Today I experienced something that deserves a special mention and thus an unusual weekday posting.
I have studied many aspects of history and I have attempted to help a few students over the years do the same. History is a funny thing. It’s not an art nor a science, but a bit of both and more. History isn’t just a list of facts nor is it just our memories of unmeasurable yesterdays. It can liberate us or incarcerate us. It can justify the present or give reason for change. It can give us identity or undermine it. History, depending on how it is constructed and how it is used, can be a weapon or a tool; a Tardis or a coffin of ideas.
This morning I arrived in the company of three Year 9 classes (students aged about 14) at the entrance of the Sydney Jewish Museum. To my shame as a history teacher, I had never been there before. Now I know why I should have and will need to return.
Aside from the displays that explain the cultural and historical context of the Jewish community both in Australia and overseas, the most important moment from me was listening to an 85-year-old man named Peter.
Peter was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. He told us a story of a comfortable lower-middle-class family who valued family and education, who owned a shop and who had Peter and his brother take on tutoring in German and English, knowing these would more likely lead to better life prospects than a Czech-centric worldview.
I won’t retell his story here because it is available in his own words in a book and also I heard it in a context that shut out all the world for about 45 minutes. It was a moment in which the story reached out and clasped your soul’s eyes, forcing you to watch these events as they are described. About a boy – the same age as my students – and his experience of the Holocaust.
He spoke so softly and with surprising good humour at times. He never sounded bitter or hateful… Though surely that was the result of years of trekking through the rugged landscape of memory. He answered questions from our students with direct honesty. I have to admit, I was worried at times that some questions may be too personal. But this wasn’t an issue: Peter clearly was a man who was driven by the story and the need to have it known.
I’ve hardly ever experienced such a moment where history is brought to you in trembling hands by a ghost from the past and you are challenged to be a witness. I suppose this is why I think the study of history is absolutely essential for all of us, regardless of background or race or nation or status. History forces us to see a part of our collective selves that we would otherwise ignore, if we had the choice. To be a fully formed citizen of a modern society, one needs to meet these stories and carry them with us so that we do not ever let such inhumane, inexcusable, incomprehensible things happen again.
When I bought the book in which Peter’s story resides in ink and paper, he offered to sign it for me. I jumped at the chance – politely – and as he wrote in his unique calligraphic scrawl, he apologised for what he saw as barely legible font. I said not to worry at all. He then explained that he was actually born left-handed but was made to write with his right whilst staying in the concentration camp.
For the next minute, all I could hear was the scratching of his pen on the page as he unknowingly left a searing memory in my mind.