BY GERRY CHIDIAC
Lessons in Learning
I recently showed Steven Spielberg’s classic film about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List, to a group of students. Watching Nazi soldiers terrorizing and murdering Jewish people, I thought to myself that on some level they had to have known that what they were doing was wrong.
Yet they seemed to be unaffected. Were they impacted at all? Didn’t they have any awareness of the sort of legacy they were leaving?
The answers to these questions have come primarily from their descendants.
Amon Goth was the psychotic concentration camp commander depicted in Schindler’s List. He had a wife and two children in Vienna. At the camp, he had a mistress named Ruth Irene Kalder. Goth and Kalder had a daughter named Monika Hertwig.
Goth was hanged for war crimes in 1946. Kalder committed suicide in 1983. Hertwig went on to meet with survivors of her father’s tyranny, featured in the 2006 documentary Inheritance. Hertwig’s daughter, Jennifer Teege, who is black, published My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me in 2015.
More recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, born in Austria in 1947, spoke candidly about the legacy of his father’s generation. His father would come home drunk once or twice a week and terrorize his family. Many other men in his village did the same thing. None of them were Goth but they were broken men, unable to face the guilt of what they had been a part of.
Hertwig, Teege and Schwarzenegger understand the crimes of their fathers and grandfathers. They know why genocide occurred and they know how to prevent it. We need to listen.
The Nazis understood the power of a lie that was repeated and repeated and repeated.
The flames of anti-Semitism, prevalent throughout the world at the time, were fanned by lies, propaganda and fear. The result was enthusiastic participation in violence and murder, leading many to overwhelming guilt.
In the mid-20th century, people were surprised that Europe, a centre of culture and enlightenment, descended into genocide and chaos. The Holocaust didn’t happen because people had no culture, it happened because people compromised their principles.
Principles are ideals like respect, love, honesty and truth. The obvious antithesis to a lie is the truth.
Truth becomes a scarce commodity, however, when our goal is to draw attention to our media platforms and generate clicks. Fake news draws a lot of attention when it appeals to our irrational fear and anger.
Our media providers are being horribly irresponsible by disseminating this information. If we consumers need to fact check what they’re publishing, it means they’re not doing their jobs.
Imagine what the Nazis would have done if they had access to today’s social media platforms.
In an effort to appeal to these platforms, even mainstream media outlets have drifted toward extremism.
There are good people in every group, and there is good and bad in each person. No one has a complete understanding of all of the mysteries of the universe, thus respect for diversity of opinion is vital. Honest and informed dialogue leads to a better understanding of the truth. Respect for diversity is thus the antithesis of extremism.
Hopefully, we’re entering an era where the truth matters, where we understand its priceless value in preserving our democracy. As an educator, my most important task is to pursue truth with my students. As a columnist, I need to remember that walking toward truth with my readers is far more important than getting clicks.
Perhaps we’ve lost our focus in recent years.
It’s important to remember that no one ever regrets leaving a legacy of truth.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. Check out his website here. Find him on Facebook. Or on Twitter @GerryChidiac