I went to a Jewish elementary school where our classes were divided into two sections: secular, which included English, maths, science, history and French; and Judaics, which included Hebrew, history, ethics, and bible study. When I started second grade, my Judaics teacher was an old woman with short white hair and black flat shoes. Her name was Mrs Kron.
Older than any other teacher we had, we afforded Mrs Kron a level of respect that perhaps wasn't as evident with our other teachers. We brought her flowers we found outside and put them in a glass to adorn her desk. We made our best efforts when writing assignments to make our writing neat and legible. We raised our hands when we had questions, and we heard our classmates out patiently when they were speaking. And she returned our small efforts with kind words and pats on our shoulders. She taught us non-academic things as well: how to sew a case for our Passover matzah, how to make a pretty box for our jewelry or knick knacks using a large matchbox, and how to arrange a family tree.
As part of our curriculum, we often learned stories about the Holocaust. It was a part of our history, and even a part of our every day lives since so many of us had family that had perished, or family that survived. Stories of that time, both stories of heroics, and tragedies, were told to most of us from the time we were small. Mrs Kron, however, did not tell us stories except once. A boy in our class had made some careless remark referring to those horrible years, and Mrs Kron overheard. That afternoon we sat in a circle facing her, she in a chair.
Pulling up her sleeve, she showed us a series of tattooed blue numbers following a letter written across her arm beneath the crook of her elbow. "Do you know what this is?", she asked us. We all nodded, flabbergasted. It was one thing to hear stories about the Holocaust, or read them in books, but most of us had not seen the evidence right in front of us at that point. She explained that she was born in Lithuania, a small country that had been overrun by the Nazis in short order, and sent to the camps as an adult. It was a short story that she told us, she didn't go into much detail. The main points she was making was that it was important that we always remember (a dictate we had been raised on) and that we always treat others with kindness and respect no matter what.
"But you weren't," one of my classmates pointed out. "You were just taken from your home and thrown in a bad place by bad people." Mrs Kron nodded. She explained that yes, in that terrible time where difficult things occurred, some people did things that were unexplainable. But if everyone treated everyone else with kindness and respect, we could ensure that something like that did not occur again. "If you treat everyone as you would treat your parents or your grandparents, you will help to create a world where such an event is impossible".
Mrs Kron did not cry that day. She spoke to us in a calm voice and made sure that we understood to not just remember the tragedies, but to make a difference in the world by being virtuous and proud, respectful and good to everyone. It wasn't until years later I learned that this woman had not just casually lived through the war. She dealt with untold horrors, and her youngest daughter was killed. She lived with a great amount of guilt and pain, but did not let any of it spill into her classroom.
She made an impact on me, my second grade teacher did. Not just on that one day in school, but for many years later. It wasn't just what she told us, but how she behaved and how she lived. It would surely be easy to let events like that take over the rest of your days. It would surely be easy to be miserable and depressed every day, and refuse to engage with life. Mrs Kron did not take that option. She woke every morning and taught children like me how to be strong and how to be good. She tutored children on the weekend, teaching European kids how to speak and write English. She worked hard and was always gentle, always kind. She showed me that it is not just about your words, but it is your deeds that count. She demonstrated that nothing you struggle with or against can take away your inner strength if you refuse to give it up.