From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Eyes Have It

It took me a long time not to judge myself through someone else’s eyes.

Sally Field

The exhibit was entitled “Anne Frank in the World,” a collection of photographs that depicted what life was like for Anne Frank and other persecuted Europeans during the Nazi regime.

Although I am fortunate enough not to have lost any relatives to the Holocaust, I was nonetheless reared in its specter. Even as a child I innately understood that, had my great-grandfather emigrated from Russia to western Europe instead of to America, my destiny may have been very different.

So it seemed natural to volunteer my services to Facing History and Ourselves, an educational organization committed to eradicating prejudice via classroom curricula. Their hope is that students will connect the lessons of the Holocaust and other examples of collective violence with the moral choices they face today.

My time was spent stuffing envelopes and answering phones in the office. Though the staff was grateful for my help, I had doubts about my contribution’s significance. They also serve who sit and stuff, I reminded myself. Not all crusaders wield swords.

When the call came for docents to lead groups through a touring photographic exhibit, I signed up immediately. This was the interactive role I craved, a chance to do something really useful. During our brief training period, we learned there would be no memorized text to reiterate; tours would consist of applicable information in whatever manner the docent chose to present it. The idea of adlibbing turned my hands clammy. What if someone asked a question, and I didn’t have the answer? I took a deep breath and plunged in.

After the first few knee-knocking tours, I became more at ease. Several children did ask questions that I couldn’t answer immediately, but I realized it wasn’t crucial that I know the answer. It was more important that the question had been asked.

The majority of students touring the exhibit were adolescents whose attention spans are not lengthy at best. For many of the kids, this excursion was a holiday from the classroom, nothing more. I quickly realized that I needed drastic measures to capture their attention at the start and sustain it throughout. I remembered hearing about an exercise that was used in the 1960s to show students how harmful the myth of white superiority is, and what, as a result of this myth, it meant to be black in America. I tried it first on a group of seventh-grade girls from a local Catholic school.

The students gathered around and looked at me expectantly. I gave them a warm smile.

“Would everyone with blue eyes please raise her hand?” I instructed without preamble.

A number of hands went up. “Good,” I acknowledged.

“Please come to the front of the group. Those whose eyes are not blue, step to the back wall.”

The girls complied, looking bewildered but intrigued.

“Okay, all you blue eyes, come with me. Everyone else, stay by the wall. You will not be taking the tour.”

At this point, the group eyed me warily. Had this crazy lady gone off the deep end?

I turned to the pairs of brown and hazel eyes huddled in the back. “Tell me, what did you think of my announcement?”

“It’s not fair,” one girl proffered. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “But that’s exactly the way the Nazis treated people they considered inferior: Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals . . . not only the Jews.”

A blonde girl in the front group looked puzzled. “But how could they tell who was Jewish and who wasn’t?”

Out of the mouths of babes . . . “They couldn’t. That’s why Jews were forced to wear identifying insignias on their clothing.”

The girl pondered this, verbalizing her thoughts. “I’ve never met a Jew before.”

“Well, now you can say you have,” I smiled.

Understanding dawned, and the blue eyes widened in astonishment. Involuntarily, she backed a few steps away from me. “You’re Jewish?”

“I’m Jewish. And you see? I’m no different from anyone else.”

I was surprised at my own hurt feelings. Her reaction was completely devoid of malice, yet it spoke volumes. What had fostered this girl’s impulse to physically distance herself from the unfamiliar?

In our progression through the exhibit, I noticed that the girl paid close attention to my commentary. She asked introspective questions and digested my replies with a thoroughness that drew giggles from her classmates. The final leg of the tour was a brief oral presentation by a Holocaust survivor. As I watched the plaid skirts and navy-blue blazers shuffle into the lecture hall, the blonde girl glanced back and gave me a shy smile.

During the ensuing weeks, I escorted hundreds of children through the exhibit, running the gamut from inner-city public schools to ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools. Somewhere in between was a twelve-year-old Catholic girl who went home that evening and told her parents about her class trip to “Anne Frank in the World.” Maybe she even told them about the Jewish tour guide who looked just like a regular person.

And if that girl was the only one I had reached with a life-changing message about tolerance and understanding, then I had done something worthwhile.

Cynthia Polansky Gallagher

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on Facing History and Ourselves, contact 16 Hurd Rd., Brookline, MA 02445; 617-232-1595; e-mail: [email protected]]

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