Religion Classes Screen Schindler’s List In Response to Swastika

by Thomas Hochman

Just over two weeks ago, the OES community learned that a swastika had been drawn in the men’s bathroom.

The incident itself has already been covered pretty thoroughly by Jack and Anna’s articles on the perceived motive behind the event, so for a quick refresher I’d recommend you read those first.

But whether the student simply sought to get a rise out of the administration or there genuinely is some neo-fascist sentiment within the upper school, a number of teachers felt there had to be a more substantial reaction than what was a heavy-but-fleeting Gathering announcement that Tuesday. 

OES found itself in the lucky position of having rabbi and OES alumna Callie Schulman as a member of the administration for the year, so she and religion department chair VJ Sathyaraj met to decide on an appropriate response.

That response came in under a week, with each religion class momentarily pausing their curriculum to watch Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s highly acclaimed Holocaust film.

“A school can respond in a few different ways to a situation like the one we had two weeks ago, but Callie and I felt that all such instances deserve an educational response,” says VJ. “We knew that this was an important opportunity to discuss the history of antisemitism in this country and the world.”

And that’s a history that both Callie and VJ note receives a surprising lack of attention in the OES curriculum.

I think adults have fallen into the trap of expecting that students know just as much as they do about that time period,” explains Callie, “while in reality some have been taught relatively little.”

From my perspective, that’s undeniably true. As a Jewish kid who has walked through Auschwitz’s rooms of shaven hair and children’s shoes, it wasn’t until students left the classroom teary-eyed on the first day of watching the film that I remembered that few had been hit over the head with those visuals in the way that I had.

The silver lining is that the swastika has set the wheels in motion for further incorporation of Holocaust education (in addition to just a general study of anti-semitism) into both the religion and history curriculums for the coming years.

“The goal is to cover the subject more often without having an actual class purely devoted to learning about the Holocaust,” says Callie. 

So for now, Schindler’s List serves as an immediate move by OES to have its students confront the extreme weight that the swastika carries.

And it’s worked pretty well. “I’ve had at least two parents tell me that this has affected the conversation around the dinner table,” adds VJ. “At a bare minimum it’s inspiring thought.”

There’s no doubt that these conversations have to continue. And the actual effect that more widespread discussion around antisemitism in the face of a growing anti-Jewish sentiment in this country will have remains to be seen. But OES’s choice to adapt and respond to an event like the one we witnessed two weeks ago is a reassuring sign in uncertain times.

The Dig will have more on this story as it continues.