Friday, January 30, 2009

Time with a gracious witness








I finished the week with a sobering and also inspiring conversation with Maurice Vanderpol. Dr. Vanderpol survived the Nazi regime by hiding out for 2-1/2 years with his mother in a third floor tenement in Amsterdam. He spends much of his time now teaching school children about the Holocaust on behalf of Facing History and Ourselves. My assistant Gail had organized a session for her town's school several years ago with Dr. Vanderpol, had maintained contact, and had kindly arranged for us to meet today.

The details of the Vanderpol family's survival -- such as hiding in a 1' x 5' compartment behind a hidden wall in the apartment -- are engrossing, but there were other points that he made today that left a bigger impression.

On teaching today: "How can I get 13- and 14-year-olds to get even a remote feeling, when living in a safe country with a predictable life, to understand what it was like when nothing was predictable anymore? Finally, with today's economic dislocations, they are starting to get it."

On situational prejudice and fear of intimacy: "One night -- May 10, 1940 -- our country was invaded. Previously Jewish families had fled from Germany to Holland, and their children were in our classes at school. We didn't like them.... We never asked them what it was like to leave your country. I think we didn't want to know. We were too uncomfortable to ask."

Having faced a survival situation, making life and death choices every day, and yet still looking back and wondering if you did the right thing at key junctures: "You review your life at certain points, certain sticky points, and you feel badly about things you should have done. I didn't join the resistance.... I wish there things that I could have done differently."

11 comments:

e-Patient Dave said...

The pope's reinstatement this week of a holocaust-denying bishop makes it exceedingly important that we pay attention to messages like this. If Europe (and the world) starts to forget history, we'll be in big trouble again.

Let's not forget that the holocaust started in part as a reaction to desperate economic times. People do insane things when they get desperate; we must speak out to those around us. So thanks.

Cherie Abbanat said...

As the economy becomes worse and worse, I keep wondering where the collective anger will go. Who will we hate this time? We need teachers like Paul and Mr. Vanderpol to help us remember our past horrors, face them, and work together.

Thanks, Paul!

--Cherie

Linda Sternberg said...

We need to continually be reminded of the impact of the Holocaust....what an experience for you to spend time with Dr. Vanderpol. Thank you for sharing his inspirational words.

Anonymous said...

Just came back from seeing Defiance. It makes you wonder what kind of world we are living in, and also reminds you how lucky we are to be in the US today.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing survivor, witness, and inspirational man he is. Your last paragraph about 'reviewing life' and making choices is fodder for us all.

Morris said...

These things continue today. This story from Venezuela, involving the desecration of one of the country's oldest synagogues: http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2009/01/31/news/LT-Venezuela-Israel.php

Boris said...

We need next generation of leaders to continue Dr. Vanderpol's mission. Unfortunately, it is too easy to forget what happened 60+years ago

Patricia Ruane said...

So glad to read about an old friend. "Rees" brought his sage advice and wisdom to the aid of the principals and leadership team of the Brookline Public Schools, where he helped create a safe place for difficult discusiion and conflict resolution. He invented a model of reflective practice that has been replicated by superintendent support groups throughour Massachusetts over the past 25 years. He is an inspiration and a resource for all generations. I am thrilled that he is now assisting "Facing History."

Anonymous said...

how blessed you were to be able to spend time with such a remarkable person.

Annemiek said...

It is very important to teach these lessons to our children. My family is not Jewish, but one of my uncles was picked up coming home from church at the age of 17 to work in a factory in Germany, and another uncle had to routinely hide in a manure pile to avoid being picked up. Everybody came through ok, but with emotional scars. It is hard to imagine those times.

kasolomon said...

From Blog- On teaching today: "How can I get 13- and 14-year-olds to get even a remote feeling, when living in a safe country with a predictable life, to understand what it was like when nothing was predictable anymore? Finally, with today's economic dislocations, they are starting to get it."

I find this statement to be true and also not ackowledging the full rainbow of experiences that young people have in this country. For certain groups, there is a considerable amount of unpredictability everyday and a consistent feeling that they are not safe. Racial profiling is a major issue that many young people face on a daily basis and they are subsequently subject to random, unpredictable acts of violence simple for being who they are-much like the holocaust.
Suffering always has a context and understanding the suffering in this country can start to bridge the generational gap that the aforementioned quote references.