“I was very popular and many people followed me until I died. My belif in antisemitism drove me to kill more than 6 million Jews.”
This is part of a project that hung in the hallway of the Maugham School in Tenafly for a few weeks, written in pencil, replete with the spelling errors of a fifth-grader. It’s one of those pretend-you’re-a-historical-figure exercises that elementary school teachers so love; one of those exercises that can help kids glean facts about famous people, even if it does not outfit them with the sophistication to understand what those facts might mean.
Students generally choose heroic figures, or beloved ones, or perhaps quixotic ones.
But in this case, a fifth-grader chose not only one of history’s most foul actors, but one whose evil happened still, if just barely, within living memory, and in a community that is home to some of the people who survived the Holocaust he created, as well as to their descendants, who still confront its legacy.
And a fifth-grade teacher allowed the student to pursue this project, and to hang the report in the school’s hall, along with everyone else’s, as if Hitler were a biographical subject like, say, George Washington or Harriet Tubman or Alexander Hamilton or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The student’s parents also seemed to have allowed their child to continue with the project.
“My greatest accomplishment was uniting a great mass of German and Austrian people behind me,” the student’s report blithely tells us.
“I was pretty great, wasn’t I?” it asks.
Well, no, you weren’t, but the statement hung unchallenged.
Very little about the story is clear. The timeline isn’t, but it seems as if the project was made in April — before Israel’s conflict with Gaza, and before the most recent outbreak of anti-Semitism. It seems to have hung on a wall in the school without anyone paying much attention to it until the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, when news of it percolated to the point where parents started writing about it on Facebook and other social media platforms. This is, after all, still pandemic time; although schools are opening up to students, parents necessarily still are not welcome there. And then rumors flew — including the one that said the students dressed as their characters — without any basis in fact. The internet is very bad at telling fact from fiction.
On Monday, the Tenafly school district said it was investigating the matter, according to its website. On Tuesday, district’s superintendant, Shauna DeMarco, updated its message, releasing its findings and addressing some but not all of the concerns.
“Unfortunately, this assignment has been taken out of context, resulting in understandable anger and concern,” she wrote. “The assignment (which was given by a teacher who happens to be Jewish) asked students to speak from the perspective of one of these individuals and how they might have perceived and rationalized their actions. When people saw the students’ projects, which were displayed in the school, they did not understand the assignment, resulting in justifiable concerns. Given that the lesson was specifically issued within the context of social justice, it is unfair to judge any student or teacher in this matter.”
“Tenafly Public Schools condemn antisemitism, racism, and bias of any kind. We hope that after reviewing these facts you will join with us to help our community begin the healing process.”
Jordan Millstein is the rabbi of Temple Sinai, the Reform synagogue in Tenafly. “I’m in touch with Shauna DeMarco, and also with Jocelyn Schwarz, the president of the school board,” he said, before the update was released. “They are very eager to get the results of the investigation and find out what happened.
“My feeling is that if it is true, as it’s reported on social media, that students were asked to do a project on a historical figure, listing their accomplishments, it boggles the mind that a teacher would let that historical figure be Hitler, and let a student do a project on Hitler’s accomplishments, as if he were a great leader.
“As a Jewish leader, at the risk of stating the obvious I have to say that it is an insult not only to Jews but also to all Americans, and a terrible error in judgment, to have a student do this project.” He’s holding out hope that somehow the teacher was able to turn the project into a teachable moment, “an opportunity to teach about the evils of anti-Semitism and Nazism,” although he acknowledges that the posting of the project alongside other, more benign efforts make that seem unlikely.
“I’m also very concerned about the child and the family involved,” Rabbi Millstein continued. “I don’t know who the student is, but there are a lot of immigrant families in Tenafly. Different racial and ethnic groups might not understand what a report on Adolf Hitler would mean to the Jewish community.
“Some of the social media posters want to run the family out of town on a rail, but without knowing the context it’s hard to know what happened. It’s possible that there wasn’t anti-Semitic intent from the student or the family, but just a student doing the assignment from the teacher.” The family possibly might not know who Hitler was.
“I’m afraid that this issue can become divisive for groups in town. We need to know more facts before we can talk about it.”
It would help to know what the assignment was, Rabbi Millstein said. Was it to write about someone famous? Does it count if the person was infamous? What about research about Pol Pot, say, or Josef Stalin? And how does that translate into that optimistic opening sentence about Hitler’s accomplishments? And where was the teacher?
The ADL and the American Jewish Committee both have volunteered to help. “Rabbi David Levy is the AJC’s regional director, and he is offering his assistance,” Rabbi Millstein said. “This is a very unfortunate incident, to say the least, but I am hoping that something good will come out of it.”
Jordan Shenker is the CEO of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. “This incident further illustrates the need for increased awareness in our community about the harmful impact our words and actions can have on others,” Mr. Shenker said. “Regardless of the educational intent here, the teacher failed to recognize the profound impact this can have on students, family members and others in our community who could perceive this project as condoning or even glorifying the atrocities of one of the most evil individuals in world history.”