On Aus­tri­an Soil: Teach­ing Those I Was Taught to Hate

Son­dra Perl
  • Review
By – July 13, 2012

Son­dra Perl went to Aus­tria in 1996 to teach Eng­lish to two Amer­i­can and nine Aus­tri­an teach­ers of Eng­lish. Her stu­dents were enrolled in a cross-cul­tur­al lit­er­a­cy pro­gram that is part of a master’s degree pro­gram spon­sored by the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Ini­tial­ly, Perl saw her­self as an agnos­tic, assim­i­lat­ed Amer­i­can Jew who hat­ed every­thing Ger­man, an atti­tude she had absorbed from her moth­er as a result of the Sec­ond World War and the destruc­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry. By the end of the term, these assump­tions had trans­mo­gri­fied into some­thing else. 

She was to teach writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture. As a teacher, Perl knew that she had to hold to the prin­ci­ples by which she lived and taught: every­one in the class is wel­come and everyone’s sto­ry mat­ters. Her goal was to treat each person’s work, each person’s words with respect and to teach her stu­dents to do like­wise. At first it was dif­fi­cult because the stu­dents were used to a more author­i­ta­tive style of teach­ing, of top­i­cal assign­ments. She promised that they would learn to write with feel­ing and with­out self-con­scious­ness by the time the course was fin­ished. But when she intro­duces the con­cepts of tak­ing an eth­i­cal stance in the teach­ing of lit­er­a­ture and that a teacher should not try to pose as some­one who is com­plete­ly objec­tive, her stu­dents are puz­zled. Mean­while, in the back of her mind she is see­ing these love­ly stu­dents as the chil­dren or grand­chil­dren of Nazis; she won­ders how they will react when she tells them she is Jew­ish. The class has start­ed to become uncom­fort­able and strained. Perl decides to read what she has writ­ten, as part of the exer­cise. It is a con­fes­sion about how the more she walks on the land, the more her mind fills with images of the Holocaust…but she doesn’t feel she should write about it because that is not why she is there. One of the Aus­tri­an stu­dents urges her to make her fears pub­lic. By the end of the semes­ter, Perl has come to terms with her feel­ings and to a reex­am­i­na­tion of her own Jew­ish­ness, while the stu­dents have learned to write hon­est­ly and fear­less­ly, and they all become friends. Not only is this an hon­est, inter­est­ing, well-writ­ten book (there is a lot of live­ly dia­logue and it reads almost like a nov­el in parts), it is also a hand­book on how to write and to teach oth­ers. Son­dra Perl is pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and urban edu­ca­tion at Lehman Col­lege and The Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Bib­lio., notes, photos.

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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