Rethinking Perpetrators, Bystanders and Rescuers: The case of Max Schmeling
Program of the Max Schmeling vs. Joe Louis fight. June 18, 1936. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C./USHMM #14939
OVERVIEW AND BACKGROUND
The focus of this lesson is personal choice and how changing circumstances can affect one person’s ethical choices. During the Holocaust, people made choices, and by placing individuals in the appropriate historical context students can begin to comprehend the circumstances that encouraged or discouraged their acts. In fact, some people, like the now well-known Oskar Schindler, demonstrated a range of choices as they faced different circumstances as well as their own consciences and morality. The German Max Schmeling, former heavyweight champion of the world, is probably best known for his two matches against the U.S. boxing champ, Joe “the Brown Bomber” Louis. Louis lost the first match against Schmeling in 1936 but defeated him in the 1938 rematch, which many saw as a symbolic defeat for Hitler’s Germany by a black man representing America.
Schmeling’s life can be looked at as an example of the paradoxical composite that makes up all of us, and as his life is examined, students discover that this very public figure associated with Hitler had a very private life as well. In the course of his public and private lives Max Schmeling made a series of choices. Exploring his life and the contexts in which he opted for each role provides an opportunity for students to grapple with the challenge of thinking about the inner life and the motivations of historical actors. In considering such complexities, students are less likely to build stereotypical views of the four categories (victim, bystander, perpetrator, and rescuer) of Holocaust actors they had been studying.
This lesson occurs midway through a nine-week, 80-minute daily elective taught within the English department at my school. Students have already examined lives of victims in a personal way through the use of 37 of the Museum’s Identification Cards, which profile the lives and experiences of a number of Jewish and non-Jewish individuals during the Holocaust, as well as through small group research projects on the non-Jewish victim groups (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, Roma, Homosexuals, German handicapped, and Germans of African descent). The students have also studied perpetrators through an examination of a number of concentration camps and killing centers and have begun to discern how many Germans and Poles stood by as Jewish neighbors, for example, were harshly persecuted and began to disappear from their midst.
Immediately preceding this lesson, students researched and orally presented portraits of individual rescuers. Thus, by the time this lesson occurs, the students are already thoroughly familiar with the terminology of victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers and have begun freely applying it to the people and situations we study. This lesson takes one 80-minute class or two 40-minute classes.
Before this lesson can work, students need to be thoroughly conversant with the terminology and applicability of victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers. They also must have a clear sense of the main events and shift in political moods in Europe and the United States between the early 1920s and the late 1940s to put Schmeling’s life into context. We have already watched the video Schindler’s List, in which students were able to follow one man’s journey and complex reasons for rescue, and they had discussed and written about possible reasons and motives for such changes. The students have also studied a number of less well-known rescuers from many countries who illustrated that rescuing could consist of delivering messages to the resistance, spiriting children across borders, or simply providing food to Jews in hiding. In this lesson, they encounter a famous sports figure, whose behavior catches their interest.
In a school with a small minority of Jewish students and a small minority of African American students, most students never think about prejudice. Yet yearly there are small acts of racism and antisemitism that hurt those on the receiving end and puzzle those who thought it did not exist in our school. My students are an interesting mix of ages and ethnicities. All are interested in the historical Holocaust, but because of word of mouth about the course and because of its title, they know that they are signing up for a course that deals with the people of the Holocaust: who they were individually, how they could make the choices they made or live through the horror they lived through, and how the Holocaust was the end result of unchecked hatred. Each year the students become an amazingly cohesive group, most of whom become active in desiring to live a life in which they make choices to act rather than sit on the sidelines in situations of hate. This is, in fact, my main goal in teaching this course.