Lesson from Leo

About History in our Schools

Written in July 1989 under a mild linguistic-nationalist strain of populism,
and dusted off in November 2016 because of current populist trends in our global environment

Henry K van Eyken  0

1. Childrens' Play under the Nazis: 1940–41  1

Leo's house was a wonderful place to play. Rooms without furniture gave us the full reach of their greyish brown planken floors. His parents were occasional, ghostly glimpses who never scolded us. I think they were his parents; they must have been; they lived somewhere in that house. They just kept out of our way. Or, maybe, I was kept out of theirs.  1-1

Leo differed from the other boys I knew. Short and scrawny he was, with curly hair, dark brown. He was nice, had a small voice, and liked to play indoors. He had a touch of that same strange accent as the window washer in white coveralls who had lived near our house, above a corner workshop that had a big sign on it with Cemco N.V. or some name like that. He, the window washer, was German; the boys in the street had said so. That meant you better watch out. He did housepainting, too, and had painted our front door a glossy brown with stripes to make it look like new wood. It was downright ugly.  1-2

N.V., I had learned, meant Naamloze Vennootschap, literally Nameless Partnership, which is Limited here. The abbreviation left a significant impression because I didn't understand it, even when told the words it stood for.  1-3

That window-washer/painter disappeared not long after the five-day war. The older boys, who knew much more than I did and everything always better, said he had been a German spy. I did not quite know what to make of that except that anybody had the right to shoot a spy because he was like a franc-tireur who hides in the crown of a tree and aims his rifle at anybody.  1-4

Leo and I had been classmates for some time before the invasion, but we were not buddies then. Boys with a religion were usually not allowed to play with boys like me who were said to be nothing. I had relatives with religions, and some still went to church. On my father's side they were Catholic. R.C. they were often called, rather smudgingly. I had an uncle who practiced being a Protestant because he wanted a promotion at City Hall. He never visisted us.  1-5

Leo showed me once some special building that piqued my imagination. It had strange letters over the front door, letters never seen in school. It made me feel somewhat unsure of myself; a little empty, perhaps. Hebrew, he said. He must have said more than that, but all I recall is a faint whiff of pride. Pride of lineage, I now imagine; of being more than just there.  1-6

Before the German occupation, I played a lot with the boys in the narrow streets near our house. Mostly, we played war. Martien, whose parents were NSB'rs (Dutch Nazis, but then by children not yet seen as traitors) and who had a toy store with Märklin trains and lots of toy soldiers, was the leader because he was the biggest, played a dented bugle, and out-talked us all. He also wore a black military kepi and that, he said, made him president, which is even higher than captain.  1-7

I was no hero in those games, but I could not refuse to play along because of my red hair and freckles and steel-rimmed glasses, three formidable liabilities:  1-8

      Vuurtoren, vuurtoren zonder licht.
      rood haar en een pestgezicht.
      (Lighthouse, lighthouse without light.
      Red hair and an ugly face.
      Brillejood! Brillejood!
      (Bespectacled jew! Bespectacled jew!)

Even adults sometimes called me vuurtoren or brillejood. They didn't mean to be mean; they only wanted something to say. Silence is so dumb. But with them calling me names, imagine the boys! Their words hurt more than a fist in the face or iodine tincture in a bloody scrape from the rough paving bricks. It was much better to belong with the gang and fight when told to, with fists clenched and eyes mostly closed, while the leader stood above it all, on an old packing crate, issuing his orders.  1-10

Leo and I met again long after that short war. It was in 1940 or '41, I guess in the fall; it must have been in the fall because the crowns of the old elms that lined our street were bare but for a few dead leaves still hanging on. Leo had nobody to play with at that time and I then had hardly anybody either, having just lost a friend, a katjang.*  1-11

Leo liked my old radio parts, which had many beautiful green spools among them, and we pretended to build real radio sets at which he showed clear superiority and leadership. We tuned in to one another's sets, which we manned in separate rooms, and talked without seeing each other. I loved his place. What better reason for being friends?  1-12

We weren't buddies for long. One day, Leo came over to my house to say he was going on vacation, by train through Germany to the East. My father wished him well and gave him a dime. I felt the pang of envy. Why did he have all the luck?  1-13

* * * * *

On Fritz' Farm: June 1989  2

Recently, I attended a meeting of college chemistry teachers or, rather, half of that meeting. It was a hot, sunny day and I spent much time outside on the lawn of Fritz' Farm, a suburban community property on Montreal Island's West End, where the meeting took place.  2-1

I had a pleasant conversation with a colleague, a lady who bubbled with enthusiasm about teaching and research, a love for students and for chemistry, organic chemistry especially. We talked about other matters, too, for, clearly, she had given thought to many things. And then, so abruptly that I can't recall the context, there was it again, utterly out of place, that question hardly ever heard until recent times and which now keeps popping up too often: Do I believe the holocaust actually happened? And how do I know that for a fact?  2-2

Yes, of course, I know it happened and said so. I did not say that any doubt on that score strikes me as obscene because that is a personal bias. Nor did I mention my experience on another sunny day, in 1946, a year after the war. It was in a former Nazi transit camp where Leo may well have stopped over during his last vacation. I was shown a man-made hil, one of a few, if I remember well. It was covered with immaculately shorn, green grass. One side, shovelled open, was a wall of human remains; bones laced with decaying tissue, brownish grey; an emptying head standing with silent grimace.  2-3

Neither person nor circumstance contradicted the sincerety of her queries. But I was stumped. How could I, right there and at that very instant, provide convincing proof that the holocaust is fact? Just what sort of proof does one carry around on a fine, sunny afternoon, comfortably seated in the shade of a tree on a verdant, suburban lawn? Then I thought of Leo and his dime and of those battles fought on a pavement of bricks so badly chipped.  2-4

She accepted my response as far as it went. The question, I am sure, had not been posed for sake of argument, as had happened before, to caution me against exaggeration or darkly allude to some sinister plot of disinformation. Perhaps it was the innocence wih which the question was put that surprised me.  2-5

As I said, it was a warm day. Had it been cooler, I might have been more astute. I must remember this for the next time. Then I may point to filmed records everybody must have seen by now, films of the living dead, skin to bone, found in the Nazi camps at the end of that war. But then again, how naive a thought it was in this world equally adept at falsiying or denying a historical record as it is at compiling it.  2-6

* * * * *

3. History to a Purpose (July 1989)  3

Wise people learn from experience and call it history if the experience is communal. Good, useful history, it is my sense therefore, should be a body of human experience that is credible and easy to draw lessons from. I don't believe this is a novel notion; I imagine that, for example, much of the Bible was designed with that idea in mind. At any rate, well-informed people, knowledgeable about the past and skilled in its interpretation, are more likely to take a critical view of events and the undertakings of their elected officials. Knowledge and understanding help focus interest. They give backbone to conviction and, hence, strengthen democracy by giving power to people who, by use of reason and well-adjusted sense, can make their weight felt.  3-1

But most people (and you may well count me in) neither know nor understand history well. The same goes for its tail end, current affairs. A poor hold on facts, insufficiently cultivated powers of interpretation and weighing evidence, plus an inability to foresee possible outcomes make us vulnerable to misleading information and to the mismanagement—political and administrative—of communal concerns. Add to this the rapidly increasing quantity and complexity of information plus unscrupulous manipulation, it is understandable that we, ordinary citizens, are not at all well equipped to keep abreast of important issues and, thence, hold in check those seeking to abuse this sorry state of affairs.  3-2

Clearly, with history I cannot mean the verkrampte,* regional kind with its gorging on glorious exploits and the eschewing of what may hurt pride. Not that somewhat blinkered history comparable to what I had in school, a hefty dose of nationalism stirred in with questionable objectivity and spiced with a pinch of rah-rah-rah. That sort of history is for forming a fan club for the nation, not for educating a thoughtful citizenry. That sort supports no worthwhile continuum for the future. No, not that! And schools should not overlook the obvious fact that humanity shares one single, solitary globe—Spaceship Earth it used to be called—a world for all our forebears, a fact that must be doubly evident in countries with large immigrant populations.  3-3

History, too, has its ecology. Its major lessons arise from circumstance and confluence. Many forces powered the holocaust; active forces that willed it; passive forces that allowed it to happen ("I don't want to get involved"). Among both we find the fatal viruses of ignorance and, worse, of tribal nationalism, that alluring notion of clannish superiority with a sense of security for those who belong. In the case of Nazi Germany, that tribalism honed to racism dwarfed even nationalism in power and status, and the tribal flag was made to prevail over the country's. It is well to be wary of a flag that stands for an idea more than for a country.  3-4

Although a national spirit, like any team spirit or community spirit or regional spirit, may well have positive aspects in today's competitive setting, we must not merely stare at local eddies in the flow of time, but observe with greater interest the torrents of larger events. Preparing for the needed alternate state of consciousness must be among the primary tasks of parents and our schools, which means that it must be, must be uppermost in the minds of today's educators.  3-5

Team spirit engenders team work. Community spirit unifies people to preserve precious public goods. But in marshalling such a spirit it is well to give thought to just what is really imporant and what isn't as much because by focusing in sharply on one thing, other things, often far more important things, become fuzzy or drift from sight altogether. Choices may be hard, the price of choosing often high. What comes first, say: patriotism or ideological issues, or a burgeoning economy? Economy or survival of ourselves, of others? Survival or ethics?  3-6

Community spirit must be the unpoliced outcome of understanding, of reason and of sentiment, both founded—as much as possible—on true facts, and a sense of belonging that comes from positive interactions throughout a whole community. Certainly, it should not be the product of propaganda or coercion, the warping or putting out of context a vital element of educating for a viable democracy: the history lesson.  3-7

Students should learn to be alert to any situation that may entangle regionalism or tribalism with malevolent purpose and, especially, learn to recognize demagogy for what it is.  3-8

The interpretation of history must be in terms of human nature—warts and all—of which it is so much a product. Call it the Ascent of Man if you wish, but don't shy away from downturns such as the holocaust, which had already been kindled throughout Europe, notably in its eastern part, well before Hitler's henchmen perfected it. Do not inculcate misplaced optimism. "For almost nine hundred million people, approximately one-sixth of mankind, the march of human progress has now become a retreat," observes the 1989 annual report of the United Nations' Children Fund. This is a way of stating that a new and global holocaust may well be underway, this time due to Man's fertility choking Man and due also to the overwhelming disregard for our natural environment.  3-9

Once more, history ought not be built on stereotyped friends and foes, but on experience that is scrupulously interpreted in terms of human nature which itself is a product of Man's triune brain with at its heart an indelible imprint of an influential darker self.* In such an education the events that gave rise to, and sustained the holocaust should be an important object of serious contemplation, not lest we forget, but lest we forget to learn from it.  3-10

History lessons must critically exemplify how historians gather and weigh evidence. If already there are people who doubt the holocaust ever happened within the lifetime of victims and other witnesses, then the sum-total of human history, everything we ever read or heard or seen on the tube, is in question. Then, in communal intercourse, history can become a source of discord and irritation more than of inspiration. Then we are doomed to being a people with neither a shared past nor pasts to share, a people on whom lessons such as that from Leo are entirely wasted.  3-11

* * * * *

P.S. The facts reported in Part 1 of this essay are accurate as portrayed from a recollected child's-point-of-view. I am inclined to believe that the window washer was conscripted for German military service and I once heard that Martien, a lesser victim of circumstance, went on to play the French horn with a first-rate Dutch symphony orchestra. And not to omit credit where due, my maligned Protestant uncle raised half a dozen children, providing every one of them with a top-notch education. So there!  4

Footnotes  fn

Katjang, a somewhat derogatory word for people of mixed (European and Indonesian) blood.  *   fn1

Verkrampte, Afrikaans for narrow-minded.  *   fn2

Footnote added in 2016: The triune brain is a model of the evolution of the vertebrate forebrain and behavior, proposed by the American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. MacLean originally formulated his model in the 1960s. The triune brain consists of the reptilian complex, the paleomammalian complex (limbic system), and the neomammalian complex (neocortex), viewed as structures sequentially added to the forebrain in the course of evolution. However, this hypothesis is no longer espoused by the majority of comparative neuroscientists in the post-2000 era. The triune brain hypothesis became familiar to a broad popular audience through Carl Sagan's Pulitzer prize winning 1977 book The Dragons of Eden.  *   fn3

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