The challenge. I came into that little classroom not knowing what I was going to do. I was in the Hebrew School of Bogota, Colombia. Some minutes before its Principal had asked me if I could lecture the children between 9 and 11 years old. "The bigger ones were so enthusiastic after your conference that the smaller ones asked if you..." How could I say no? My reason for going to Colombia was to talk about the Shoah.
It was Friday, the last day of that long tour. In five days I had lectured in Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla, speaking to children in the mornings and to their parents and the Jewish community in the evening, to university students in a meeting organized by the Judeo-colombian students of Law School in the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana (including students of Canonic Law). The night before I had been received by the Bogota´s Jewish community and I had talked for more than two hours in the crowded room, stimulated by the enthusiasm they showed. It was Friday, almost noon. I was coming from a meeting with the older pupils, ages between 12 and 16. Once again in that tour I was surprised by the interest the children expressed; I chose to present the issue of the Shoah in a way that helped them feel it as their own and existing in the present and actual world. As in my own country, Argentina, I heard in the schools I visited that the Shoah didn't attract neither the attention nor the interest of the pupils. "Its a different world, Internet, instantaneity... they are not interested... they don't care... they seem bored listening over and over the same facts and they don’t want to know more... this youth is different than ours, no ideals, skeptical, suspicious..." these were the explanations I got from the teachers discouraged by the lack of receptivity the children showed towards the issue. Well, that had not been my experience during those days. Not at all. Of course I had the freedom of not being forced to stick to programs nor methods, I could do whatever I pleased, so I invented paths trying to reach out, to move the adolescents, make them feel committed. And I succeeded. More than I expected.
But what happened that Friday near noon with the little ones, surpassed any dreamt expectation. I did not know it by the time I had to answer the school's Principal if I dared to address the smaller children. "If it is a matter of daring, I do", I answered him, "if I came up to here, it is clear that I dare... it is that I do not know what to say to them, we did not do any previous work with them as we had done with the adolescents... I do not know what they know, I do not know how much they can conceptualize...". "Try for forty five minutes..", he said. "How do I fill forty five minutes? No! Twenty the most, or a half hour... nothing more". "OK" he said quickly, "I shall make them come" and there I stayed, at the cafeteria, humming and browsing in my brain trying to figure something out, a scheme, some central idea, while I kept reprimanding myself and remembered how my mother used to say to me "why do you take so manny challenges?". As a matter of fact, I had not the faintest idea of how was I to begin, how to follow or what to do. My lectures with the bigger ones had been preceded by the work that I had done before and our meetings were built on that. But, what oes a child of about 9 or 10 years old know? What were the limits with them? Could I put the issue of individual responsibility, of critical judgment, of the dilemmas that the Shoah makes us face, the deafness of humankind before the teachings about social and human nature..., all the things that I had worked on with the adolescents? And soon I was standing in the small classroom where the children began to enter. They were members of three classes, about 30 or 35 children and their six teachers, two per group. I stared terrified at those little faces that stared at me with curiosity. They sat in small chairs while I remained standing, leaning on a desk that could hardly hold my urge to run away, the anguish I felt and the void that was beginning to grow under my feet. The Principal was there too and introduced me. He said that I had come all the way from Argentina and that we were going to discuss some important things that I knew and that could be important to them. Some time before, at the cafeteria, he had told me that he was, as me, a child of survivors and that some things I had said, touched him deeply. "I hope the issue is mportant also for the children". I thought and breathed profoundly.
Beginning of the dialogue.
After an eternal and expectant silence, the only thing that came to my mind was saying "does anyone of you know what was the Holocaust?" (Colombians as a lot of people, still use this word instead of Shoah). Some hands raised. "It is what Hitler did to the Jews he killed in Europe" said the child I pointed first. "There were others, it was not Hitler alone, I saw a movie in TV" said the second one. The word TV was magic because a lot of hands raised and everybody told me what they knew about the Shoah, notions acquired from the television: the transportation, the camps, Schindler´s List "which I did not understand much but it was very sad" the child added, and a little girl said "and I saw a man that said that Hitler is not dead, that it is not true, what do you think?", "Well, I answered her, the truth is that I do not care whether he is alive or not, even at this time if he were alive it would be a miracle because he would be very very old, but, anyway, what matters and what scares me most is that some people think the same as he did, and they are surely alive and living everywhere and putting other people in danger". This seemed to have intrigued them and quickly their interest switched towards the issue of racial hatred and they turned over there their questions and interventions. It seemed we had touched a nerve. "Why do they hate us?", "Why do they wanted to kill us?", "What did we do to them?" and so on. I tried to answer but I realized that I could not tell them what they really wanted to know, I could not find neither the way nor the words. I felt discouraged. I did not want to address them as to small children, that is as if they were not able to understand or as if they were dumb. I could not find a way to develop concepts, to talk to them respectfully but in a code we could share. On the other hand, I did not want that the exchange turned out to be only questions and answers, I wanted them to participate, to feel involved, to be moved, I wanted them to care. I proposed then a game.
I was going to be a ten year old nazi child and they, the whole class, were going to be a ten years old Jewish child and we would argue and they had to convince me not to hate them, not to kill them. I did not have to wait for their acceptance, all the hands were up. Everyone wanted to speak to the Nazi child. And there began a pitiless Ping-Pong that unfortunately was not taped, so I will have to trust my fragile memory and betray inevitably what happened in the poor narration that follows. "Do you hate Jews?", "Yeah" I answered. "Why?", "I don’t know... everybody hates them... they say they are mean" I said as if I was saying something obvious. "I'm not mean" someone says, "me neither" says another.... "That’s what all of you say" I reply, "you seem like saints... but as soon as you can you steal, you cheat, you lie...". "That’s a lie!" in an angry voice, "we are not like this at home, my mummy is good, and so is my dad, and my granny...", "Of course" I say "among you, you are good, you help yourselves, you keep secrets, but as soon as you are with us, you steal us, you kill us". "Who kills?" several children asked, "You do" I answer. "We never killed anyone, at home my folks say that nobody can kill and even to kill an animal needed as food, it must be done without suffering", "Yeah! with beasts you are good but with Christians...." I challenged the child looking with the corner of my eye at the Christian teachers. "What Christian did we kill?", "For Easter you always look for a Christian child, you kill him, and with the blood you make this strange bread you eat" I said resentfully. That is a lie!" they shouted in a enraged chorus, the faces red, angry "It’ s a lie!" "You killed Jesus Christ! You killed God", I said with perversity and I did not look at the teachers any more. "Where did you take it from? Who told you?", "Everybody says it, my teachers, my parents, my siblings, my relatives, the children in the street and the priest, he is the one that says it all the time, in the Sunday’s mass, everyone says it...". It is difficult to describe the agitation, the outrage. They spoke without waiting for me to point at them, they argued, they wanted to be heard, to show the nazi child he/she was wrong. "At home they teach me to be good", "everyone says that fighting is not good", "Nobody in my family ever killed anyone", "the bread you talked about is not made with blood, you don’t know what you're talking about", "the Bible says that you can not kill", "not even lie nor steal", "you must not kill nobody, not Jews not Christians" and so they went on, one by one and I continued to say, provocatively,"of course, what could you say..." or "Jews know how to argue" or "Jews are inferior because they don't believe in God", "We do believe at home" some voice said but I kept attacking.
The end of the argument.
After a long time - I had lost notion of time- I made up my mind and I decided that the Nazi child (whose role began to be a heavy burden) had to loose the argument, that they deserved it, but someone had to offer me a good point for me to give up. And a boy did it: "but all the people are equal" he said in a helpless voice and then I left my arms down. "The game is over, I said, you won because I can't answer to that, he is right, we are all the same...". I drank some water, waited until they calmed down and then I asked them how they imagined that the nazi child had come to believe all those lies about the Jews. They did not know what to say but it was evident that they wanted to know. I spoke then about the things that we hear, that we are told to hear and believe, and that are told a lot of times, by one person and by another one, people with authority, teachers, parents, friends, priests, the jokes, the sayings, the television, and after some time you don't ask yourself whether it is true or a lie, little by little these ideas plunge in the heads without even noticing it and soon you realize that you are thinking something, believing it, not knowing where your take it from and not caring if it is true or not. I did not say it in such a long sentence, but I said it, all of it, and I wondered if they had understood me. I was not so sure, although their eyes were looking at me strait into mine and they seemed attentive and thoughtful. I was not sure, so I said: "I spoke a lot and I don't know if I’ve made myself clear, I may have bored you or tired you, tell me, is there something you think that can be learnt from all this?" and a big silence grew, a thick silence, a reflexive silence, I could almost hear them think.
The lesson I was taught.
From the first line, a little girl not older than 9, tiny and tender, hummed for herself: "that you must not believe everything you hear". I could not believe my ears. "Please, repeat it louder". And she did:
“THAT YOU MUST NOT BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU HEAR". Good! Now tell it to the rest of the children, but do it louder so all of them can hear you". She stood up, faced them and firmly said it. I asked all of the children to help her "let us say it together, real loud so it can be heard all over the school" and it was an unforgettable chorus. Some thirty or thirty five children and me (I do not know if the teachers were joinings) yelling:
that still echoes in my ears. October,1999. Bogota. Colombia. Friday noon. Almost two hours had passed. These children between 9 and 11 years old had taught me one of the most potent lessons for understanding hate and intolerance, the foundations of prejudice: that you must not believe everything you hear. I was enriched with the notion that it is possible to address children even small ones, over difficult topics such as the Shoah, if it is done in a way they are trapped by the interest, if they care about it, if they are committed with the idea that it is something they own. They taught me something teachers ought to know and sometimes forget: that when a pupil does not learn it is the teacher that has not learnt the way to teach that pupil.