During the Fall of 1942, in the middle of cleaning a typewriter as part of his rounds for work, fourteen year old Petr Ginz received a call from his boss. Come back to the office right away.
Petr responded to the unusual request immediately and trekked across the streets of Prague to the office where his coworkers waited sadly.
“You’ve been put on a transport,” they said. “You should go home.”
All the way back to his house he absorbed the city, the cobblestones and the beautiful buildings, hiding his yellow star before turning the corner onto his street so neighbors wouldn’t know Jews still lived there. He told his mother not to worry. He told his father he’d be fine. That same evening he was put on a train and spent two years in Terezín, the infamous Czech internment camp called “the Ghetto.” And then he was sent to Auschwitz where he died in the gas chambers.
I feel haunted by the Ghost of Petr Ginz, a boy I met a year ago when I first read excerpts from the secret boy’s magazine he helped publish in Terezín. He loved science and writing, he was an overacheiver but a humble one. He was well-liked and liked people well. I’ve spent a year learning about him and his life. I read his diaries, detailing the two years leading up to his deportation to Terezín.
And that’s what I finished reading the morning before Valentine’s Day. I was nearly in tears getting off the bus. Petr depicts Prague – a city he loved, a city I am falling in love with – in perfect realism. He doesn’t understate, he doesn’t exaggerate. He talks about the A’s on his report card in the same tone that he writes about getting kicked off a tram from being a Jew or being banned from public areas during certain hours during the weekend or watching more and more of his family and friends ship out on transports to Poland and Terezín.
The hate, the venom of even children in his neighborhood, shocked me. How can people be so cruel? How can the world have let this happen? Forget the mass murder, the genocide. How could people have let an entire population be stripped of their rights to buy food, shop in stores, walk on public streets, use transportation, wear sweaters in the bitter winters or hold on to their personal property?
I stumbled through the day, trying to stay focused on my classes. To be honest, the holocaust feels more real here than it ever did learning about it in America. This part of the world lived through it. And then they lived through a half century of communism and abuse. America – God bless her – is spoiled, and I can’t help but feel like my generation doesn’t appreciate its immense blessings.
That afternoon I had my 5th graders. They are the bane of my teaching existence. They have turned my Thursdays into Mondays. They make me dread the end of the week. They embody chaos.
Some days are okay. Most days it takes everything I have to keep them from throwing shoes at each other, grabbing at each other’s throats or literally spitting in each other’s faces. These kids hate each other.
I mentally divide the class into three sections: lions, tigers and bunnies. Yesterday we didn’t have enough of either group to do my project without some intermixing.
They revolted. They absolutely refused, lions curling up in chairs on one side of the room and tigers prowling moodily on the other side. The bunnies consist mainly of girls and a few stray fourth graders.
Enough is all it takes, in my mind, to justify a change of syllabus. I stopped the class and asked them, “Why don’t you guys get along?”
Imagine flood gates bursting wide open and pent up feelings spilling out, unstoppable, furious.
“He’s stupid, he’s young, he’s rude.” He’s this, he’s that, they hissed and spit and laughed with sickening glee at the opportunity to cut down their opponents.
And then finally, “He’s horrible,” said a jolly-faced boy who looks like the child version of Santa Clause.
I stopped him.
“Why do you think he’s horrible?” I asked.
Jolly went quiet and shrugged his shoulders.
I looked at the accused.
“Do you think Jolly is horrible?”
The boy smiled menacingly but shook his big head ‘no,’ his bright blue eyes blinking. Jolly seemed surprised.
“Blue eyes, do you think this boy is horrible?” I asked, pointing at Jolly’s friend who tends to be the instigator of our classroom troubles. Blue eyes nodded.
“I think you’re horrible, too,” said the Instigator. Blue eyes smiled that wicked grin again.
“How about her?” I asked, pointing to the shy girl in the class. “Is she horrible?”
No one wanted to say ‘yes’ but no one could bring themselves to say ‘no.’
“Why do you think this about each other?” I asked them.
After a minute one of the leader Bunnies spoke up. She pointed at the Lions and the Tigers.
“We’re from 5C,” she said, motioning to her classmates. “They’re from 5B.”
“That’s it?” I was stunned. “That’s the only reason?”
They shrugged and grunted.
I marched over to the chalk board and drew the word I knew they would all recognize, even as fifth graders: Terezín.
“Do you know what this is?”
They nodded quietly. Good.
I told them about Petr. I told them about his young friends – almost their age. I told them about how people did horrible things to other people just because they were from different groups. I didn’t need to say it, but I did anyway – they were acting the same horrible way as the people who sent 140,000 people to Terezín.
“But,” the Instigator asked, hesitantly raising his hand, “What if we don’t like each other? What if he does something I don’t want him to?” He pointed at Blue eyes.
“You don’t have to be friends,” I said. “But you have to respect each other. Do you know that word?”
They do – respektovat.
In begrudging silence they lined up into the pairs I put them in and, except for class disruptions typical for that age group, nothing too heinous happened for the rest of the period. The impromptu lesson dampened the atmosphere for our Valentine’s activity, but it would have been dead anyway. I hope they’ll learn to live with each other this year, if not like each other. But I have my doubts.
The Holocaust makes more sense to me – only in that people, even good people, are blind and stupid and horrible. From childhood we find solidarity, not in togetherness but in exclusion. Nowhere is this seen better than in schools. Destruction of others is a much easier form of self-aggrandizement than mutual edification. It’s safer in numbers so we create division, inventing enemies just so we can feel secure knowing who we’re fighting against.
However, while we can say that humans run away from things they don’t understand, that we’re ruled by fear and mistrust, that’s not the whole truth. The truth is that we will never be able to live in real peace until we understand what real love is. It is not acceptance – love is not always accepting. It is not tolerance – love does not always tolerate. It is selflessness. It’s ignoring every fiber of our sinful nature that is screaming, “Hate! Hate! Hate!” It’s setting aside the desire to be impatient, unkind, exploitive, murderous or silent in the face of such actions. It is loving the Creator more than ourselves and thereby loving his creation.
This has also been made clearer to me as a teacher. I had no idea how much it hurt to watch my students tear one another down, to watch them hurt each other. I love them all, why can’t they love each other? Where are the protectors? Where are the peace-makers?
Today is a big day for “Love” in America. But it’s easy to love the people we like. When do we start loving the people we don’t like?
Petr Ginz believed that people are gardeners of the world and it is our job to tend to society in such a way that it grows up beautiful and healthy. Although I don’t think he placed enough responsibility on the individual for their harmful actions, he was right in assuming his own: if people are in anyway a product of their environment, let us take care to make that environment a good one – one where people have enough love for their fellow man to stand up for the yellow stars of this world and seek peace between the lions and the tigers.