By Kara Baskin
Swastikas have become sadly ubiquitous—as graffiti in schools, cemeteries, on bridges and flags. In response, Lappin Foundation just launched a moving short film, “Swastika – Symbol of Hate,” to teach middle- and high-schoolers about the true, brutal meaning behind the symbol.
Most importantly, they hear from Holocaust survivors Magda Bader and Dr. Hans Fisher, whose lived experiences crystallize the terror and pain that the swastika provokes.
“We were given orders to get out of the cattle cars fast, and we were told that we would see each other in a voice that you try to believe …. I was holding onto one of my sister’s and my mother’s hand. Even though I just turned 14, I looked 10 or 12. I was attached to my mother. Because of the orders, and you were told you’d see each other, I let my mother’s hand go. … That’s the last time I saw my mother,” Bader recalls.
What inspired the video?
What inspired the video is, sadly, the number of incidents involving swastika graffiti in our communities. Over the past few years, I’ve been increasingly invited to schools where swastikas appear to do a lesson about its meaning. In the beginning, it was high schools. And then it was middle schools. And then, last year, I was invited to a school with younger children in grades four to six. And that’s really troubling.
I thought, “How do you begin the conversation?” I was searching for a video, because sometimes that’s a good opener. There was absolutely nothing that I felt was age-appropriate. I felt there was a real need for it, especially geared to middle school ages. Where did the symbol come from? What does it mean today, and why is it so upsetting? I also thought, if I could have Holocaust survivors talk about that piece of it, what a wonderful way to preserve their memory and have them impart a lesson to the students. And I believe that the film accomplishes that in 7-plus short minutes.
How did you pull these components together? The film is short, but it’s impressive, and it’s powerful.
I knew I wanted a simple, straightforward history. I’d been working with survivors Magda Bader and Dr. Hans Fisher. Both of them come from a very different experience. Magda survived Auschwitz. Hans was a passenger on the MS St. Louis [a ship that left Germany in 1939 to escape rising antisemitism]. So, he was the students’ age, and he escaped. He calls himself an escapee of the Holocaust.
Their messages are so important. Sometimes, a swastika appears in a school, and then there’s a reaction from parents and the community, with all good intentions, but I don’t know how much education actually goes into teaching them about the symbol. I think that’s the missing piece. Our kids’ worlds are full of symbols. They communicate with emojis. Symbols evoke emotion. And the swastika represents the most evil time in humanity.
This suggestion came from a student: Schools could use it as part of their orientation. They hear about bullying. They hear about all other kinds of name-calling. And so, because of the prevalent rise in antisemitism in our country, our students should be taught what this is and why it’s bad. They’re not going to get it by osmosis. And I believe this film is one way to do that.
Any guidance on contextualizing the video for various age groups?
It’s for middle school and older, for sure, and, with great care, older elementary students. Our teachers’ guide provides background, a synopsis and how teachers can introduce the film. And for teachers themselves who might not have background on the Holocaust, I provide resources for them as well, in addition to full-length interviews with Hans Fisher and Magda Bader. In addition, if educators want to learn more about the swastika and do a deeper dive, I provide resources for that.
My older son is in middle school, and we often hear about swastika graffiti there. Why? What inspires this among kids?
I don’t know what triggers it, but I don’t believe there’s been enough education proactively, preventatively, about what the swastika is. I believe students who do it know that, when it’s discovered, it’s something that gets a reaction out of adults. That’s just conjecture on my part. But I don’t believe there’s been enough education—straightforward, clear, simple, at their level—about what this is.
If you were to summarize the film and its effect in a sentence, what would you say?
I hope students will have felt something: the pain of the survivors, how devastating the Holocaust was and to have the awareness and the knowledge of what the symbol means. My hope is that they are able to articulate that this is a symbol of hatred and destruction. If they can walk away with that, I think the goal has been achieved.
Learn more about what teens really think about antisemitism.
Kara Baskin is the parenting writer for JewishBoston.com. She is also a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and a contributing editor at Boston Magazine. She has worked for New York Magazine and The New Republic, and helped to launch the now-defunct Jewish Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Email her at email@example.com.