Alta Library speaker shares lessons from the Holocaust
“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” – Anne Frank
Retired educator Brad Wilkening brought his “Lessons of the Holocaust” to the Alta Library this week.
Wilkening, who taught and coached at Laurens-Marathon and Storm Lake St. Mary’s for many years, explored the history of the Nazi Germany era, but his real task was to encourage those attending to stand up against the hate, hostility, bullying and intolerance that still exists in society today.
Wilkening, a member of the Iowa Holocaust Council, noted that the presentations he has created are done on his own, not sponsored by any organization or connected to the Jewish faith.
Like many, he had assumed that he understood the history behind the Holocaust, until he began to study deeper. It was never his plan.
In 2010, while teaching at St. Mary’s, he came due to renew certification. Information on a program happened across his desk. The Illinois Holocaust Museum was offering credit hours for teachers if they would spend a week at the site. It seemed like a quick answer to his dilemma. “Little did I know it was going to change my life,” he said. The experience led to further study, travel, and experiences seeking out Holocaust survivors.
He eventually developed a semester-long class at the school in the Holocaust and genocide, a first of its kind in the state. In retirement, he is driven to continue, often doing a presentation to students during the day, and one for adults at a library in the evening. “If I can do that, I figure I’ve done my job.”
He travels for hours at a time to speak to groups.
“We still need this topic,” he said.
Wilkening soon came to the conclusion that he had held blind faith in his country, believing 35 years into his teaching career that American leaders could not have known that Jewish people were being exterminated, without acting. “I came to realize that we knew what was going on. Roosevelt knew what was going on. We just didn’t do anything about it.”
Initially, the Nazis simply wanted to remove the Jews from the country, he said, but almost no other nations acted to open their borders to accept them when they still could have been saved. The persecuted Jewish people themselves were not eager to leave their homes, and believed their situation would improve, when it was actually about to become tragically worse.
The roots of the Holocaust reach back to the post-World War I years, Wilkening said, when Germany was war-battered and in an economic spiral, facing great war debts. Six months of devalued wages wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes, he said. The Nazis were initially a small party among many, but people in their distressed state were easily convinced by Hitler’s rhetoric of making Germany great again. He rose to a chancellor’s position by 1933, and two years later, the Nuremberg Laws were passed legally enforcing discrimination against Jews.
History often forgets that the Jewish people were not the only targets, Wilkening says - as dissidents, homosexuals, Catholic priests, the disabled and others were killed, totaling in the millions.
“Everything the Nazis did had been done in history before. The only thing they invented was the gas chamber. And everything they did was legal - they passed laws beforehand making it legal.” For example, Jewish homes and businesses were burned, and fire departments warned not to put the fires out, but to save surrounding buildings.
Propaganda portrayed Jewish people as demons. Even children’s books characterized them as evil. The Nazis used the term “disinfected” for removing them - just a nicer term for murder, he said.
First, they were rounded up and placed in fenced-in ghettos, with no medical care or sanitation. There, the Nazis hoped that poverty and disease would kill them off. The crowding would be equivalent to a million people being suddenly confined in an area the size of Alta, according to Wilkening. “Death carts” would move through the streets collecting the bodies left there.
The tactic had another advantage for the Nazis. With Jews concentrated in small areas, it would be easy to force them onto transport trains.
The Nazis soon turned to simply shooting them. Bodies were dumped in ditches, and teenage girls given the grisly job of tramping the bodies down like grapes so more could be layered on top in the mass graves. Killing by gunshot was not fast enough. Six death camps were already under construction to exterminate thousands at a time.
The presenter shared stark photos from inside the Dachau death camp taken when American troops arrived for liberation. The photographer soldier was the father of a student teacher who had served in Wilkening’s classroom.
It took a long time for the truth about the Holocaust to come out. “If you learned about the Holocaust in the 1950s or ’60s it was because a young girl had written a diary. That was all we knew,” he said. Survivors were not speaking about what they had witnessed. A 1980 TV mini series “Holocaust” finally opened many American eyes.
Meanwhile, the Nazi influence never fully went away. Only after Nazis threatened to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1978, survivors began to decide that they needed to speak out, and explain what the numbers tattooed on their arms meant.
Wilkening spoke about several survivors he has developed relationships with, some of whom have joined him in special presentations when they are able.
One, Fritzie, was 13 when sent to a labor camp, lying about her age so she would be put to work in a factory and have a better chance of surviving. She learned never to be in the front or end of the line marching to and from work, as Nazi guards sometimes beat, raped or shot the handiest women to grab, for their own entertainment.
Phillip, who has spoken at Buena Vista University and St. Mary’s, was sent to Auschwitz death camp at age 15. The tasks he was given include pulling the gold teeth from the dead bodies, and shoveling ash from the ovens used to burn them. He was a part of the final death march as the war drew to an end, but somehow escaped murder when he collapsed in a field and was left behind to die. He was found by nuns, weighing only 65 pounds nearing age 18, and nursed back to health.
Harold, an Iowan, went into hiding in a forest from the Nazis with his family, at age 3. For 19 months, he never left the shallow hole where the family hid while the father foraged for food at night.
David tells of his time in a camp, when guards would snatch infants and throw them against the wall to see their brains splatter.
Another, who served as a Holocaust museum guide when one of Wilkening’s classes visited, broke down in tears with survivor’s guilt - she was one of only three members of her family of 32 to survive.
One man was 10 years old when placed on a train to a death camp. His father, with his last strength, tore the barbed wire off the train window and threw his son off the moving train for a chance to survive. His final words to the son he would never see again: “Be a good boy.”
Wilkening said that amazingly, none of the roughly 30 survivors he has spoken with have held hate in their hearts for what they and their families went through.
“When you think of all the hate in society, it is ridiculously stupid. That these people are able to forgive is amazing - wouldn’t it be a better world if we all could?”
Not only those who act in hate are wrong, he said. As in Nazi Germany, perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders who accept the hateful actions are all doing evil, he sought to convince the Alta group. Ultimately it is the silent bystanders who allow hateful behavior to continue, in politics at home, or genocide efforts that still continue elsewhere.
“We are never going to end evil. It’s just a matter of how much we’re going to tolerate.”
However, there is hope from the Holocaust story, too. Wilkening shared placards with the stories of many of the German people who worked to shelter and save the targeted Jewish families, risking their own lives. He shared a short film on a reunion between a family that had sheltered such a family in their attic, and the survivors and descendants of the Jewish people they had saved.
Nazi soldiers nearly discovered the family hiding in secret. The father of the family was beaten savagely, but refused to give up their hiding place. His young children watched, also saying nothing. Because of them a family survived, grew and thrived.
“We have two choices. We can live with hate, intolerance, bullying and violence, or we can feed compassion, care, loving and tolerance,” Wilkening stressed. “We don’t have to take the haters on, we just need to tip the scales. It can have a rippling effect through our communities.”
He said he would go anywhere, any time, to share his presentation. “I think it’s something we need. It’s history we should not forget. And it’s a good reminder to us to take a look at our own lives, and see how we can be kinder, better human beings.”