Mrs. Lehmann stood before her high school history class the way she did every morning. However, this morning was different. She was about to do something that could cost her everything – her job, her pension and her reputation.
Pulling the sleeve up slightly on her right arm, she briefly stared at the numbers inked there. They gave her courage. She took a deep breath and began.
“We aren’t going to follow the text today,” she said in a strong, courageous voice. “Instead we are going to talk about the Nazi occupation of Germany and the internment of blacks and Jews.”
Pausing for a moment, she noted a couple of students’ hands fly up in the air. She nodded, acknowledging them and then called out the first name.
“Yes, Mr. Smith,” she said in a tone slightly above a whisper.
“My dad told me that whole thing never happened. He said the Jews made it up to garner sympathy for themselves so that they could gain even more wealth.”
Looking satisfied with himself, the sixteen-year-old slumped in his chair. He grinned to his two best friends, fist pumping the one closest to him.
Mrs. Lehmann walked back behind her desk and reached down to pick up a huge stack of books. She dramatically slammed them on her desk.
“Then how does one account for the number of history, biography, auto-biography and other books written on the subject?” Her eyebrows rose as she spoke. “This stack represents less than two percent of the books available out there. Are all of these people lying as well?”
“They were probably all Jews,” the smart aleck student tossed back.
“Well, let’s see. Brown, Turner, Marshall, Banks, Jones.” The teacher hesitated. “None of those sound like Jewish names.
“They used a pseudonym to hide their identity,” the boy cracked. “I’m telling you, it never happened.”
Moving purposefully toward the student, Julia Lehmann pushed up her sleeve. Holding out her arm, she pushed it close to the boy’s eyes.
“Then how do you explain this? Better still, how do you explain the loss of my parents and my siblings? Let me guess, they never existed to begin with?”
Having made her point, Julia moved back to the head of the class. She displayed her arm to everyone. Some students gawked. Others began to cry softly. Many others lowered their heads, unable to speak.
“My mother, father, three brothers and I were taken from our home in 1944. I was barely three years old at the time but I remember the incident vividly. The Germans called my parents unspeakable names. One wrenched me so hard by the arm, he tore the muscle in my shoulder. It never healed properly, which is why I have limited use of that arm.”
Hesitating for a moment, she looked out over her class. The noisy student was now quiet. He looked down at his feet. She could not tell what he was thinking but she suspected he was searching for another snappy comeback.
“My parents were separated from us. I learned years later that they were burned to death less than one week after our capture.”
Julia’s voice caught as she spoke again. “My brothers were among those subjected to Nazi experiments. My eldest brother’s brain was removed. The Nazis hoped to prove that a Jewish brain was deformed and therefore worked differently than that of a member of the so-called master race.”
A Native American girl raised her hand. Once acknowledged she spoke. “What happened to your other brothers?”
“I never found out for certain. I only know that their names were logged in at the clinic where all the experiments took place.”
“How did you survive?” The same girl asked the second question, tears already falling down her brown cheeks.
“I’m not certain,” Julia admitted, lowering her head. “I have blocked out a lot of my experiences in the camp. I suspect my young mind could not process all of the horrors that I saw,” she pushed out breathlessly. “However, I do know that I was befriended by a girl of 10. She took care of me until she also disappeared. After her death, I remember very little.”
“Then how do you know it happened at all?” The testy boy had regained his courage and began speaking again. His eyes challenged his teachers.
“I remember enough,” Julia returned. Lifting her pant leg slightly, she displayed a mass of scars. “These marks help me remember. It is a pity you cannot see the thousands that crisscross my entire body,” she snorted. “But then, you’d probably think them imaginary as well.”
The boy fell silent at last. Julia could tell there was a war going on inside of his mind. It was precisely the kind of thing she’d hoped to trigger among non-believers.
“Much of what is known about the holocaust has been removed from history books. We as teachers are discouraged from teaching anything of that period. There is a well-planned attempt to sweep the whole thing under the rug.”
“But why?” The question came from another boy whose voice Julia could not identify.
“Because people won’t believe such a thing could happen again if the holocaust is discounted. Also, the hatred of Jews is growing once more along with the hatred of Christians. That isn’t all, either. Unfortunately, we as a people often seek to destroy that which we cannot or choose not to understand.”
“I heard people hate the Jews because they run all the financial institutions.” Again Julia was unable to identify the student’s voice.
“Some but not all,” she returned. “I admit our people have always been good with money. Why should that be considered a crime?”
“Because they get wealthy while so many others starve.” This came from a girl who remained unmoved by Julia’s story.
“If you can prove to me that only the Jews gain wealth and that no Jew is starving, I will agree with you,” Julia challenged. “The problem is you cannot because it simply isn’t true.”
“Why do people hate Christians so much these days?” A small dark-haired girl in the front row asked the question. Her eyes were still wet with tears.
“Primarily, it is because they believe in morality. That is something those in power need to disappear. If it does, it will make it easier for them to commit the kind of atrocities once reserved for Nazi Germany.”
“I heard it’s because they hate gays.” The comment came from one of Julia’s quieter students.
“Not all of them do. A good Christian hates no one. Like any religion, however, there are those who choose to make judgments. Should a whole religion be punished for a few?”
“Tell us more of your experiences.” The dark-haired girl spoke once more.
“Did you know that the Nazis removed the gold fillings from the mouths of Jews?” Julia watched as eyes grew bigger, some with shock; others with contempt.
“Many Jewish women were sterilized to prevent the procreation of the Jewish race. A few, however, were spared, along with most female children.”
“You said most,” a male student acknowledged. “Does that mean that they did sterilize some children?”
“Yes,” Julia returned. “Others were tortured enough that it seemed unlikely they could bear fruit.”
The discussion went on with students throwing questions faster than their teacher could answer them. Finally, the bell rang, stopping everything mid-sentence.
“Tomorrow, we will return to our regular text. Your homework assignments will be collected. Thank you all for your patience and understanding. I felt this piece of history was important to teach.”
As the students rose to leave, a girl came forward and asked, “May I give you a hug?”
Julia nodded agreement, touched with the request. One by one each of her students followed suit. It even included the boy who had challenged her in the beginning.
“I think my father needs to go back to school,” the boy whispered quietly. “I am sorry for what you had to endure,” he continued.
The look in the boy’s eyes spoke volumes, letting Julia Lehmann know what she needed. No matter the consequences of her actions, she’d made a difference.