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Why do I teach a seminar on genocide?

October 12, 2011

I just had Anna Ornstein come in and talk to my students about her experiences in Auschwitz. We read her book, My Mother’s Eyes. She is such a gigantic personality: vivid and lively and warm. She tells us stories about her little village in Hungary and what it was like to be a seventeen year old in the camps. She described the last time she saw her big brother, Paul. Her knowledge is vast and her curiosity in my students is almost palpable. When they speak, she leans forward. She asks them to repeat what they have said to make sure she has understood it completely and then she ponders their words, fixing them with her eyes, asking them many questions. I have had her come each year I teach this seminar and each year I learn something different. This year, I learned that she and her friends were dancing the Hora at their Zionist meeting in Budapest when a messenger came to tell them that the Germans had arrived. He was pale and he gathered them around. They knew, she said, that he had something awful to tell them and most of them already knew what he was going to say. Within a few minutes, they had all scattered — never to see one another again.

After class, one of my students waited patiently to tell me how moved he was, how much he loved this class, which made me wonder why we like to hear these stories, because we do. Even though they make us cry. Sometimes, I worry about this. My friend, the philosophy professor, asked me the other day why I teach this class and I only had platitudes to offer. At heart, it is because I like to teach it. Strange though that may seem.

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