It started off a few months ago with an English teacher looking for research project ideas for 10th grade students having read Elie Wiesel’s Night and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Not sure which title to choose, we sat down to discuss many options during our collaborative sessions. After brainstorming multiple topics, we realized we wanted to focus on the positive, on hope, instead of the negative elements and characters within each title. So, we combined aspects of the two books and decided on the topic of being an upstander in the face of prejudice, even when facing bodily harm or death. This fit the character of Atticus Finch and elements of the holocaust. Both books espouse themes of Good vs Evil, particularly the coexistence of good and evil within a community. Both novels look at racism and prejudice and while it would have been equally relevant to focus on those themes, we decided to use Atticus as an example of upstander while finding about more about upstanders during the holocaust. To examine, perhaps, the inherent goodness or evil in people and standing up even in the face of harm or death. With this theme we could discuss and analyze both books.
Students had a pre-conceived notion of upstanders during the holocaust. Many were subsequently shocked to hear Oskar Schindler described thusly, “A hedonist and gambler by nature, Schindler soon adopted a profligate lifestyle, carousing into the small hours of the night, hobnobbing with high ranking SS-officers, and philandering with beautiful Polish women” while researching on the Yad Vashem website. We had great conversations. Most of us agreed he was an upstander, but we probably wouldn’t want to be married to him! There’s often a dichotomy to people’s behavior. You don’t have to be perfect or a model citizen. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to be an upstander. It isn’t all or nothing. You don’t have to help hundreds, for “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire.” Many of our researched upstanders helped one family or one child and that was enough of a difference. I shared a story to our students regarding my father-in-law’s service during the WWII. He was a fighter pilot shot down over occupied France. It was through the efforts of the French Underground who helped him survive and reach allied forces. Their efforts increased his ability to return home to the states where subsequently my husband was born. From their our marriage and four children. This is My world entire and upstanders who risked their lives made it happen.
“Scholars have attempted to trace the characteristics that these Righteous share and to identify who was more likely to extend help to the Jews or to a persecuted person.” “By comparing and contrasting rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust, they pointed out that those who intervened were distinguished by characteristics such as empathy and a sense of connection to others.”
I feel strongly that our students’ coursework and daily school-life need infusions of both empathy and connectedness.
I have been moved by this project, learning alongside students as we discover the hundreds of men and women who risked all to stand up to injustice. I encourage you to examine and explore these websites https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/stories.html or https://jfr.org/rescuer-stories/ and learn more about righteous upstanders.