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Everyday Heroes

By Fritz Gluckstein

Every school day in an oppressive time, you came to teach my high school classmates and me. You gave your very best in the face of imminent deportation, or evacuation as it was called then. You helped me forget for a while the ever present threats and uncertainties. You gave me a foundation on which I could build when I went back to school after the war. All of you perished, but to me you are not dead; I remember you.

Salomon Birnbaum, you introduced me to algebra and geometry and later on led me through the intricacies of logarithms and the laws of chemistry. I still hear you exclaim, “Nein, das geht nicht, das ist unmöglich! (No, that won’t do, that is impossible!)” when one of us made a really serious mistake. Your enthusiasm inspired us to learn. You were an observant Jew, and my father and I would meet you whenever we attended services at the nearby conservative synagogue. One Friday night, you were sitting two rows in front of us, and throughout the service, I was in fear that you would mention to my father that I had not done too well on the last mathematics test, about which I had not yet told him. But of course, my fears were utterly unfounded. You would not have discussed school matters on Shabbat, and above all you never would have embarrassed me in front of my father. Remembering you, I always think, “What a teacher! What a man!”

Erich Bandmann, from you I learned to solve quadratic equations and to deal with congruent triangles. You were easygoing, mild mannered, absentminded, and forgetful. You were always searching through your various pockets for little pieces of paper on which to make notes. As our homeroom teacher, you wanted us to keep special booklets in order not to forget our homework assignments. I was not happy about this and said that the booklets were unnecessary and were preventing us from learning to keep things in our heads. You relented but made it very clear that you would be most unhappy to hear about missing, incomplete, or incorrect homework assignments in your or any other teacher’s class. Of course, I had to be especially careful to remember my assignments, and, as unbelievable as it appears now, as far as I can recall, I actually succeeded.

Martin Königsberger, since you were slightly rotund (at least at the outset) we called you “Klops” (dumpling) after the popular meat dish Königsberger Klopse. You did not mind your nickname but admonished us not to shout “Klops” after you in the hall or schoolyard, as someone apparently had done. You taught me Latin, and you taught it well; I am embarrassed to admit how much of it I have forgotten. You strode into the room determinedly, stood in front of the class, and, while rocking on your heels, called out a German sentence to be translated. You looked around for a second or two, and then called upon one of us. Sometimes you would look toward the desk where Giesa and Gisela—two rather timid girls—were sitting side by side. And then it always happened: You would call “Gie …” drawing it out a bit, and both girls would stiffen in anticipation. Then came the crucial second syllable, either “sa” for Giesa or “se” for Gisela, and one of the girls would relax with a barely audible sigh of relief. Actually neither had reason to be afraid; they were both good students. (They, too, perished.)

Oscar Behr, you helped us overcome the difficulties of English grammar and syntax. You also encouraged us to sing English songs, in which you joined. But what did we do? At a prearranged sign, we suddenly stopped in midsong and let you sing on in your thin, wavering voice. We also played other tricks on you, but actually we liked you. From teachers we did not care for, we literally kept our distance.

When I was your student, I did not fully appreciate what each of you was doing for me. It did not occur to me then that your daily efforts to be true to your profession were acts of heroism. With maturity it became clear that, indeed, they were, and that I owe you all a great debt. Thank you.

©2011, Fritz Gluckstein. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.