This just in from Mountain Brook Schools outside of Birmingham, Alabama.
A high school teacher’s history lesson in experiential learning went a bit too far when he had his students stand and salute the [American] flag with a Nazi salute. The goal was to teach how symbols change over time. Before Hitler turned the salute into an enduring symbol of Jew-hatred, the extended arm/palm down gesture was called the “Bellamy Salute.” After the United States’ entry into World War II in 1942, the Bellamy salute was replaced with the one familiar to us all today — placing one’s right hand over the heart to show respect for the Stars and the Stripes. The sole Jewish student in the class did not join in. He filmed, and then posted, the “lesson” on social media. He was reprimanded and told to apologize to his teacher who then further ostracized him.
“Your grandfather is probably turning over in his grave,” my husband said when the story broke. My grandfather Abe Berkowitz, whose law firm was in Birmingham, Alabama, and who lived in Mountain Brook, was a firebrand who fought with other attorneys and private citizens for civil rights. In 1948 a pro-bono case of his laid the foundation for the United States’ anti-masking law that was much in the news at the beginning of the pandemic. The law had its origins in a case he brought against the Klan for their raid on a Girl Scout camp. Two white counselors were holding leadership training for leaders of the local black Girl Scout chapter. The Klan caught wind of it, stormed their tent in the middle of the night, terrorized the women and ordered the two white women to leave within 24 hours. Abe took the Girl Scouts’ case against the Klan and won.
So back to Mountain Brook High School and the Nazi salute. What would my grandfather actually have done? He was clever. He was compassionate. He never blinked and he made sure right won out. I’ve got a feeling he might have asked to meet with the high school teacher to get a sense of the man. He would have asked him in a roundabout way, and in not so many words, “What the hell were you thinking?” In his deep voice, rich as molasses, he would have explained why the sole Jewish kid in the class would have been so upset to see his classmates encouraged to imitate a gesture that let to the murder of six million fellow Jews.
And then Abe would have met with the students. He would have started with a joke. Or perhaps related a story recounting a personal foible or misstep. He would have had them in the palm of his hand because he was a master storyteller. “Now boys,” he would have said, “your teacher thought he had a good lesson going. It’s kind of backfired on him. But the greater good is that he opened the door to teach a bigger lesson, a lesson about not following the crowd. A lesson of knowing your history and understanding its impact on those for whom history isn’t some event in a book but is instead family history.”
I imagine he’d continue somewhat like this: “The thing about the Nazis was they saw the world as us and them. And the Jews? Well, to the Nazis, the Jews were as them as you could get. The Nazis were able to get everyone else to believe this as well. That salute was part of it. That salute said, ‘It’s us against them and we are going to rid the world of ‘them.’ Now, that’s all book history. But it’s human history, too. And we,” Abe would pause and gesture with his arms to include each and every student, “We are human beings. We are all part of part of the human family. Even that sorry bastard Hitler. Whatever I do affects you and affects our human family. Whatever you do, also affects our human family.
“Your teacher wanted to teach you how symbols change, how a different meaning can be riveted onto a benign symbol and turn it into a weapon. That salute, the arm slicing through the air that the Nazis commandeered for their own eviltry? That salute symbolizes the slicing away of part of the human family, separating them in order to murder them by sending six million Jews and four million others up the concentration camp chimneys. That’s why your fellow student here reacted the way he did. That’s why he did what he did that led to this hullaballoo.” I imagine the students, if they weren’t already, were growing a bit fidgety. “Like I said, your teacher wanted to teach you something about symbols. I hope I’ve been able to extend his lesson a bit farther. Thank you for your time, gentleman. I’ll see you around.”
Abe would have given them his heartfelt smile so warm and true that you could feel it leave his soul and enter yours. No punishment, no shaming, no recrimination. Just a lesson from a great and humble man who knew a thing or two about the human family.