In a series of serendipitous events on April 4, two 17-year-olds, Jordan April and Archer Schurtliff, became my heroes. Upon arriving in Oswego, N.Y., for my book signing at River’s End Bookstore, I stopped at a grocery store to load up on caffeine. A downpour kept me in my car, so I scrolled through Facebook. The headline, “CNY Students Upset After Being Asked To Defend Nazis, Holocaust for Homework,” caught my eye, but what popped off my screen was the town’s name — Oswego.
Of the millions of small towns and the hundreds in New York, this Jewish Wisconsin educator and author ended up in a place where educators believe students should find legitimate reasons in favor of the Nazi’s Final Solution to exterminate Jews, along with other groups such as homosexuals, gypsies, and those with physical and mental disabilities. The teacher of the Principles of Literacy Representation Course, the administration at the Oswego County CiTi/BOCES New Vision program and even the New York Education Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, believed it would prompt critical thinking.
Imagine the assignment had tasked the students with defending the perpetrators of a different historical atrocity? Would we want our children championing the terrorists who murdered 2,977 people on 9/11? Would we advocate for slave owners? How about the use of chemical weapons against innocent Syrian men, women and children, which is going on today? No. There are thousands of other ways we can teach students critical thinking without asking them to defend the indefensible and immoral. Some lines must never be crossed.
As I prepared to give my talk, I wondered if I should bring up the controversy. My survival instinct kicked in. Suddenly, I felt like I was in unfriendly territory. Anti-Semitism is nothing new to me. I grew up in the 1970s under the shadows of Nazi rallies held in Skokie, Ill. I had been called a “Jesus killer” and asked where I hid my horns and tail.
Over the years, I’ve faced many other anti-Semitic incidences, including swastikas drawn on my desk and neighborhood kids yelling, “Kill the Jews.” More recently, as my family and I walked down the street on our way to Yom Kippur services, a car slowed, a window rolled down, and soda cans flew and exploded along with “Heil Hilter,” as the car peeled away. I watched in horror as two punks flicked lit cigarettes at my children, hitting them on their backs as we walked down a Boston street. Hatred, just for our existence, is a reality in our world.
By the time I arrived at the bookstore, I hoped that somehow I’d be able to find a way to meet these teens to express my admiration, gratitude and respect. As fate would have it, I took four steps into the bookstore and found myself facing one of my heroes. “Oh my goodness,” I said. “It’s the world famous Jordan!” It turned out that she works at the store.
Jordan said that students were given their debate position by counting off by twos. She ended up on the con side and Archer on the pro. Neither one felt comfortable with the assignment, deeming it grossly inappropriate. In a meeting with two school administrators and the teacher, their concerns were ignored. Jordan and Archer refused to accept this.
Later that evening, Archer sent me a copy of the assignment. “Top Secret” was stamped in red on the first page. It states, “Ultimately, this is an exercise on expanding your point of view by going outside your comfort zone and training your brain to logistically find the evidence necessary to prove a point, even if it is existentially and philosophically against what you believe.”
A passion for history led Jordan to participate in a European trip through EF Education Tours and she visited Berlin, Krakow, Warsaw, Prague and three concentration camps. This experience deeply influenced her opposition to the class assignment. Archer said that on his mother’s side, he is a descendent of Eastern European Jews. For both young adults, the idea of advocating for the extermination of a people should never be legitimized by intellectual debate.
Standing up for their beliefs has been both stressful and rewarding for Jordan and Archer. Peers have ridiculed them and defended their teacher and the Nazi position. Online, they have faced intense opposition and criticism. Thankfully, they also have received tremendous support. This support has reaffirmed their decision that they did what was right.
Talking to these teens, it is clear they possess more sensibility, sensitivity, respect and compassion than the adults who were supposed to be their role models and mentors.
After Beth Martinez, education director at the Albany, N.Y., branch of the Anti-Defamation League, stepped in, New York education commissioner MaryEllen Elia renounced the lesson and stated that the assignment will never be given again. But it took two teens to lead the way. They are our teachers. They are our hope for the future, our hope for a world where there are no legitimate reasons for genocide.
Liza Wiemer is an educator and author of the young adult novel, “Hello?” and two adult nonfiction books. She is a contributor to “Small Miracles of the Holocaust: Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope, and Survival” by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal.