Let’s talk about Hitler, Nazis and the Cambridge yearbook

Ruth Mendel, a Holocaust survivor, spoke to students at Oliver W. Winch Middle School in Glens Falls in 2019 about her journey out of Luxembourg to the United States after Nazi forces took over her home country. Afterward, she showed several students books and photos from her childhood that serve as reminders of her escape. Samuel Northrop/Post-Star

This editorial appeared in the Post-Star on May 30:

GLENS FALLS — We sympathize with the decision by Cambridge school officials to recall the yearbook because a graduating senior listed “Mein Kampf” as his favorite book, although we don’t necessarily endorse it.

The most likely explanation for the listing is that the student was playing a misguided prank, but that isn’t the only possibility. Perhaps the student admires [Adolf] Hitler or is excited by his ideas of racial purity and German superiority; we hope not. Or perhaps the student is fascinated by the history of the rise of fascism in Germany after World War I and by the way Hitler’s propaganda took hold in the country and led to the Holocaust and tens of millions of deaths on the battlefield.

It’s impossible to know why someone is reading a book if all you have is the report that they’ve read it. Without knowing why this student read “Mein Kampf” and listed it as a favorite, punishment seems unfair.

“Mein Kampf” is garbage. It expresses ideas repellent to every moral human being.

That does not mean that everyone who reads the book is a bad person. It could be troubling that a local teenager would consider the book a “favorite.” But again, we don’t know what was in the teen’s mind.

Does “Mein Kampf” stand alone among the millions of books in the world, or are school officials going to have to start reviewing and policing all of the choices seniors make for their favorites?

“Mein Kampf” is notorious because of the Nazi movement Hitler led to power several years after the book was published in 1925. Had Hitler faded into nothingness in the 1930s, his book would have followed him there.

Other books are also awful in various ways and to varying degrees. It will be a big job, and a tricky one, to start deciding which titles are acceptable for the yearbook and which are not.

Despite our hesitations over this decision, we are not advocating for unfettered free speech in the Cambridge yearbook or any public school yearbook. Excerpts from books, for example, must be reviewed to make sure they’re suitable. Excerpts from “Mein Kampf,” in many cases, would not be.

Hitler was responsible for monstrous crimes, but he was surrounded by like-minded Nazi officials and supported by millions of German citizens. He also had sympathizers around the world, including in the [United States]. Understanding how he rose to power and why so many people were willing to justify or ignore the crimes of his regime is important, so we don’t do it again.

We understand school officials’ urgent feeling that the book’s title did not belong in the yearbook as a student’s favorite. Perhaps the recall was the right thing to do. But we hope that drastic step is followed by a discussion with the student, and in Cambridge classrooms, too, about the content of the book and the circumstances surrounding it and why they provoke such a strong reaction.

Local editorials are written by the Post-Star editorial board, which includes Ben Rogers, president and director of local sales and marketing; Brian Corcoran, regional finance director and former publisher; Will Doolittle, projects editor; and Bob Condon, local news editor. © 2021 Post-Star.

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(2) comments

rdsouth

I went to a mostly Jewish public high school (Hillcrest High School, in Dallas) and did a book report about the autobiography of Heinz Guderian (German general who claimed to have invented the blitzkrieg). "Awkward" does not describe it. This is what yearbook editors (and their staff supervisors) are for. And why the teacher needs to know the subject of your book report before you actually present it.

zeitgeist

It seems that the choices students make regarding "favorites," that will be attributed to them in a yearbook, should involve a discussion well before the choices are made and the yearbook is published.

Teach students to ask: Because something is my "favorite," does that mean it belongs in a yearbook? What might be the social, political, and religious implications of my choices? How might my choices make other people feel? What might my choices say about me? Am I willing to have my choices on display for prospective colleges, employers, etc.? How might my choices affect my reputation? How might my choices come back to haunt me? Etc.

Choosing "favorites" is typically a fun and carefree exercise. It can be a learning experience, too, by teaching students to explore and ask questions about their choices.

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