Deborah Levine is Editor in-Chief of the American Diversity Report. She is a Forbes Magazine top Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer and an award-winning author of 15 books. She has been recognized by the Women's Federation for World Peace and the TN Economic Council on Women. She was featured on C-Span/ BookTV and her published articles span decades in journals & magazines: American Journal of Community Psychology, Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, The Bermuda Magazine, The Harvard Divinity School Bulletin. A former blogger with The Huffington Post, she is now an opinion columnist with The Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Have we time-traveled back a century when child labor was a thing? That’s what I first thought when I heard that a food sanitation company was being sued for illegally employing over 100 children ages 13 – 17. The kids cleaned razor-sharp saws with caustic chemicals while working overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states including Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas.
This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.
I stood in front of the Holocaust education elective class handing out index cards and speaking loudly over the chatting high school students, asking them to write down why they’d chosen this elective.
I called on one particularly talkative student to share her answer: “I wanted to hear both sides of the story,” My eyes widened. She added that she’d read online that the Holocaust is just propaganda and didn’t really happen.
I looked down at the letters in my hand from my father, who had written them during his World War II service, when he’d been a spy and interrogated Nazi prisoners of war. My rabbi had asked me to speak about the letters to her son’s class in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
My father had witnessed the liberation of a concentration camp and the dissolution of the Nazi regime, but for 50 years, he told no one, not wanting his family exposed to the horrors that he’d seen in Germany, France and Belgium. Now, I was sharing his letters with the next generation of high school students, in a time where nearly two-thirds of their age group does not know 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. I hoped to address this profound lack of awareness and prevent the perpetuation of antisemitism through a direct engagement with history.
I didn’t learn that my father had interrogated Nazis until I began interviewing Holocaust survivors for a documentary, Classroom Holocaust Stories. I decided to make the film after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. I needed to understand the appeal of American neo-Naziism, and learn how to re-educate its followers away from hate.
Dad grew increasingly nervous about my documentary subject matter, but the last straw was in 1997, when I went undercover to a meeting of several dozen neo-Nazis organized by international Holocaust denier David Irving as part of my documentary research. I’d moved to Tulsa to make the film, and Dad took the next plane there to check on me. That’s when he revealed for the first time his wartime activities, bringing over 100 letters he had written.
Dad was a “Ritchie Boy,” a famous group of predominantly Jewish soldiers trained at a secret U.S. military intelligence camp, Fort Ritchie, in Maryland, in frontlines interrogation, counter-intelligence and battlefield intelligence. Most Ritchie boys were spies before becoming interrogators closer to the end of the war, and many of them were German-born Jews, selected for their fluency in multiple languages.
My dad had hidden the hundreds of letters he’d written to my mother in his closet. When we began reading them together, I better understood his fear and his previous silence. Who would want to discuss liberating the Nordhausen extermination camp in central Germany with their kids? In one later from 1945, he wrote: “Nordhausen was a wreck and also the scene of concentration camp leftovers — we saw 2,000 bodies in one place — the sight and smell are still with me.” Dad needed me, and the high school students in front of me, to understand that we were now seeing echoes of a time when Germany, once known as a cultural and scientific hub, fell “prey to the evil of Naziism.”
The class became still as I projected on the classroom wall a photo of my father proudly wearing his military uniform, just four or five years older than the students themselves. Phones dropped into pockets for good when I projected a photo of one of his handwritten letters and read his description of required classes for Ritchie Boys: “Order of Battle, interrogation, and interpretation techniques, photo interpretations and plenty of field work: pigeons, radio and telegraph. There were lectures on military information and a tough two-day field exercise problem which I managed to survive.”
I recruited a student to read aloud one of Dad’s letters that I’d wrapped in protective plastic. In May 1945, he wrote: “A large part of the population never belonged to the Nazi Party, but 99.9% blame Hitler only for losing the war and seem to suffer no pangs of conscience over the origins of the war or the ideology of the Party … They have no questions over the misery they brought to millions of French and English, Poles and Russians.” The student paused, clearing his throat. “The Germans didn’t consider them as humans.” He looked up at me questioningly.
“Yes, this is all true,’ I nodded. “And we need to hear this.” When I asked for another volunteer to read a letter, the students looked scared.
Finally, one student raised his hand tentatively and read the next letter. “The stories of German cruelty and oppression are not just stories — they are the real thing. And much of this was done by what we call ordinary people — not just the party members, but a vast number of common citizens who fell easy prey to the baloney of national socialism. People who were jealous, griped, depraved, and plain scared.” He handed the letter back to me, his hands shaking.
Seeing a classroom of anxious faces, I read aloud from one of the index cards I’d asked them to fill out at the beginning of the class — the one that said: “I chose to take this class because of all the conflicting information I’ve gotten about the Holocaust. I just want to know what really happened. Besides, the Holocaust isn’t talked about much in any of the history classes I’ve taken so far.”
The student whose card I’d read smiled, and volunteered to read another letter. “I have talked to enough Germans to fill a good-sized section of Milwaukee — and all types — army generals and storm troopers, miners and artists, professors, businessmen and farmers. Confront them with the truth and they cannot believe it.” She paused, then whispered the rest: “We can remove the Nazis, but re-education is vital, and we had better be successful.”
I ended by asking the students to write down on fresh cards what had stuck most in their minds from the class. I read their responses when I got home and was deeply impressed by our session’s impact. One card said: “One of the things that had the largest impact on me was the amount of people that were murdered during the Holocaust, but also the many people who refused to do anything. There were homes right next to the camps and I know they could smell the burning flesh, but they went on with their lives like nothing was going on. Then, when it came to do something about it, they claimed ignorance of what was going on.”
Speaking to these high school students underscored for me how dire the state of Holocaust awareness is among young Americans. We need a broader, more effective reach for Holocaust education given the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge & Awareness Survey, conducted for the Claims Conference in 2020. The study polled 11,000 millennials and Gen-Z Americans (ages 18-39). Tennessee ranked 32nd in states with Holocaust education but was not alone in the lack of knowledge. About 63% of those polled didn’t know that 6 million Jews were killed, with 11% claiming that Jews had caused the Holocaust and 45% reporting that they had seen Holocaust denial or distortion online.
Thirty-one states have rejected requirements for Holocaust education in their curriculums. We need a federal mandate funding Holocaust education. If we don’t, the next generation will be shaped by online misinformation, fueling Holocaust denial and distortion. The wartime letters from my father were pivotal in shaping the understanding of one Tennessee classroom.
As my Ritchie Boy father said, “we had better succeed” at educating our youth about the horrors of the past. Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat it.
Deborah Levine is an award-winning author, founder & editor of the American Diversity Report, and was named a Forbes Magazine Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer. She is also a Holocaust educator, religious diversity speaker and creator of the documentary Untold: Stories of a World War II Liberator.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward. Discover more perspective in Opinion.
Joseph James is an award-winning mainstream singer-song writer/ producer from New York, and the founder of AP Music Group. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. Joseph has performed, produced and toured with major acts all over the world. Some notable acts include Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta) and Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple).
“Valentine” is Joseph’s debut single released worldwide in January, 2023, followed by 10 more powerhouse tracks on his debut album, ’55.’ With Joseph’s record label, studio and performance experience, Joseph is setting out to be the next big act in the mainstream commercial music business in 2023.
Hear Joseph talk about his experiences of working with SuperStars:
Fun / wild experiences of being on the road with Richie Blackmore
How he met Lady Gaga
Working with Dolly Parton
His decision on finally releasing his first solo album
When asked about the women who inspire them, our ADR Advisors share a range of iconic women and personal inspirations. Some of the Advisors have chosen personal mentors, others have opted for historic figures and some chose both. My own choice is Margaret Mead, (see quote above) a pioneer in cultural anthropology also known for her research on sexual conventions in Western society.
Reading about the various influencers, I have no doubt that you’ll begin to generate a list of women who shaped your own lives. Feel free to share in the Comments!
In honor of Women’s History Month, hear about the women who inspire us and influence history. Let’s begin with a quote from Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, founder of Women’s Federation for World Peace and friend of the ADR:
“Women have the magical power to create harmony and to soften hearts. Brides build bridges. The world of the future can be a world of reconciliation and peace, but only if it is based on the maternal love and affection of women. This is a true power of womanhood. The time has come for the power of true womanhood to save the world.”
Patrick Donaldson is a church Elder, husband and father. He has worked in the financial services industry for over 20 years, focusing on retirement benefits and financial literacy. In addition to his Bachelor of Science degree, he has a Masters of Human Resources, holds a Tennessee insurance license and is a FINRA Securities Registered Representative with Primerica Financial Services. He has volunteered his expertise to the Chattanooga community with hands-on education workshops at numerous local churches and recreation centers, as well as actively working with the Citizen Safety Coalition.
Kimberly Rollins is the wife of Pastor Donald Rollins Sr. of Chattanooga’s Born Again Christian Church. She worked for 23 years for the City of Chattanooga, acquiring the leadership skills that she taught co-workers and the women of her church. Then 7 years ago, she expanded her calling to help others by working in finance, helping as many people possible to accomplish their goals and dreams with the knowledge that she’s acquired over the years.
. What Financial Concepts do you teach?
2. What is your passion & motivations?
3. What do you do for fun?
We don’t always have the time we think we have (I have a personal story) 2 Get your affairs together while you have time
Name 3 issues that the audience should continue to discuss. 1. Transparency about where they are emotionally, spiritually, and financially. 2. What small consistent changes are they willing to make to be better? 3. Take the time and care to prepare for the inevitable.
Bea Franklin is a 98 year ‘young’ inspirational woman who is the daughter of The Pep Boys ‘Jack’ and wife of a World War II photographer. Bea is a breast cancer survivor & is still quite busy going on cruises, attending Broadway shows & UpScale NYC restaurants.
Hear Bea discuss her historic journey with memories of family, famous icons, WW II, and keys to a fulfilling life:
Her World War II photographer husband.
World War II iconic photos: President FDR with Generals Eisenhower & Patton.
Liberation of the Dachau death camp.
Photos of Humphrey Bogart, Mickey Rooney & others.
House-guests including champion boxer/TV celebrity Rocky Graziano, hockey stars & even a former US President.
Attending a NYC Rooftop concert that featured Frank Sinatra.
Pianist Jacqueline Schwab spins musical stories out of the myriad strands in the American quilt and with community music making at their heart. Her signature playing features in over a dozen of Ken Burns’ documentaries, including his Grammy-winning Civil War, as well as in The Irish in America and other PBS documentaries. She has performed at the White House for President Clinton, on PBS with the American Pops Orchestra and in almost every state of the Union. Her latest album I Lift My Lamp—Illuminations from Immigrant America celebrates music from American immigrants. Jacqueline Schwab grew up in Pittsburgh and has since lived in Boston and on Cape Cod.
Hear Jacqueline talk about musicians who perform music from other cultures and her new album, “I Lift My Lamp.”
Learn how musicians explore with respect music of other cultures, weigh in on the diversity problems confronting the world and promote cross-cultural healing.
Christopher Johnson is President of Global Financial Services at Pitney Bowes, where he manages the financing and lending businesses, as well as the consumer and merchant payments and risk management functions across the company. Christopher also holds leadership responsibility for Pitney Bowes Bank, a state chartered industrial loan company.
Hear Christopher discuss how this is the time to make changes to ensure inclusion in the future. The pandemic, super high inflation, and high interest rates are changing the dynamics of our economy. Economic prosperity will need leaders committed long term to their communities, customers and employees, including actionable DEI.
Difficulties accessing capital continues to mount for SMBs, but especially with Black and minority owned businesses. How can we make access to capital more equitable? Is this possible to achieve?
How do we use diversity to adjust to the changes in generations currently in the workplace and the growth of small businesses?
How can we begin increasing participation for minorities in industries like financial services? What’s one thing business leaders can implement today?
Honoring Black History Month often comes with events that tell African American history through arts and culture, which resonate across cultural boundaries. For example: the National Center for Civil and Human Rights will display jazz music that “inspires movements, evokes revolution, and lightens troubled spirits.”
Corporate celebrations may elevate Black artists, creators, entrepreneurs through storytelling, content and products. But as memorable as these celebrations are, they may be considered once-a-year, check-the-box events.