In a literature class, students read about the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. There are study materials including literary texts by Elisabeth Langgässer and Paul Celan, as well as historical texts such as "Protocol of the Wannsee Conference" and selections from the Bible. The students learn about the possibilities of coded language, both yesterday and today.
The topic of National Socialism offers the opportunity to teach students ethical and political standards appropriate for the present and future. These issues should be taught in different subjects throughout the curriculum, not only in history, but also in German language classes. With this in mind, I have chosen the following texts for use in a ninth grade German language and literature class. The lesson covers two to three hours of classroom time.
Brief Description of the Texts
The three texts that follow provide students with insights into the escalation of anti-Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany. Students use the texts to explain the intent and to decode the language of the various authors.
1. The short story "Saisonbeginn" ["Start of the Season"] by Elisabeth Langgässer.(1899-1950) [see Documents]. Being partly Jewish, Langgässer was prohibited from working as a writer in Nazi Germany. "Saisonbeginn" can be considered an excellent example of its genre. Her writing moves purposefully toward a surprise ending. In this work, Langgässer describes the initial stages of discrimination against Jews in daily life in a town that is also a spa. These first discriminatory measures foreshadow later developments.
2. An excerpt from the Protocol of the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 [see Documents]. At this conference, the logistics of the "final solution," the deportation and murder of European Jews, was coordinated under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the "Reichsicherheitshauptamt".
3. "Todesfuge" ["Death Fugue"] by Paul Celan (Paul Antschel, 1920-1970) [see Documents]. "Todesfuge" was published in 1952 in the anthology entitled "Mohn und Gedächtnis." Like Elisabeth Langgässer, Celan was also a Jewish victim of the Nazis. In "Todesfuge," the compelling metaphor "schwarze Milch der Frühe" ["black milk of daybreak"] has been interpreted as a reference to Cyclon-B, which was used in the gas chambers. This metaphor for the knowledge and fear of death experienced by individual victims is represented in a surrealistic style. This text by Celan prompted Theodor Adorno to ask whether it was possible to write poetry after Auschwitz.
Students should recognize through the texts selected that persecution of the Jews intensified throughout the Third Reich. The students after reading the texts will attempt to explain the different authors' intents. This textual explication will, moreover, unlock coded language and clarify its function.
During the first lesson period, I introduced Langgässer's "Saisonbeginn" to the class b reading the short story to them and then discussing it. The surprise ending generally motivates students to express their own ideas. Once they know how the story ends, they are able to reinterpret apparently unimportant descriptions as intimations of the conclusion. The lines "Haarnadelkurve zu dem Totenkopf" ["hairpin curve toward the skull"] and "an welcher Stelle die Inschrift des Schildes am besten zu Geltung käme" ["at which place the signpost would stand out"] are examples of phrases that often convey additional meaning upon re-reading. Another important aspect of the classroo discussion is devoted to the nuanced description of the bystanders' (the local residents') reactions.
Following the textual analysis of the work, students record characteristics of the short.story, such as the surprising, unexpected ending representing the highlight of the story; limited text; immediate introduction of events by the author; and relatively short time span of the narrative (the events apparently occur in less than one hour).
Then the students are given a biblical text for homework [see Documents]. It is their assignment to find similarities between this text and the short story "Saisonbeginn." The
results of their analyses are presented by the students at the beginning of the next class period.
During the second class period, students read excerpts from Celan's "Todesfuge" and the Wannsee Protocol (minutes of the Wannsee Conference). To provide a starting point for discussion, I point out that neither text directly reveals its meaning. The subject is disguised and requires the reader's knowledge and interpretation. The students in this class correctly assume that both texts refer to the murder of Jews and provide examples of the specific linguistic usage: "Endlösung" ["final solution"] and "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland" ["Death is a master from Germany"].
I direct the discussion by telling students that one text came from a victim, and that the other text was drafted by the perpetrators in 1942. It is important to note when analyzing the minutes of the Wannsee Conference that the possibility of emigration was open to very few people. References to the "East" are illustrated with wall maps.
The ensuing class discussion focuses on why the authors use circumlocutory and coded language to represent the mass murder of the Holocaust [see Documents]. Students should be made aware that the brutal occurrences were too horrible for the victims to reproduce literally in verse. The perpetrators, however, chose a euphemistic language that lent the appearance of rationality to their deeds while disguising the realities.
Moreover, it was determined that those in power (i.e. the Nazis) invented semantic concepts to obscure the horrible reality. This can also be explained by having the class analyze other terminology [see Documents]. This, at the same time, also proves that the linguistic phenomenon of elusive "code words" was not limited to National Socialism.