Brown Hair

S. B. (names of students are initialized throughout) has long blonde hair and a soft thoughtful voice. She is unusually considerate for a 9th grade student, older than her sixteen years. ‘Hungarians are responsible too,’ she says with certainty in her tone. ‘Hungarian police, Hungarian trains… Hungarians carried out the deportations with the perpetrators.’

We are all in class together at Dániel Berzsenyi High School in Budapest. Teacher Dr. Mónika Mezeipulls puts up a slide which reads, ‘Not to speak is to speak! Not to act is to act!’ and asks the students to consider its implications. Monika is conducting a lesson on bystanders using testimony from USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. The students listen to testimony about different aspects of being a bystander – those who watched, those who plucked up courage to speak out, those on the slippery slope toward perpetration. They debate the issues. The choices the bystanders had to act or not, whether they were right or wrong in the choices they made, what it took to become outspoken in times of crisis.

M. Z. has dreadlocks scooped up into a messy bun. He is wiry and tense, but when he speaks he chooses his words carefully, to the point that he sounds calculated. ‘I think you should do absolutely nothing,’ he says, much to my dismay. I was hoping to hear a humane teenager full of youthful activist zeal. ‘We cannot intervene in the crises of other people. We should do nothing and wait to see the situation die down – then decide what to do.’

The discussion had moved from deep historical detail to challenges the class had encountered – and what their actions had been. They described quite a range of situations from domestic arguments, to street mugging and school bullying. ‘One of my close friends was found guilty of a crime he did not commit.’ Said M. Z. ‘We had a large group of friends. Eighty percent of my friends blamed him. Then it turned out not to be true.’

The tension in the room was palpable as they moved to the subject of bullying. One girl was bullied for being tall, another for having a Jewish parent. M. Z. confessed that he was bullied. ‘It was in eighth grade. It went on for four months and was the worst experience of my life at that point.’ He pauses. ‘I was bullied, and I bullied others too.’ Strangely, I began to like him for his honesty. He knows himself and is able to talk about his weaknesses – I suspect it was more difficult to say he had been a bully, than the fact he had been bullied – and that is really difficult to do. On more than one occasion he confirmed ‘I am going to be ok.’ Somehow I believe him.

The conversation which is tense at time, appears to be universal in nature, and yet they are working through issues that are highly particular. They talk very specifically about Hungarian culture, values and world view. The testimonies they listened to were in Hungarian given by witnesses in Hungary. They discussed the nuances of Hungarian history as well as Hungarian participation in the Holocaust. Universal issues only makes sense when there is a clear understanding of the particular. In that classroom understanding the particular history of the Holocaust in Hungary was essential to start – that included the compliance and collaboration of local participants, the particularity of individual testimonies, and associating their learning to the particular situations they face in Hungary today.

The key thing is ‘teaching them to learn to think,’ says USC Shoah Foundation Master Teacher Ingrid Alexovics from Pécs. Thinking for themselves they certainly were. Over an hour went by as they debated what it meant to be a bystander. There were no group conclusions, but their collective understanding was deepened and their critical skills clearly enhanced.

S. B. had her hand up waiting patiently as she listened to her colleagues hash out examples of being a bystander. Eventually she gets the final word. ‘You cannot afford to be a bystander, because next time they may say, we don’t like people with brown hair – and them it’s you that have the brown hair – and you won’t be a bystander anymore.’

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.