as they march them to their graves. But no one tries to stop it. For Kalb it’s a very chilling, and necessary, aspect of Holocaust education. 

(Kalb) I think it was Raul Hilberg or one of the more well known Holocaust scholars pointed that out that the more the scholars spend a lot of time thinking about it they are more and more unsure about what they would have done. And if a student gets into that complicated thought process ‘I don’t know what I would have done? Would I have stepped forward if I had the chance?’ 90% of the time you probably wouldn’t because 90% of the people don’t. And that’s a very difficult revelation to one’s self and one might be more interested in preventing being put in that situation in the first place. By working on sustaining institutions that prevent certain things. By defending them and these sorts of things by preventing the situations where 90% of us would make a horrible choice because they feel there is no other. So that is a moment where I think students could become more reflective.

(Regan) It is a haunting and difficult way to learn about the Shoah. But Kalb says his teaching philosophy is about making people feel uncomfortable. 

(Kalb) Because that’s when learning happens. When they are unsure and they question something. Moving a way out of their comfort zone. If they leave the classroom and they feel comfortable and say ‘Oh I checked that box’, then I did something horribly wrong as an educator and I think the same applies for Holocaust education. The topics are heavy so there’s a certain amount of care. There’s a certain amount of avoiding trivializing the events. There’s a certain amount of providing enough space for reflection, because everyone is different. There’s a certain amount of asking questions vs having all the answers. I don’t have all the answers, no one does in that field. And to move beyond the simplifications. It’s not just about evil Nazis or these sorts of elements. These are complex human beings like you and me which makes it very very uncomfortable to think about. So I think it reaches a deeper meaning to not just say ‘they are evil, that’s why they did it’ no it’s a little more messy then that.

(Regan) Kalb also mentors other educators on how to approach the subject. He says one major point that should be addressed if there is limited time for teaching the  Holocaust is the connection between genocide and war. 

(Kalb) Genocides tend to happen under the cover of war. When there’s either too much going on to follow what’s happening or when we are just thinking about ‘the other’ and ‘us’ and don’t complicate the storylines and everything is up for grabs. So just based on, I think it was [Doris] Bergen’s book who has that war and genocide connection, I think that’s a very straight forward way to think about that it’s always, or often, under that cover of war. And if the students walk away with that I think it complicates some of the narratives  and pre-conceived notions that it has to be a very racist of anti-Semitic people, and then there will maybe be something. No, it just boils up. And once that happens the guard rails are gone. There are different steps or stages towards genocide and we can ask ourselves which stages are discrimination and then eventually separation all these sorts of things. And it’s easier to step in then then it is to step in at the end when shots are fired an people are murdered.

(Regan) Kalb says the need to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides is only growing. Especially with a documented rise in anti-Semitism and neoNazism. Not just around the world and in his home country, but in his backyard. Bridgewater College is only 60 miles away from Charlottesville, Virginia. Where a deadly white supremacist rally occurred in 2017. At one point, neo-Nazis marched through the streets chanting ‘blood and soil’, a phrase steeped in Nazi ideology, they also chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’. 

(Kalb) On one hand it’s surprising on the other hand it’s not. Being the educator you are aware of certain trends. You are aware of certain dynamics. You are aware of the prominence these voices still have. You are aware as a historian these voices pop up repeatedly and have to be addressed directly you can’t argue it with some people you almost have to fight it  on some level, more directly. But also surprised at some level of how emboldened they are and how, I think I said this in my class last week, about how these days you have to basically say ‘let’s all agree Nazis are bad’. Being in Germany you see the rise of other right-wing groups. You see the use and misuse of language. It always pops up again ‘enemy of the state, enemy of the people’ all this other language. Some times more direct, sometimes more indirect. But everyone knowns what it means. Yeah, it’s a wake up. 

(Regan) This also comes at a time when the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. Kalb says survivors are an important factor in Holocaust education. But he also knows a new age of Holocaust education is coming where they’ll be gone. 

(Kalb) Some of us already almost have to do that based on that they might not live in the area, they may not be able to, sometimes not willing to speak in general. You have to make it personal. You have to address it through primary sources in a different way through videos, through experiences it can be related to the next generation so children of survivors speaking. So I teach the class on genocide more broadly where we talk about other genocides including the dynamic in Srebrenica so in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s and there you have maybe a different avenue to get voices in that experience that. On some level unfortunately the voices of those who have experienced these dynamics are still round because they happen all the time.

(Regan) Kalb also thinks an important aspect of Holocaust education is talking about other genocides and tying in the common patterns. 

(Kalb) There’s this powerful statement of ‘Never again’ which the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum uses. But to make sure that we have been horrible at that because it continues to happen again and again. So that it’s not over. History is never over. History is always personal. History radiates when it comes to war and genocide in particular if it’s trauma through generations. It’s a way to complicate it at the end of the day. I also strongly think it’s going to get worse. There’s a study that with the role of climate change it will bring more conflicts out to the forefront and as we know once conflicts happen we tend to simplify between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and then these things unfold even more. So if we believe humanity and human lives matter and that people should be protected then we need to pay attention to this stuff.

(Regan) It can all seem pretty grim. But just like how Kalb focuses on how a genocide can be carried out on a personal level he also shows the power an individual has to make a change.

(Kalb) As a former colleague of mine used to say, who was also a Holocaust educator, sometimes when he’s asked the basic ‘so what should I do?’ ‘Just be nice to people.’ Sometimes it’s the basic stuff that in our everyday life can go so much further then ‘Oh, I have to fly around the world and do all that’ no, it’s just basic humanity, especially to those you may not agree with. And it’s difficult. I struggle with it. It’s just difficult.

(Regan) But Kalb tries to make it a little easier for his students. He strives to help his students visualize – and actualize – a better world. Kalb mandates each student in his Holocaust class take part in community service work.

(Kalb) Students generally had a hard time seeing their own role in ‘How do I matter? How does my voice matter? I can’t do anything. I’m just an 18 year old 19 year old NAU student.’ And I was always struck by that. If we don’t have power who does? We’re in the richest, most powerful country in the world, we have a voice. So I then opened it up. Do something in the local community that matters to you that you can make sense of it. Otherwise it becomes too overwhelming. Hopefully few of us, if any, will ever be near some of these events but injustices from bullying all the way to racial discrimination is all around us and there’s ways to combat that in different ways. Community service is one way. But students wrote letters, did all kinds of things to try to find their passion of how to channel that sort of anger and disgust. If something tangible comes out of it all then it’s not just an academic exercise, ‘okay I checked the box, I took the class, I shed some tears now I can move on.’ I think that’s not enough.

(Regan) That was Dr. Martin Kalb. assistant professor of history at Bridgewater College in Virginia. He specializes in, among other things, teaching the Holocaust and other genocides to college students. And I was one of those students. Kalb’s style of education with the use of discomfort and critical thinking partially led me to be the person I am today; someone who tries to make an actively positive impact on the world. As rabbis have mentioned before on this podcast, college is a time when people are searching for meaning and identity. That makes it one of the best times to teach the subject of genocide and what individuals can do to stop it. But when should you start teaching someone about the Shoah? The next two people we are going to hear from think it should start at a young age. They have written a children’s book on the Holocaust. It follows the story of Anne Frank, through the eyes of her pet cat Mouschi. Here’s an excerpt read by one of the authors Steve Rubin. 

(Steve Rubin) I am the only hider who can venture out. I slip through the window to the only glimpse of sky the humans don’t vail with black paper. Onto the rain gutter, across a chestnut tree, Anne smiles wistful, and she writes ‘Dear Kitty, I long to ride a bike, dance whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I am free. Although I can’t let it show when will we be allowed to breath fresh air again?’ 

(Rubin) One of the key moments in the whole story when Mouschi goes outside and Anne is looking at him and realizing that he can do things that she can’t. Mouschi can taste freedom and Anne is denied that and that’s very powerful for me. And I’m Steve Rubin. I’m a film maker and writer and co-author with David of The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank.

(David Miller) Hello, my name is David Miller. I’m a film maker and a writer.

(Regan) The story of Anne Frank is probably one of the most famous stories of the Holocaust. Anne Frank was a German-born Dutch-Jewish teenager who kept a diary of her hopes, dreams, fears and stories while hiding from the Nazis with her family, and several others in Amsterdam. After two years of hiding in a secret annex, they were captured. Anne Frank would die of Typhus at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. But her diary would become one of the world’s most famous books. And in it she mentions on several occasions a cat named ‘Mouschi’. Miller says it makes a great launching point for talking about the Shoah with children. 

(Miller) We wanted to make a gentle, and that’s a tough word, introduction to the Holocaust for young people. And we felt Anne Frank has been a traditional way to reach young people tweens even pre-teens with what the Holocaust was about. And we feel that going through the eyes of a cat allows us to go even a bit younger. And when you see the book, we get in late and we get out early. We enter when Peter is bringing Mouschi into the annex and we leave the story before Anne Frank is captured.

(Regan) Miller and Rubin are both screenwriters living near Los Angeles, California. And in a way their careers have been leading to this collaboration. Miller has worked a lot in the field of education entertainment. He’s founded a non-profit called ‘Regenerate Films’ where teens make PSA’s and films about issues that affect them and the world at large. Rubin has worked on several documentaries or historical fiction movies based around World War II. Rubin got the idea for the book one day while shaving. 

(Rubin) I love listening to movies all the time on tape, audio tape. I do a lot of that while I’m shaving. One day I had the 1959 George Stevens movie The Diary of Anne Frank on the audio cassette player and they are chasing Mouschi around the attic. Anne and Peter and Anne’s sister Margot. And I said to myself ‘I wonder what the cat thought of these people who never go outside? Who have to tiptoe during the day? What was his point of view?’

(Regan) And those are the questions they try to answer. Mouschi is the narrator and describes being hidden away in Peter’s coat in the June heat as he’s taken to the annex. Peter is another teenager hiding with the Franks. Mouschi quietly lies down with the annex residents during the day when they must be silent. He provides comfort to the residents, hunts the vermin that eat their food, and also gives everyone fleas. The book conveys that even for a cat, the Holocaust is personal. 

(Rubin) We wanted to be historically accurate so we want to figure out first of all what was the story of animals with Jews. And we found out early in our research  that Jews were not allowed to have pets. So at first they had to register their pets and then we believe they had to give them up. And their was a whole black market going on where the Germans were sending exotic pets back to Germany starting with the zoo. All sorts of animals were being taken away from people.

(Regan) And the book is historically accurate. Miller says the only liberties they took was when Mouschi would leave the annex to wander the Nazi-occupied city. But even then, the things the cat witnessed really happened. A Jewish theatre in Amsterdam being used as a deportation center for Jews. Employees of the city zoo hiding Jews from the Nazis in attics above the animal cages. All the while, Anne Frank was writing in her diary. 

(Miller) It’s also interesting, and we were inspired by this, she would start each of her entries with ‘Dear Kitty’. Everyone has their own theories of who ‘Kitty’ was. It might have been an imaginative friend from a fantasy series Anne really loved, it could have been one of her childhood friends and it could have been Mouschi. Nobody knows for sure. But it gave us the opportunity throughout the book to have several some of Anne’s most powerful quotes peppered through the book.

(Regan) Miller and Rubin say using an animal as the main character, and narrator, makes the story more palatable for a younger audience and also gives them a connection to the events. The cat narrates in a style that a child might. He refers to the Nazis as black spider soldiers. 

(Rubin) The reference to the Nazis calling them Black Spider soldiers actually  comes from the 1965 musical The Sound of Music where one of the smaller Von Trap children looks at the swastika and calls it the black spider. That kind of resonated with us because rather than talking about Nazis and swastikas and Hitler you say black spider and that already gives you an image of menace that became a metaphor for the Nazis. And the cat referring to Anne as the ‘Yellow Star girl’ is a reference to how in those days Jews had to wear the Star of David on their clothing.

(Regan) The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank has received positive reviews. It’s been profiled by the Jewish Book Council and public reading events have been held at schools and museums including the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. The two screenwriters are also working to make it an animated movie. The film would move away from the historical accuracy of the book and tell a fictionalized version of Mouschi’s story where he teams up with other animals in the Dutch resistance. For Rubin and Miller, it’s all about reaching young people. 

(Rubin) We’re living in a time when the Holocaust survivors are dying off. The stories in many cases, unfortunately, are dying with them and young people today need to learn these stories more than ever. You hear a story today that some kids as a joke gave the Hitler salute thinking they were cool. That’s terrifying to us that young people can be so unaware of history. And we have a responsibility to tell stories that are historical and about what really happened. So it was important for us to take up the mantle and whats a better way to reach young people then to use animals as metaphors? 

(Miller) We live in an age of emboldened hate. Holocaust denial is at an all time high. Hate crimes are on the rise certainly in the United States and all around the world. We also live in a time where information is really easy to access at the youngest ages. And we have pre-schoolers who are going through active shooter drills at their schools. So this is a time where kids are hearing about things at younger and younger ages, and how you process that and how you can fight hate amidst that means we have to reach younger and younger audiences about messages about racism and hate and anti-bullying. 

(Regan) Rubin also says it’s important to put more Jewish stories in pop-culture. 

(Rubin) If you think about mainstream entertainment, there’s obviously Fiddler on the Roof as a musical and Schindlers List as a movie. But there isn’t a large volume of stuff that has been generated in English. And we feel the story of Mouschi and Anne Frank’s cat resonates with people because it’s a Jewish story but it’s also an international story with a quest for freedom and we feel it’s important for people to hear that story. 

(Regan) The Jewish Book Council says The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank is for ages 6 to 8. Rubin and Miller say maybe closer to 8 to 10. But regardless, it’s a book for children about the Holocaust. I asked if people have expressed concerns about it being too young to discuss such a topic?  

(Rubin) It’s a very good question because it has been brought up to us many times. Parents are very concerned about traumatizing young children. And that’s why the cat is the perfect narrator for this story. We’re both parents we’re both aware of what you can tell a young person but interestingly in history for instance we celebrate Passover every year which talks about the killing of the first born of Israel, so murder and mayhem is part of Jewish history we’re taught to deal with. The Pharaoh was killing people. It softened it a little bit for us. But we made sure that Mouschi was in every line practically it’s Mouschi’s story. The best thing that can happen for young people is for them to question say ‘Mom who were the nazis?’ If more people would ask that question and more people gave them the appropriate answer I think we’d be starting to conquer that great racism divide. Our book answers some questions but it also is motivating people to ask questions.

(Regan) And they say it’s not just for young kids. But a useful teaching tool all the way through High School. For Miller while he is concerned by data that finds younger generations to be less aware of the history of the Shoah, he also sees a generation that is empowered and capable of doing great things. He hopes their book can play a part in that culture. 

(Miller) Look at these kids who come out of these school shooting situations who end up becoming very political or young Greta fighting climate change. I find it really interesting the name of certain movements. The group out of Florida after the school shooting, what did they call themselves? ‘Never Again’ that’s straight from the Holocaust. We have racism in our politics today. We had Limburg who was a huge anti-Semite and did horrible things within our government. What was his movement? ‘America First’. We live in a time where we need to reach our youth and the youth are very vocal. Vocal about fighting hate and bullying. Vocal about fighting mass shootings and they are vocal about climate change because they are in many ways because of the information overload because they are over connected they know a lot more than when I was a kid. And they also struggle with is that information they find true? Cause now we’re in an age where it’s more about clicks instead of facts. We have to educate our children more than ever. They truly care. They feel they are inheriting an Earth that was ruined by hate and greed. And I think the best way to change the world now as Steve said is to change the future through educating the young people. 

(Regan) Miller says a major draw for them to write about Anne Frank was the power of her words and the influence she has had on everyone from lay people to world leaders. It’s a theme that comes out in one of Miller’s favorite excerpts from his book. 

(Miller) Will anyone ever hear my girls words? Read them? Wind wisps the chestnut tree towering outside are tiny precious window. Anne whispers, ‘If we think of all the beauty still around us, we won’t give in to sadness.’ And to the chestnuts lilt and beats and purrs of my boy’s and girls breath I nap. We nap. Dreaming dreams more powerful than bombs. Dreams of Anne’s kind and gentile spirit lighting up the world forever. 

(Regan) That was David Miller and Steve Rubin who wrote The Cat Who Lived With Anne Frank. Previously we heard from Dr. Martin Kalb, an assistant professor of history at Bridgewater College, in Virginia who teaches classes on The Holocaust. 

(Regan) While the memory might be fading for some, the long reach of the Shoah can still be felt by many others today. Not only from historical trauma but overwhelming demoralization. It’s a genocide that was carried out with horrifying results not that long ago. And that dark spirit of hatred and genocide still plagues the world to this very second. But as Kalb says, that’s where the need for good deeds is most critical. The ultimate battle between good and evil is not a blatant epic clash. Instead it occurs every second on a micro level. Every action we do has consequences. The challenge is seeing the positive affects in a vastly negative-presenting world. And who knows, maybe it’s not until we pass on that the full value of our impact is laid bare before us. But if we are paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge and the perceived limitations of our actions then there will never be improvement. And that’s something epitomized by the work of Anne Frank. I can’t imagine what she was going through, but I can assume at times she felt very small in a very large global storm. But that didn’t stop her from letting her heart run across the pages. And in the end she inspired the world. A micro act with a macro impact. That’s what we’re all capable of. Serving our communities, mentoring a kid, finding compassion even when we want to feel anything but. These are small acts. But in so many ways they can be more powerful than bombs. 

(Regan) This concludes our special mini-series on Holocaust education. All in all it was a bit of a departure form the usual content and I’m curious what you thought. You can reach me by emailing justin@rabbiproject.com.

(Regan) American Rabbi Project: History is Personal was written and produced by me Justin Regan. Derek Povah handles the web stuff. Additional thanks to Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Beth Vanderstoep, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. Also thanks to Dr. Martin Kalb for introducing me to Rabbi Peter Grumbacher, from the person interviewed in the previous episode. Once again my email is justin@rabbiproject.com my twitter handle is @rabbiproject and you can also find me at facebook.com/rabbiproject

And until next time, Shalom and Safe Driving. 

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