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June 07, 1991 - Image 7

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1991-06-07

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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OPINION

An Armband Of Hatred
Teaches A Modern Lesson

GAIL ZIMMERMAN

L

ast week, I attended a
program at my son's
middle school. Parents
were invited to attend a
"Celebration of Greatness,"
question the students, who
would be in costume, and try
to guess "who our great peo-
ple are." Students had read
books about their selections
and held classroom news con-
ferences to share their
information.
My son, who is in the
seventh grade, came home
one day and told me he had
selected Alexander the Great
as his "hero."
"Why;' I asked him, "did
you choose a person who in-
vaded, conquered and took
over other nations as a person
you admired?" .
"I would have chosen
Robert E. Lee," said my son,
whose interest in wars and
the men who fought them
sometimes confounds me,
"but I did a report on the
Civil War last year and
thought I'd better choose
someone else?'
He had researched Alex-
ander the Great and admired
him as a leader who always
cared about the safety of his
soldiers, as a man with great
willpower who was determin-
ed to reach his goals, and
especially as a conqueror who
"believed that all people are
the same, no matter their
race or religion. He always
respected peoples' cultures
and their personal beliefs!'
"I didn't know that about
Alexander the Great;' I said.
"Now I understand why you
might choose him:'
My son continued, "And
Mom, I need a costume."
"That's easy," I said. "You
can wear a helmet, sandals
and a sheet!'
Being a history buff and fan
of popular culture, I eagerly
anticipated the evening. As
everyone gathered on a warm
evening in an even warmer
gymnasium, the students in
costume were handed num-
bers; the parents were hand-
ed paper and pencil, told to
mingle, ask questions and
determine as many "great
people" as possible in a
limited amount of time. The
three top guessers would win
prizes. "Great?' I thought, "a
moving game of Trivial Pur-
suit!'

Gail Zimmerman is a copy
editor and proofreader at The
Jewish News.

As my husband and I mov-
ed quickly through the crowd,
we identified Abe Lincoln and
Louis Pasteur, FDR and
Charlie Chaplin, Anne Frank
(at least four of them) and
Harry Houdini, Clarence
Darrow and Joe Louis, John
Lennon (at least three of
them) and Claude Monet, Ma-
hatma Gandhi and Genghis
Khan. With the exception of
the latter, I could easily see
why the students had chosen
these particular "great peo-
ple."
Then, standing before me,
to my utter surprise, was a
student in army fatigues. But
this soldier was wearing a
homemade swastika arm-
band.
"Your hero is a Nazi?" I ask-
ed him increduously.
"I'm not Hitler?' he replied
matter-of-factly.
"Well, who are you? Goeb-
bels? Goering?" I was starting
to get angry.
"No," he replied calmly.
"I'm one of Hitler's generals?'
The only World War II Ger-
man general I'd ever heard of

Standing there in
army fatigues was
a sixth-grade
student with a
swastika armband.

was Rommel. "Did you fight
in North Africa?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied.
I wrote down his number
and hero's name and moved
on quickly, without asking
him any more questions,
eager to identify as many
"great people" as possible.
When I came home, I was
feeling pretty good about hav-
ing tied for third top guesser
of "great people!' And then I
realized, in my eagerness to
win I had neglected to say
anything to anyone about a
student with a swastika
holding court as a "great per-
son" in my child's school.
The next morning I men-
tioned the previous evening's
events to my colleagues at
The Jewish News. This was
something definitely worth
checking out, they agreed.
I called the principal of my
child's middle school, told
him how much I had enjoyed
the evening but advised him
I was upset at seeing a stu-
dent wearing a swastika in
the program.
He said he had been
unaware of the matter until

another student came up to
him in the gym and told him
about it. At the end of the
evening when the approx-
imately 150 students from
two middle schools paraded
before a microphone, he said
he did not recognize the stu-
dent in question.
How could a student with a
swastika slip by students,
parents and teachers in a
school with a large Jewish
population, a school with
special programs for its
numerous Soviet Jews, a
school that had always been
sensitive enough not to
schedule functions on Jewish
holidays and careful not to
allow religious symbols at
holiday times? The principal,
who is Jewish, agreed to look
into it.
The principal called me
back. To our mutual surprise,
the student was a sixth-
grader at my son's middle
school. The principal explain-
ed that while my son's class
had been told to select some-
one they admired, the sixth-
grade teacher had instructed
his class to choose someone
who had been historically im-
portant, whether famous or
infamous.
In that context, it was im-
plied to me, a swastika in
school was OK.
There must be an explana-
tion for all this, I thought.
After all, the sixth-grade
teacher, who is Jewish, had
not been at the program that
evening, having gone home
sick earlier in the day.
Perhaps this student was one
of those who had not yet given
his classroom presentation
and the teacher had never
seen the swastika.
As soon as school was out
for the day, I called another
sixth-grade student who is in
my driving carpool. He readi-
ly gave me the name of the
student with the swastika
and confirmed that the stu-
dent had given his class
presentation in costume with
the teacher present.
"Did anyone complain
about the swastika?" I asked.
"No," he replied.
I called my son who had ar-
rived home from school.
"Did you know about a
`Rommel' wearing a swastika
last night?" I asked him.
"He must be at the other
middle school," my son
replied. `•The principal came
to our class looking for him!'
I informed him that this
"Rommel" did indeed come
from his middle school.

"Would you be upset if some-
one in your class got up to
portray a 'great person' and
had a swastika on his arm,"
I asked him.

"If someone was portraying
Hitler or someone else
responsible for the extermina-
tion of the Jews, I'd be upset;'
he answered. "But Rommel
was famous as a military
leader, not as an exter-
minator of Jews," my
militarily-informed son told
me. "I'm sure he wore that
swastika just as part of his
costume. His wearing that
uniform to portray an
historical character doesn't
bother me. He wasn't ad-
vocating the extermination of
the Jews;' he said. "So just
chill out, Mom."
Amy Mehler, a reporter at
The Jewish News, decided to
call the parents of "Rommel."
The student's father had no
objection to Ms. Mehler talk-
ing to his son.
The student, who is not
Jewish, explained very ar-
ticulately that he chose Rom-
mel because he was a great
military leader, but more im-
portantly because he had the
courage to stand up to Hitler,
tell Hitler the war could not
be won, be involved in a plot
to assassinate Hitler, and
when that failed, to take his
own life by poison.
The student's father said
he'd had second thoughts
about his son wearing the
swastika, but let him wear it
as a means of making him
identifiable. His son wore the
swastika only during the
presentation to the class and
the evening program.
He added that another
reason for his son's choice of
"great person" was that his
son's grandmother had also
fought against Hitler — in
the Resistance during World
War II.
I guess I had jumped to con-
clusions and hadn't asked

enough questions. And
maybe the students in "Rom-
mel's" class learned
something about following
the courage of one's convic-
tions, of standing up to some-
one or something odious
despite the personal cost.
When I got home from work
that night and told my hus-
band what had transpired, I
commented that I hadn't
known all that much about
Rommel. "I did;' he replied.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I
asked him.
"You never asked?' was his
response.
I'm still not comfortable
with the idea of anyone wear-
ing a swastika in my child's
school. I wish at the beginn-
ing of the program that
parents had been told that
some of the characters we'd
meet might seem infamous as
well as famous. I wish I'd
taken the time to talk to
"Rommel" for a longer period
of time, to ask him why he
had selected him as a person
of greatness.
But I do know that in school
my child has been taught a
unit on prejudice, including
anti-Semitism. I do know that
in his predominantly white
school, there is a student-
elected black student body
president. I do know that dur-
ing this bar mitzvah year,
guests include not only
Jews, but gentiles, Indians,
blacks and Chaldeans. I do
know that during the recent
Persian Gulf war, there was
not one incident between
students of different na-
tionalities or cultures.
I am thankful that my son's
school is doing something
right. I am hopeful his
generation will go beyond
symbols and stereotypes
when judging the motivations
of other people. And I am
thankful to my son for
teaching me that there is
more than one way to wear a
sheet. ❑

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

7

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