We had the pleasure of a special guest speaker this week. Hans Angress survived Nazi-occupied Amsterdam as a young German Jew, and he came to share his story with us. He was eloquent, engaging and inspiring. But let me back up a bit…
In the fall, our librarian wanted to invigorate her program through book groups over the course of this year. To kick things off, she decided to read The Diary of Anne Frank with our 6th graders. So far, it has been met with mixed reviews: done, loved it!, slow going, too difficult, reading every other entry… This is all just fine. It’s an experience, not a treatment.
So through this common book, we were approached by a family at our school who knew of Mr. Angress. Many emails later… here he was.
I wanted my students to understand the import of this visit, the specialness of it. But I didn’t want to imply that all would be heavy, doom-and-gloom. It’s a moment in history that is being lost to age. It’s a tragic, sad event, but what’s more, is the chance to hear it from a person who was there. Mr. Angress was there. His story is unique to him and we get to hear him tell it. I said, “Listen carefully. Many people will never have this opportunity.”
As he outlined his childhood, they jotted things down. As he described being sent back from England after not acquiring the proper visas, they leaned forward. As he went play-by-play through some close calls with SS officers, they were shocked. The room was stuffy, the time crept forward, yet these 11 and 12-year-olds remained still, listening, waiting.
“Do you have any questions?”
“When kids didn’t come back to school the next day, did you actually know what had happened to them?” asked one of our boys.
Another boy wanted to know, “Did you ever see Hitler?”
Mr. Angress took his time, acknowledged their curiosity and answered their questions.
No, as a kid, he didn’t really know what happened to his classmates, but the students had ideas from talk they’d overhead among the grown-ups.
Yes, Mr. Angress saw Hitler once. Although (he said with a smile), “I wasn’t there to see Hitler. I was at the parade to see Jesse Owens.” It was the Olympic parade in Berlin. Mr. Angress shared that he later named one of his adopted children Jesse.
And of course, I asked them to blog about the event at our kidblog site. It amazed me how they really took the experience to heart. I know that later they will remember and connect more with what Mr. Angress shared. For now, it’s enough that they file it away, and as time passes and they grow and learn more about history, it will become clearer, more poignant, more special.