[ An End to Intolerance (Volume 5 -- June 1997) ]

Are We Facing
History and Ourselves?

By Alicja Witkowski and Jill Caly
Cold Spring Harbor High School
New York, USA

"Americans have a very selective version of history. We live within a mythology of a benign and benevolent experience, and we tend to suppress those demonic influences of our history. The fact of the matter is that the white man who came to this country drove the Indian out of his culture, far from the reservations of his God into the reservations of containment and isolation.

"The treatment of black slaves for two hundred or three hundred years was never in the textbooks when I was growing up in East Texas."

This quote from Bill Moyers almost perfectly portrays the topic of discussion on October 10, 1996 where in the New York office of Facing History and Ourselves, fifteen to twenty people, ages fourteen to about sixty, talked about how nations address their own history. Do they deny that the evils ever happened, or do they learn from their mistakes? In a discussion moderated by Peter Nelson of the FHAO office, we spoke with Daniela Jodorf, a German law student, George Merten from the German Information Office in New York City, Shannon Norwitz, a social worker in South Africa, and Keren Dijia, a woman from the "Children in Crisis" project, who has spent the last few years with families in Bosnia. These are some of their stories.

[ Caly, Jodorf, and Witkowski ]
Jill Caly, Daniela Jodorf,
and Alicja Witkowski

The first topic of discussion was about what the Germans teach children in school about the Holocaust. Daniela spoke about her childhood and about what she could recall from her days in school in Germany. We had expected her to say that German schools slightly twist the past in order to make the Holocaust not seem so much to be the fault of Germany. We were proven wrong. She said that she remembers her teachers always bringing up the topic of the Holocaust in order to insure that a disaster like it would never occur again. A lot of this education happened in her religion classes. She said that she didn't start to learn about the Holocaust in detail. However until she was in junior high because like in the United States, the education system in Germany does not like to expose young children to the horrors of the Holocaust. She said in fact, that she heard so much about the Holocaust that she became tired of hearing about it. But over all, she believes that she and her generation learned the same things about the history and facts about the Holocaust as most American students, if not more.

The second person to speak was a white woman from South Africa, Shannon Norwitz. She said that when she was a young girl, black people used to come to her door in the middle of the night. She, her mother, and her brother would hand out sandwiches and pieces of fruit to these strangers. She thought that this was "normal" and that all families did what hers did. It was not until she was about fourteen years old that she realized that these people were starving blacks coming to get food. Her mother was always heavily involved in helping deprived blacks of South Africa. Now, she too, has dedicated her life to helping the blacks in her country. The biggest project that she is involved in is the Black Doll Project, one introducing black dolls to black children of South Africa. Before this, all of the dolls in South Africa were white dolls, and young, black children had no "role model" to use for their own. Shannon said that South Africa doesn't always seem to be part of the rest of Africa. It is greatly influenced by the western world, including the United Kingdom and the United States. She recalls as a child not knowing anything about the culture of the countries around her own, yet she knew everything about the way of life of the western world. She also did not even know the name Nelson Mandela until she was about sixteen or seventeen. But now she is trying to break this isolation between South Africa and the rest of the country by introducing black dolls to enrich the history of the black culture.

Finally, we heard from a woman, Keren Dijia, who had been educated in Germany and who has spent the last couple of years living amidst a war torn Bosnia. She said that the thing that bothered her the most were the pictures coming out of Bosnia, pictures of sad, devastated, mournful children and adults. She said that these weren't the Bosnians that she knew. She knew happy, smiling families, who in this world of killing and terror, lived their lives to the fullest. Keren objected to "tourists" coming to Bosnia to see what happened but not offering to stay and help. She said that too often photographers would go to Bosnia, see children playing in the streets and say, "this won't do." She said of the "Adopt-a-Child programs which advertise on TV, "would you give money to support a smiling young girl or boy?" Keren thought that because of this, there are no "real" pictures of Bosnian villages and families.

This afternoon we spent sitting around in a small circle at the Facing History and Ourselves office in New York was a learning experience for all.

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