Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Devil's Arithmetic

For an upcoming book report, Maya and the students in her sixth-grade English class had to choose a book about a culture other than their own. Because the book seemed to be about a girl's adventure through time, Maya chose a book called The Devil's Arithmetic. The girl in the book does travel through time; on Passover night she is transported back to 1942 Poland just as the Nazi are making their round ups. Maya enjoyed the book, but connected more to the girl and her personal adventure rather than comprehending the gravity of the situation. I explained more in depth what the Holocaust was, but who really understands six million people extinguished?

Last night, Maya and I watched Paper Clips, a documentary about a middle school in Tennessee that took on a Holocaust project. The school knew very little diversity in their area and they sought out to understand a group of people that were not white, christian Americans. The teachers read books about the Holocaust and looked on the internet and did their best to explain to the kids what had happened. The kids reacted much like Maya did at first, empathetic without deeper comprehension. Until one kid asked, "What does six million mean, what does it look like?" This sparked a years-long journey to collect six million paper clips to better understand what a devastating amount of people that is. In the film, there are many, many powerful and heart-crushing moments and by the end Maya was crying in huge, gulping and whooping cries. "I didn't know," she cried. "I didn't know it would be this painful to know about this." It's one thing to read about the significance of the chimney smoke in a book, quite another to hear a 70 year old man weep as he retold watching his own mother and brothers billow from a chimney.

And I say this again, there are not many things harder as a parent than having to introduce them to the evils of the world. It reels in her mind still, what would cause such hatred and intolerance, and it hurts me to see that innocence and trust peeled away. It's absolutely necessary too, this introduction, because it doesn't go away, those pockets of evil, and she needs to know to never be influenced by it and to never tolerate it.

Not far from us, there is a Museum of Tolerance and I asked Maya if she wanted to go check it out. She's not sure right now. She said, "What if I cry like that in there?" I said, "I'm sure many people cry like that in there. It's not meant to make you feel good. It’s there to remember it and to squash intolerance, spark compassion." She said, "Can I tell you next week if I want to go?" Of course she could. She was born all tolerance, all compassion. She can tell me whenever she's ready for the next round, when it's a little less raw.

8 comments:

Deezee said...

I saw Paper Clips in the theater with my son. What a powerful movie. I hope more reach out to pick up this film.

It is so sad when our children's innocence washing away...

kristen said...

I really want to see this movie, especially since I'm converting to be a Jew in less than a week. I read Elie Weisel's Night recently and was absolutely devastated.

athena said...

i feel the same way about not sheltering our children from such evils because they need to know what it looks like so that they can recognise it when they see it and then fight it! but what really touched me more here, is that your children are learning this from a caring parent who loves them. this is parenting and it is hard work.

Nicole said...

i am impressed at your ability to deal with such a tragic part of world history with such tenderness with your daughter - without letting go of reality.

i work in a school library and have students who read "number the stars" a similar story to the "devil's arithmetic."

their amazement at the story is palpable and i don't know if they ever fully understand at that age, but i also know many of them don't have parents at home like you to help them deal with it all.

kudos to you!

madness rivera said...

Thanks for the comments. Mazaltov Kristen! And I love librarians, Nicole -- right, Melinda? -- and I wish you guys got paid a million dollars.

Melinda said...

Was that a comments shout-out? For little old me??

Ok, this post is so interesting. Before I moved to Chicago, I worked as the librarian for a Holocaust-education nonprofit in Boston. When "Paper Clips" came out, we hosted a screening at a local theater. Great, right? You'd think. Except that we got slammed with hate mail and horrified phone calls from supporters -- apparently the movie is just totally loathed in some circles because they feel it simplifies, glosses over the impact of the Holocaust by comparing the lives of humans who were tortured and killed to paperclips. I didn't understand. The film seemed like it was generating interest in the topic for a whole generation (like Maya) who might otherwise feel so detached from it. But the people who were calling -- some of them were survivors themselves. So confusing.

madness rivera said...

Hi M. Interestingly, I found that the most powerful part of the movie; that human lives were simplied - as objects to be disregarded -- just as Nazi's had. And actually seeing millions of these paper clips tumble from bin to bin maginfied, for me, the soullessness of what happened during the Holocaust. It was devasting to imagine those as bodies, dehumanized and tossed away.

And yes, anything to remember; anything to teach that intolerance will not be tolerated.

andrea said...

oh danette. wow.