Rethinking Perpetrators, Bystanders and Rescuers: The case of Max Schmeling
Students are assessed informally through their class discussions, both in their small groups and with the class as a whole. They are also assessed through their journal entries. I look for two aspects to their journal entries: an understanding of the lesson and a personal response to it in which they apply it to something they have learned before or see in their own lives. In this journal entry I am looking for connections made to any number of earlier lessons about perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers. I want to see synthesis of the earlier material with the present study of Max Schmeling. I want to find an appreciation for the cultural contexts that may affect personal choices.
I want to see if students are questioning the impact of choices on both those who make the choices and those whom their choices affect. I want to find increasing recognition of the complexity of making choices and in individual human beings. This journal entry helps document students’ progress in synthesizing all the concepts of this course and gives them a personal voice on all class issues. In fact, at the end of the course, when I ask students for a letter to me listing the top ten things in the course that have affected them, many students list their journals among the top ten.
I have to admit to not being a regular reader of Sports Illustrated. However, a few years ago my former principal, who was always highly supportive of my development of this Holocaust elective, gave me this article when it appeared. As I first read through the article I was struck by what a complex, paradoxical man Max Schmeling is. The course terminology—perpetrator, bystander, rescuer, victim—which, by that time, had become part of our daily vocabulary, leaped out of every page as I read. I thought that a sports figure caught up in the web of history might be intriguing to my students.
I have found that this lesson works perfectly midway into the course. The students have already become immersed in the shared vocabulary and have already examined many examples of people making hard choices. As the course progresses after this lesson, we look at the lessons of the Holocaust as ways of examining and assessing our present day world: hate groups found on the Web (I always go through tolerance.org, which has an area that displays hate group home pages without actually going onto these groups’ Web sites);
how one person or a community can make a choice to combat this hate (I show the video Not in Our Town); how genocides have not ended with the Holocaust (the students’ final project in the class deals with 20th-century genocides or ethnic cleansings such as Sudan, the slaughter of the Kurds, and Chechnya). A main goal of mine is to help students become aware of the power of individual choice and then to become empowered as individuals functioning in this world full of hard choices.
This lesson has remained a favorite of the students. While the lesson is not flashy or multimedia, somehow the impact of this interesting man, still alive at present, makes a great impression on students, and Max Schmeling becomes a reference point for them through the rest of the course.