Area students gathered in Shadyside for a day-long study of German resistance during World War II.
Representing Bethel Park High School, Chartiers Valley High School, Community Day School, St. Edmund’s Academy and Winchester Thurston School, the students toured an exhibit on nonviolent resistance, watched a movie and listened to Anne Nelson, a Columbia University professor and expert on the nonviolent movement known as the White Rose that tried to stoke public outcry and oust Adolf Hitler in the early 1940s. Taking the lessons of German resistance to heart, they then wrote letters as part of a campaign against atrocities taking place in Syria.
Nelson, who is known for both her journalistic and academic pursuits, is the author of “The Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler,” named an “Editor’s Choice” by the New York Times Book Review. The Oct. 20 program, “The White Rose: A Day of Learning on Resistance and Dissent,” was hosted by Winchester Thurston School in collaboration with Classrooms Without Borders, a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 by Zipora Gur.
Nelson, who spoke later that night at Rodef Shalom Congregation, said she was impressed by the students’ commitment.
“Having a whole day,” she said, “gives it meaning.”
Although teenagers are not Nelson’s typical audience, she is familiar with the demographic. The Winchester presentations were first conceived after a request from her own daughter’s 10th-grade history teacher, she explained. Following that request to speak, Nelson began developing slides. Ultimately, the slides included illustrative maps, politically charged cartoons and various propagandizing images.
Michael Naragon, chairman of Winchester’s History Department, praised Nelson’s focus.
“Her work is electric and speaks to many audiences,” he said.
Many in the audience were unfamiliar with the phenomenon of German resistance. Isabel Ranner, international programs assistant for Classrooms Without Borders, explained that one of the program’s objectives was to “teach kids and the broader community about a period of German history not well known.”
“I’m undoing some of the mythology,” noted Nelson. “Evidence is overwhelmingly against the idea that all Germans hated all Jews. The dynamics of European anti-Semitism has been oversimplified. It was much more nuanced.”
To open one of her presentations, Nelson inquired which war movies the students had seen. After receiving their responses, she noted the curiosity of such films.
“In war movies, every German is called a Nazi and that’s a historical untruth,” she emphasized. Nelson explained that there were German anti-Nazis who were drafted into the army and forced to serve.
While a group of students listened to Nelson lecturing from a stage in Winchester’s auditorium, others toured an exhibit in the school’s art gallery that featured large black-and-white panels describing students’ nonviolent resistance to Nazism in Munich between 1942 and 1943.
Leigh Ann Totty, a 10th-grade English teacher at Bethel Park High School, noted that the exhibit and program allowed her students to “see things that might not be covered in class.”
Mary Beth Zollars, a German teacher at Chartiers Valley High School, similarly remarked that the exhibit and program “brings it more to life.”
At the conclusion of the program, no quizzes or tests were administered.
“It’s an ungraded moment where you’re asking students to learn,” said Naragon.
“I hope it arouses curiosity,” added Nelson. “If the students read a book or see a movie, I’ll consider it a success.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.