Lessons in Moral Courage
Mike Madden’s Students Learn To Not Let History Repeat Itself
Text and photos by Mara Soloway
Once each school year a hallway at Clements High School is transformed into a memorial for victims and survivors of the Holocaust. This Hall of Remembrance contains media created by current and previous students such as posters, paintings, dioramas, a darkened space symbolizing entry into Auschwitz, and railroad tracks fashioned from duct tape and cardboard that lead to a painting of a cattle car used to transport Jews to camps.
It’s an emotional and difficult topic to study, but since 2001, students in Mike Madden’s history and special topics classes have created the items for the Hall based on relevant topics about the Holocaust. There are so many items by now that they can’t all be put up each year.
Creating the Hall coincides with Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 28. This year on Friday, Jan. 27, more than 700 people filled the Clements auditorium to hear survivor Ruth Steinfeld tell her story of how she and her sister were hidden for part of World War II by a French farm couple who later were honored as Righteous Among the Nations, a designation given those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Their parents and other family members were killed in concentration camps.
Madden has taught at Fort Bend ISD for 26 years and is also the freshman volleyball coach. When he began teaching, history textbooks contained two paragraphs about the Holocaust. In 1998, a multimedia presentation he created to add to the curriculum led to him receiving a scholarship from the Holocaust Survivors of Houston to travel to Poland and Israel.
In Israel, he met Hannah Pick, a survivor and childhood friend of Anne Frank. She urged him to continue telling the stories through his teachings. He said he has accepted “the burden she placed on my heart to tell the stories of millions who no longer have a voice to do so themselves.”
The first Hall of Remembrance in 2001 was open for viewing to students and their parents. Madden was encouraged to share the Hall with a wider audience after parent Sharon Shapiro visited the hall in 2002 when her daughter Danielle (now a teacher at Bowie Middle School) was in his class. Before Madden introduced Steinfeld to the audience on Jan. 27, he invited Shapiro to the stage and thanked her for her efforts to help him over the years.
Some of the students in Madden’s classes had previously heard about the Holocaust but not in so much detail. They find many aspects are hard to fathom.
“It’s kind of scary that when Hitler decided to do these things, people went along with what he said and didn’t question it,” said junior Shanaya Kassam, who feels the quote about being doomed to repeat history if you do not learn from it “is really important even in today’s world.”
Kassam’s contribution to the Hall of Remembrance is about a Czech painter named Charlotte Buresova, who escaped Terezin just before it was liberated. Inside a frame are pictures of Buresova’s artwork and text about her. Kassam attached symbolic bars to represent the imprisonment of the artist and other children. “These copies of pictures that she drew have a sad, ominous feel to them,” she said.
Junior Chris Magdall has previously studied the Holocaust on his own. “It’s scary to think that people could be so easily tricked into thinking these things because of one guy, things like ‘these people are bad so we have to get rid of them,’ ” he said. On his poster about Auschwitz is a picture showing the infamous sign, “Arbei Macht Frei,” which translates into “Work makes you free.” Magdall writes, “This was a mockery toward the prisoners because no matter how hard they worked their fate was still determined to be death.”
Arman Amerinia created his poster about Władysław Szpilman, the Polish pianist of Jewish descent, whose book The Pianist and the film told his story of surviving in the Warsaw ghetto and the Holocaust. The junior finds it hard to put into words the humanity shown Szpilman by a German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld.
“Szpilman was hiding, and a German officer found him and heard him playing the piano. Hosenfeld gave him food and kept him hidden. That shows that even some of the soldiers didn’t want to do the awful things they were supposed to,” Amerinia said. “Szpilman died in 2000 a couple months after I was born. It’s interesting how life just ended like that, and then there was new life.”
Hosenfeld was also given Righteous Among the Nations status after the war for saving Szpilman and numerous others during the war.
Sophomore Hunter Quintana’s poster on Plaszow, which was initially a forced labor camp that held 20,000, made him consider how much human potential was lost. “You never know if someone who died in that camp could have found the cure for cancer or could have been president,” he said.
Caitlin Perry titled her poster “It Could Have Been Me,” comparing her life to a child victim of the Holocaust, Hannah Hajek, a Czech girl who was killed at Auschwitz when she was four and a half. “It was a sad project to do. Hannah could have done so much in this world,” the junior said. In the poem Perry wrote, she compared their two lives. “At the end it reads how we shouldn’t take life for granted because it’s such a precious thing. I have my life that I can live to the fullest, and I can share her story.”
Perry added that “It’s difficult doing projects like these. Mr. Madden puts up great presentations. They get very emotional and there is a lot of crying in class because it’s not really fun to learn about.”
Junior Rachel Rys’ contribution is a creative montage about book burnings in the Nazi regime. She noted that some of the posters in the Hall of Remembrance are linked to the app Aurasma, which brings up a presentation about the piece. “It’s very neat how we can use technology to add to our learning about this topic,” she said.
Two years ago, Artemis Joukowsky spoke to Madden’s classes about moral courage. His film Defying the Nazis is based on the courageous acts of his grandparents, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who helped hundreds of people escape from Nazi persecution. They also were honored as Righteous Among the Nations.
“Joukowsky explained that we all have courage, but moral courage is when you’re an ‘upstander’ instead of a bystander,” Madden said. “That’s what I teach the kids – you’ve learned this stuff, what are you going to do when you see something in society you don’t like? You take ownership. We’re changed people now, we have to stand up.”
Lessons in Moral Courage