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Shoah Chez Soi
Sarkozy’s Holocaust Fantasy

To every child a reminder of what France would rather forget

I’m fascinated by the proposal — directive — from French President Nicolas Sarkozy that every French 5th grader will learn the history of one of France’s 11,000 children murdered in the Holocaust.

Recently French President Sarkozy, the recently divorced, the recently remarried, the controversy-stoking right wing America lover, created even more controversy in France with a radical education initiative: he has instructed, via his minister of education, schools to ensure that every French fifth grader learn the personal story of one of France’s 11,000 child victims of the Holocaust. This ambitious proposal has met with a mixed reaction according to the Times’ reporting.

“Every day the president throws out a new unhappy idea with no coherence,” said Pascal Bruckner, the philosopher. “But this last one is truly obscene, the very opposite of spirituality. Let’s judge it for what it is: a crazy proposal of the president, not the word of the Gospel.”

The initiative has also pitted some Jews against one another. “It is unimaginable, unbearable, tragic and above all, unjust,” Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and honorary president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust, told the Web site of the magazine L’Express. “You cannot inflict this on little ones of 10 years old! You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear.” Ms. Veil was in the audience when Mr. Sarkozy spoke, and said that when she heard his words, “My blood turned to ice.”

It’s easy to see the political dynamics here. Opponents of Sarkozy will use any controversial stance as an opportunity to attack or denounce. We see the same kinds of dynamics in this country, of course. When Michelle Obama says she’s proud of her country for the first time, for example, it’s all to easy to turn the line into a cheap political attack. But Sarkozy’s educational initiative is something that should rise above partisan politics and the fault lines of left and right; after all it’s impossible to extricate this idea from the enormous national trauma of the war, France’s complicity in the Holocaust, her resistance to German occupation, her ongoing struggles to come to terms with the past and make peace with it.

Reading the statements attributed to Ms. Veil above, however, is baffling. We can, and do, in this country, ask young children to identify all the time with a dead child, or at least with children in difficult and trying circumstances. This is what art asks of us: to identify with others, to learn from their despair, their bravery, their ingenuity, their curiosity. It’s what literature asks of us, good literature anyway, when it makes us uncomfortable and challenges our assumptions.

For many years I taught Elie Wiesel’s remarkable memoir Night. It describes Weisel’s incredible journey from the ghetto to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Anyone who’s read the book remembers the lengths Wiesel and his father go to stay together. They succeed, and as the Russian troops move in and the camp is evacuated to deeper inside German territory. Wiesel explains how he had been in the infirmary due to an infection in his foot, but in order to avoid being left behind away from his father, he joins the march, in the bitter cold, his foot wrapped merely in a blanket, enduring unthinkable agony simply to stay with his father:

“My father’s presence was the only thing that stopped me (from giving up). He was running next to me out of breath, out of strength, desperate. I had no right to let myself die. What would he do without me? I was his sole support.

“These thoughts were going through my mind as I continued to run, not feeling my numb foot, nor even realizing that I was still running, that I still owned a body that galloped down the road among thousands of others.”

Do these words traumatize a young reader? Or, do they create an understanding of the sufferings of the victims of the Holocaust? That empathy, that connection to the narrator that makes a book come to life? In my experience teaching the novel, albeit with much older students, I found that students were genuinely moved, occasionally tearful, but rarely overwhelmed. The Holocaust wasn’t yesterday. There isn’t an immediacy to the story that makes students feel threatened: they know this story is, for them, in the distant past. It might as well be medieval England as far as they are concerned. For that matter, try convincing students today that segregated schools have only existed for a couple of generations. Fifty years ago to a young person is as far away as the moon. But the power of seeing a narrator not unlike themselves, 15 and vulnerable, is like a telescope.

So Sarkozy’s proposal, to me, has a tremendous appeal. In creating a national assignment he’s managed to honor every single one of the 11,000 victims, to personalize them, to give each victim his or her own sphere of attention. Somewhere in France, each victim is going to be remembered, researched, and honored by one of France’s young scholars. It’s a noble, beautiful idea.

Unfortunately, Sarkozy’s proposal has been infected by his own flawed leadership, and according to my fellow blogger Microdot who lives in France, it now is dead in the water. I don't think he'll mind that I quote him: "Like most of the projects by the man who had too many ideas, it incited more controversy and was condemned by the very groups he was pandering to." Rather than developing the plan in coordination with educational leaders around the country, the plan was announced by fiat, a top down dictatorial decision that in spite of its merits suffers from being a non-negotiable command. Instead of seeking alliances and compromise, Sarkozy expects to be obeyed as a king.

Furthermore, Sarkozy’s penchant for imitating the American religious right causes him to lose support by alienating the France’s secularists. From the Times:

Adding to the national fracas over the announcement, Mr. Sarkozy wrapped his plan in the cloak of religion, placing blame for the wars and violence of the last century on an “absence of God” and calling the Nazi belief in a hierarchy of races “radically incompatible with Judeo-Christian monotheism.”

France has a long history of secularism, going back to the Revolution, when the country’s cathedrals were turned into “Temples of Reason” and nationalized by the state. In the ensuing years, the state developed an uneasy relationship with the church. Religious sentiment in public spheres is all but forbidden in France, a prohibition that expresses itself for example in the banning of headscarves in schools. Sarkozy’s attempt to reclaim religious dialogue as he pursues his educational ideas leads to distrust. And the timing: Microdot also tells me that the proposal comes on the heels of another proposal to overturn the 100 year old law mandating strict separation between church and state. It leads to the skeptical question:f Is he helping students understand the Holocaust? Or using the Holocaust cynically to advance religious causes in modern day France? It’s an opportunity lost.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a similar scene in the US: A president with a controversial new idea, giving an order, and having teachers implement it.

But wait: it could happen in Ohio. If Governor Ted Strickland gets his way, the state Board of Education would be eliminated in favor of a governor-appointed Director of Instruction. Predictably, the state board here is resisting, arguing that by vesting power over the state’s instruction in a single governor-appointed official, education in the state would be unduly politicized. And it’s a valid concern. What’s happening in France, under Strickland’s proposal, could have its complement in Ohio. Even though I like Sarkozy's idea, the model for implementing a controversial education law wouldn't be welcome here. What if the next governor appointed a creationist, who suddenly ordered the state’s biology teachers to discuss creationism alongside evolution? Who suddenly outlawed sex education in Ohio?

Not a hard scenario to imagine, with the political power over schools vested in a single entity. It’s why even Strickland’s most ardent supporters should seriously question his move to consolidate power over the schools. He argues that it creates greater accountability: but it also creates greater risk that a bad leader could turn the schools into a political battleground. Ohio doesn’t need that.

The piece's original url at Ohdave's place...

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