The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Duxbury High’s antisemitism scandal is more evidence that parents need to do better. Here’s how.

Placeholder while article actions load

For years, players on the Duxbury High School football team in suburban Boston shouted, “Auschwitz,” the name of the notorious Nazi death camp in Poland during World War II, as a play call. The practice continued until last month, when an official from an opposing team complained.

News of the antisemitic football audible went national. In quick order, the team’s coach, who had compiled a 159-43 record since he took the job in 2005, was fired, games were canceled, and Duxbury school leaders issued a statement condemning what had happened. “In short, it is a systemic failure,” the statement read.

The question really is not whether the football players knew what Auschwitz was. The school teaches about the Holocaust as part of social studies, and one of the most popular electives is a course called Holocaust and Human Behavior.

The question is, how do we as parents raise our children to speak up in the face of something clearly wrong and hurtful toward others? It is not an easy task, whether a child is perpetrator or victim. It requires courage, something I lacked when a high school classmate whispered “K-ke” to me during history class. I never told anyone. My husband, Pavlik, the son of a Holocaust survivor, and I want our only child, who’s 13, to not only stand up for himself if his religion is the target but also understand the importance of doing the same for others.

Since the play calls became public, parents from Duxbury and others emailed the Anti-Defamation League of New England to report that they first heard Auschwitz on the field two seasons ago. Other parents told me the audibles, including the words “rabbi” and “dreidel,” were used for as long as eight years.

“If the goal is to teach kids to stand up for themselves and for others and to have the confidence to do it, they need to be in an environment where their role models are the example,” says Robert Trestan, the director of ADL New England. “Everyone that came in contact with this team was silent.”

Duxbury is a football-obsessed town with a beloved coach. The peer pressure to say nothing was probably immense, says Rabbi Howard Cohen, who has led Congregation Shirat Hayam in Duxbury for seven years.

“I don’t excuse the boys for that. Wrong is wrong. No one stood up,” Cohen says. “It takes a lot of inner confidence, a lot of self confidence and a certain amount of chutzpah to call people out.”

At Auschwitz, more than 1 million Jews and others were murdered by the Nazis. Every April, the estimated 6 million Jews and others killed during the Holocaust are remembered. This year, Holocaust Remembrance Day is Thursday.

Some Duxbury parents say they are struggling to help their children develop the skills they need to speak against injustices. After news of the audibles broke, Kate Reynolds founded an anti-hate group Stand Up Duxbury and recruited others to hold signs with her on the town green to show support for the Jewish community. She takes her daughters, ages 3 and 8.

“How can we expect our children to be able to do what’s right or to stand up for what’s right if we as adults aren’t getting it right?” Reynolds says.

Starting young is critical. Learning for Justice, a part of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., trains teachers and provides a guide on how to teach children to speak up. Parents, like teachers, can give children four steps to use: “interrupt,” “question,” “educate” and “echo,” says Monita Bell, managing editor of Learning for Justice. When a child hears someone attacking another’s identity, interrupt. “In the moment, you say, ‘Hold up, what? What did you say?’” Bell advises. Next, question by asking the speaker what he or she meant. Third, educate with words like, “I don’t like that. That’s not funny to me.” Finally, reinforce why the offending statement is a problem.

Out of necessity, as a Black parent, Bell has already given those lessons to her 9-year-old daughter and spoken with her about identity-based injustices.

“More often than not, they’re going to experience something like this in school,” Bell says. “We have to have those conversations. We don’t have the privilege of not doing that.”

The first lesson for children must begin at home, says Laura Tavares, the program director of organizational learning and thought leadership at Facing History and Ourselves. The Brookline, Mass.-based organization created curriculum on the Holocaust and other genocides for grades seven through 12, a program used in 20,749 private and public schools. Parents should start, Tavares says, by modeling care and respect for differences, including religious ones. When driving around town, for example, point out a menorah and talk about it appreciatively.

Parents also can learn alongside their children, asking them questions as they read age-appropriate books about the Holocaust. Watch survivor testimonies, available through the Shoah Foundation’s website as well as Facing History, to spark conversation, too.

“The best choice is not the most graphic or shocking choice,” Tavares says. “It is the story that brings home the human experience. If you just show pictures of dead bodies in a crematorium, that does not actually show you the impact on the Jewish community and the other victims.”

Children also need to understand the damage that silence causes. In Duxbury, the Jewish community is hurting. “I’ve had nightmares,” Marci Goldberg Bracken said at a videoconference healing vigil last week led by Cohen. “My grandmother is an Auschwitz survivor, so it’s my identity. Auschwitz is my identity.” She also is the mother of a Duxbury fifth-grader. “I just want to cover my son and have him never go through anything like this.”

Bracken says she talks with her son about what it means to stand up for others and urges him to seek her out if he is unsure about what to do.

As parents, my husband and I have had similar discussions with our son. We also have taught Simon gradually about the Holocaust, starting when he was 8. My husband read him a children’s book about an Auschwitz survivor, “The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm,” and used it as an entree to tell the story of Sophie, Simon’s paternal grandmother. Sophie, as a teen, was imprisoned in the Vilna ghetto from 1941 to 1943. She and two of her three siblings survived. Her parents and her youngest brother were killed.

After the Duxbury incident, we asked Simon, a seventh-grader, if he knew what Auschwitz was. He was unsure. We told him about Auschwitz, then, to teach a deeper lesson, watched the movie “Schindler’s List” as a family. We encouraged him to ask us to pause the movie with any questions. Facing History has a discussion guide parents can use.

At times, Simon turned his head away from the film’s most graphic scenes, but by our conversations afterward, we know that he learned about the courage of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist, who saved more than 1,100 Jews from being sent to Auschwitz. As the movie ends, we learn that Schindler was honored for his deeds in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Israeli’s Holocaust memorial.

“My mom nominated one of her rescuers, too, and a tree is planted there in his memory,” my husband, Pavlik, told Simon. Later, he pulled out a family scrapbook and showed Simon the letter that Sophie wrote in 1977 to Yad Vashem about Bronislaw Krzyzanowski, a Polish Catholic.

“I can say unequivocally that I owe my life to Mr. Krzyzanowski and his family,” she wrote. As the Nazis surrounded the ghetto with the intention of killing every Jew, she writes how she “managed to escape through an underground sewer canal” because Krzyzanowski, an engineer, helped plan the route. She emerged in the middle of the city at night, shortly before curfew. She needed a place to hide. Two family friends turned her away, saying they could not risk their lives. But the Krzyzanowskis, who she knew indirectly through a cousin, took her in.

“They were indeed a most extraordinary family, with amazing and rare generosity, courage and devotion,” she wrote. They rescued her, two of her siblings and three of her cousins.

This is not just about a football team’s antisemitic play call. Do we want our children to choose a path toward the Avenue of the Righteous? Or do we want them to stay silent?

Linda K. Wertheimer, a veteran journalist, is a 2020-2021 Spencer Fellow in Education Journalism at Columbia University and the author of “Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.” She is on Twitter @lindakwert.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

More reading:

I can’t shield my kids from the world’s horrors. But how specific should I get?

Social justice for toddlers: These new books start the conversation early

In Black families like mine, the race talk comes early, and it’s not optional