Roxboro eighth-graders celebrate hope over hate

Roxboro eighth-graders performed at Severance Hall.

Hate is a powerful force, capable of transforming people’s lives and defining the fate of entire nations. But, as Roxboro Middle School’s eighth-graders recently learned, hope is even stronger.

Through an interdisciplinary unit created by Zakiyyah Bergen, humanities teacher, and Nicole Clouser, instrumental music teacher, students at the school spent six weeks exploring the role of music in Jewish tradition before, during and after the Holocaust.

From readings in their language arts and social studies classes to musical compositions in their orchestra class, students were exposed to a sometimes overlooked piece of history: the role music played in fostering community, resilience, resistance, and especially hope throughout World War II.

During the Holocaust, Jewish musicians were frequently forced by to play in concentration camp orchestras for their Nazi oppressors, sparing them from hard labor and even death. While these musicians often felt guilt and resentment over being compelled to bring a thing of beauty to those who enslaved them, they were buoyed by the fact that their music gave hope to their fellow prisoners.  

Bergen and Clouser focused on several issues: how music sustains people in the face of atrocity; how hope passes from person to person; how music been used to resist oppression.

Bergen said that the course was more about hope than hate: “How hope—and music—can help people survive horrific hardship.” She used the unit as an introduction to Stop the Hate, the annual essay contest sponsored by the Maltz Museum of Jewish History. The contest, in which Bergen’s previous classes have participated, asks students to describe a situation in which they chose silence instead of action—being bystanders instead of “upstanders.” One’s willingness to stand up for others, especially when it poses personal risk, fits the Holocaust unit. Students knew Pastor Martin Niemöller’s now famous statement “First they came for the socialists . . .” and they read Elie Wiesel’s speech “The Perils of Indifference” in class.

Ending hate and sticking up for what’s right are themes Bergen has always used in her class, and her students were getting the message. When asked what this experience meant to them, Ragana Bartlett explained how his generation has the power to create a world that is better for all. “Mrs. Bergen always tells us,” he began, and six classmates chimed in, “be the change you want to see in the world!”

Clouser introduced her students to traditional Jewish music, highlighted by a visit to Severance Hall for the Violins of Hope concert. During the concert, professional musicians played the instruments rescued from the Holocaust and repaired and restored by Amnon Weinstein, an Israeli violinmaker.

Some of Roxboro’s eighth-grade musicians played their own repertoire of Jewish music prior to the concert. The young musicians felt enormous pride at this special honor. “We felt like we were doing more than just being spectators,” said Bartlett. “Like we were actually taking steps to eradicate hate by playing there.”

The knowledge students brought with them to the concert made the experience all the more meaningful. “We could connect to what they were playing and what the actors were reciting because we had played that exact music or read those exact words in class,” said student Erykha Hawkins.

The students expressed amazement—and dismay—that the current political situation in the United States allows leaders to promote hate and segregation over unity and fairness. “History will repeat itself until we learn our lesson and put our foot down to stop it,” said Hawkins.

Audrey Huang expressed frustration that even today we seem to be generalizing stories that shouldn’t be generalized. “Look at what’s happening with Muslims in this country,” she said, to much vigorous nodding from her classmates.

“We have to remember to separate the actions of a few extremists from the entire group,” she added. “Even during the Holocaust, not all Germans were bad. There were German resistance fighters, too.” Students studied a few of these, such as Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factories.

This unit will not quickly fade from these students’ minds. “It makes you think about how music creates hope, and hope connects people, giving them a sense of belonging and shared history,” said Madalyn Shelt.

Nataya Truitt agreed and talked about the power of small acts of kindness. “In one story we read, a little girl in a concentration camp was given a piece of chocolate. That tiny gift, something we wouldn't think twice about today, gave her the will to keep going. She survived the war and grew up to become a psychiatrist and then went on to help so many other people. There was a ripple effect from that one piece of chocolate.”

Rajani Tabor added, “If we can keep taking little steps to cancel out the hate, then we can reach our ultimate goal—world peace.”

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher, a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former teacher at Coventry, is a member of the Fairfax PTA. She blogs at

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Volume 9, Issue 2, Posted 10:51 AM, 02.01.2016