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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Just the Facts, Ma'am

I'm one of the lucky few who has been taught by excellent teachers from the very beginning. No other component of education ranks as high as the women and men who, underpaid and undersupplied, stand in front of classrooms day after day. Somehow, each year I managed to be assigned to yet another person who would have been honored as Teacher of the Year, were life completely fair.

Except for my third grade teacher. Poor thing, she had to take over our class barely six weeks into the new school year, assuming the wooden desk of one of those venerated educators. And she was no Mrs. T. She did not understand how to challenge us, motivate us to think out loud, like Mrs. T did. She mistook mischief for badness, sass for impudence.

The new person did not take us outside to explore wildflowers, or sit us down in small groups to work on assignments. Instead, she hung bad handwriting samples on the bulletin board to encourage classmates to mock poor cursive. And my Ps and Qs always, but always, took front and center of her disdain.

Whether naturally lazy or just ill-equipped, this woman could not teach. Yet I took two things away from her class that I do indeed remember to this day. First, she demonstrated the power of reading aloud. When she ran out of things to say, she would pick up a book, say Charlotte's Web, perch on a stool, and read to us for the rest of the day. I still enjoy hearing words spoken, words crafted to sit on a white page, but spoken instead. It's magic, that rhythm. No mistake that mysticism often invokes chants uttered, not sung.

And her second gift to me? Something she never intended as such. When she got angry, she would mete out fact-writing as punishment. The greater the offense, the more facts you had to write down. It didn't matter what, as long that Big Chief tablet contained nice neat lists. Of facts.

She didn't realize that whenever I pulled an encyclopedia off the shelf, or went down the hall to the library, I was in heaven. There is so much to know. And the more you learn, the more you know, the bigger you realize this old world is. That hunger is hardly satisfied by feeding on the fruit of knowledge. You go from writing "Texas is the very best state in the United States" (an acceptable third grade fact in Houston), to comprehending how it gained independence, to its flora and fauna, to the surrounding states, to Valley Forge. And before you know it, you wind up studying overseas, still fascinated by the people and cultures and trees and all that make this planet ours.

And before you know it, you wind up searching for the truth about a group of college kids who were beheaded for daring to speak the truth about Hitler.

The usual dust cover summary of the White Rose will tell you that they were a group of friends at the University of Munich, who committed to resist Hitler and began to do so by writing leaflets calling for the overthrow of the regime. That on February 18, 1943, two of them (Hans and Sophie Scholl) threw leaflets over the balcony of the main university building that housed the lecture halls and classrooms for philosophy and the humanities. That the janitor saw them and had them arrested. That they, along with Christoph Probst, were tried and beheaded on February 22, 1943. That fourteen others were tried on April 19, and four more on July 13. In all, six were murdered, and eleven served prison sentences.

The dust jacket version of their story leads the casual reader to believe that these wonderful young students were near saints. One extant edition of letters highlights innocent love affairs, sexless liaisons without even a breath of a kiss. They are ascribed purity of heart, purity of mind, and above all, purity of soul. Their all too real spiritual struggles jump off the page and dominate the telling.

But this pretty terrible third grade teacher inadvertently taught me to chase rabbits. You never know. You can end up in Wonderland with Alice, at tea with Bugs, or pursuing the science of burrowing animals. Chasing rabbits will at least get you off dead center.

I learned for starters that the literature about them is all wrong. Yes, there are bits and pieces of it that ring true, but not nearly enough. These wonderful young students were that same mix of good and bad that you and I are. When they fell in love, it was with hormones raging, riddled with angst and guilt and desire. Pure passion.

They fought our battles too. Christoph's demon was his clinical depression, knowing that his father had died of the same disease, by his own hand. He found solace in a solid woman, whom he finally married after the birth of their second child. His family hobnobbed with the premiere banned artists. Emil Nolde painted a portrait of Christoph and his sister.

Willi Graf decided very young to distance himself from Hitler's hordes. He marked through names of friends who joined Hitler Youth, leaving his address book a stark reminder of how few were courageous. When Willi was 15, he and 11 friends marched alone in a throng of several hundred thousand Hitler Youth boys, their lack of proper attire and proper flag a thumb in the eye of the city fathers. Assigned to a medical unit on the Russian front, he witnessed unbelievable bestiality by his "comrades". His nightmares ended only with his execution.

These kids coped with drug addiction, sexual addiction, and stupid jealousies. They wrote love letters, sketched scenes from their hometowns, and went skiing over New Year's. Sophie loved the Variety Club, Hubert started a string quartet, Alex sculpted a bust of Beethoven. Several excelled at fencing, one was allegedly a petty thief, a couple played piano, and they all devoured every banned book they could find.

They had their mentors too. Carl Muth, friend of Hans Jonas, instructed them how to find answers to theological questions on their own. Wilhelm Geyer (whom Julius Streicher named the most dangerous artist in Germany) taught Sophie how to paint and Alex how to make stencils. Eugen Grimminger funded their efforts with roughly the equivalent of $50,000 in real money. And a regular army guy, Commander Buehl, managed to outwit the Gestapo and protected several who were in his Student Company.

Some had Jewish family members. Christoph's beloved stepmother Lisl was Jewish, as was Eugen Grimminger's wife Jenny. Most had neighbors they had seen destroyed, financially or physically. They differed from their classmates by perceiving the Nazi noose as an outrage that needed righting, as illegal acts against human beings. And the ones who saw Warsaw? Well, no words can describe the fury that possessed them from that day on.

They didn't come close to overthrowing Hitler. They painted anti-Nazi slogans up and down the main streets of Munich, "seventy times," the Gestapo screamed. Though the tar-based paint kept their graffiti visible long after their deaths, no one rushed out to topple the regime just because they proclaimed that Hitler was a mass murderer. And while a few were sorry that such a pretty young girl had to die, most people expressed the sentiments that someone overheard in class, words that only deepened his anguished sorrow. "They should have strung 'em up in front of the university," two students opined.

So why tell their story, when all they did was for nothing? Why do I fight this battle to get the real story out there, when people seem happier with the feel-good version?

The answer is the same to both questions. They did not die for nothing. Sophie's boyfriend back-tracked on his original plans to raise chickens. Instead, he became one of Germany's most respected, ethical judges. Often Fritz Hartnagel represented the sole voice of justice in a court where too many Nazis were not disbarred. He is gravely ill, and I offer a prayer, a mi sh'berach for his health.

Traute Lafrenz came to the States and has worked hard to make our world safer, healthier, more compassionate. Anneliese Graf took to heart her brother's admonition to keep the torch lit. She has worked tirelessly in the field of education.

These people have in turn inspired others. And all of us recognize our limits, our shortcomings, our very humanness. There is something at once bracing and comforting in knowing that no matter how often we fail, we are capable of such great good.

Even you. Even me.

(c) 2001 Ruth Sachs. All rights reserved.

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