Ries Vanderpol was 17 when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, his home country, in 1940. Before the invasion, he had seen Jewish students who arrived in his school fleeing from Nazi Germany, but had avoided contact with them regarding their troubles as somehow contagious. At 17, he had not spent much time pondering Nazi Germany and its policies of racial hatred.
What a difference a day makes. With the Nazi takeover came yellow stars to be worn at all times, specific times to shop, no access to parks and an end to formal education. Growing up in an upper middle class home in the cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam, this young Jewish man had a life plan that involved university and medical training. All that changed completely and immediately.
The true nature of the Nazi horror unfolded and Ries was lucky enough to have a true friend who gave him his identity papers, but the only problem was that friend had a scar on his arm and so Ries asked his surgeon uncle to etch a similar scar on his arm. Eventually it was impossible to function within a society where the governing bodies are sworn to kill you, and Ries went into hiding with a family friend.
For four years he lived in a small space, using his body as an aerial so that he could listen to illicit BBC broadcasts and try to imagine that the Nazis would one day be defeated and his life could continue. That day eventually did come and Ries Vanderpol arrived in the United States where he was able to complete his medical training, marry his wife, Netty, and raise a family, becoming a professor of psychology at Harvard.
The life he lived was one of success and security, and he did not allow himself to be haunted by the ghosts and horrors of the past, but as the years passed that sense of trauma and the memory of the horrors witnessed by him became a driving force in his life. His need is to give back to the world that saved him by helping young people to understand not only what happened in Europe during the Holocaust, but the motivations behind the behavior of those who committed horrible crimes, and those who let them.
Through a relationship with the cultural organization, Facing History and Ourselves, Ries and I met some 10 years ago and so began a dialogue between a man who had survived the Holocaust and the sophomore classes at the regional high school. Each year, Ries Vanderpol stands up in front of students and talks about traumas beyond their imagining. Each year, he relives that story so that students can understand the true nature of evil and can recognize that syndrome when they see it coming around again in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
This year, two of the sophomore classes researched the true meaning of the Holocaust and the ways in which such crimes reappear, and published their work in a book which was presented to Ries. Dr. Vanderpol is quick to say that the whole book is “a wonderful piece of work by such young people” and he feels honored to have a copy. He has selected eight of the essays for commendation, and met the authors at a watermelon and lemonade lunch this week to talk about their work, and the ways in which he believes that injustice can be resisted. The eight essays he has chosen for commendation cover a wide range of topics. He has chosen them for specific reasons, some for the questions they raise and some for the insights and empathy that they show.
Troy Small’s essay Disaster Upon Us discusses what the class learned and polls other students for their responses to the often harrowing material that they studied. Michael Kendall’s essay Kaddish for the Living speaks with great sadness about the still-living victims of the Holocaust intoning the prayers for the dead as they wait in line to be killed. Pete Persson, whose work is commended by Dr. Vanderpol, asks the question: “Why didn’t any other country do anything?” Pete goes on to reflect about what were the lives of the people who worked in the concentration camps murdering people for a living, wondering did they go home, eat their dinner, play with their kids?
In Genocide Again and Again Anna Hayes asks the question: “Wouldn’t you think that people would do everything they could to keep this world a safe and happy place after having to face the catastrophe that killed millions and millions of people not so long ago?” In response to her question, Anna sadly answers: “Wrong.”
Solvig Sayre used history as her teacher when researching the issues between Palestine and Israel. Her essay History Repeating Itself analyzes the roles that the media play in perpetrating images of villains and heroes, and draws several disturbing parallels between the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and the Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe. Solvig did a superb job in locating diverse opinion in Israel and Palestine and finding organizations in those communities who want to work together for peace while condemning the injustices that she saw.
Haley Rossi researched the role and fate of rescuers for her paper The Best and Worst Stories of the Holocaust, tracing the fate of two French communities which tried to save Jewish children from extermination in Nazi camps. She examines what motivates some people to try to help and others to turn their backs. In her paper, Holocaust: A Study in Human Behavior, Abbey Entner drew interesting parallels between student bullying and ostracizing of other students and the Nazis. Abbey looked at how the outsider can often be a vicious participant in bullying when they are included in the “in” group. In her own words, her study of the Holocaust helped her “to understand so much more about why people behave the way they do.”
The final essayist to be honored is Haley Pierce whose work is entitled What Causes Genocide. Her analysis of the question is that: “Every genocide is made up of a power-hungry group that is led by a respected leader who can influence their community, or even the world to go against a certain race or religion.”
This meeting of the minds between the survivor of one of the world’s greatest tragedies and the young writers and philosophers of the regional high school was celebrated in style with lemonade and watermelon and some profound wisdom. It is through meetings like this that true change in the world can be achieved.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub teaches history at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.