It’s a rare thing for me to be rendered speechless. Wordless. Motionless. And yet:
An elementary school staff member in Washington, D.C., instructed third grade students to re-enact scenes from the Holocaust and, when asked by the children why the Germans committed the atrocities, the staff member said it was “because the Jews ruined Christmas,” according to news reports.
The third graders at Watkins Elementary School in southeast D.C. were told to re-enact the digging of mass graves and the shooting of victims as part of a library class, the Washington Post reported Sunday.
I saw the report over the weekend, absorbed of it what my brain and soul could handle, then put it away to keep the generational trauma at bay so that I could continue to function. And yet:
A different parent of a student who was a part of the reenactment said her son had to pretend to be on a train to a concentration camp, then act as if he were dying in a gas chamber. He also had to act as if he were shooting his peers, the parent said. The parent spoke on the condition of anonymity and declined to name the child.
The instructor allegedly made antisemitic comments during the reenactment. The parent said that when the children asked why the Germans did this, the staff member said it was “because the Jews ruined Christmas.”
The instructor asked students after the reenactment not to tell anyone about it, but they told their homeroom teacher, the parent said.
The story popped up in my work emails. Facebook posts. People tagged me with the articles to make sure I’d seen it. “I know, I know, I know,” my heart cried in silence. Out loud, I just said, “Yeah, I saw.” I knew someone was gonna have to write about it here. And yet:
When a parent of a third-grader at Watkins Elementary picked up her son on Friday afternoon from the campus on Capitol Hill, the child was crying and extremely upset. “They explained they had a terrible day at school,” said the parent, who wished to remain anonymous to protect her child’s identity.
Her child told her that during a class at the library, the school’s librarian instructed third-graders to reenact atrocities from the Holocaust, she says. “My child had to pretend to suffocate in the gas chamber, had to pretend to ride the trains, had to mass-shoot people, had to put bodies into mass graves.” Her child also told her that another student, who is Jewish, was assigned to portray Adolf Hitler, and pretend to commit suicide, as the Nazi leader did, the parent said.
According to another third-grade parent at Watkins who spoke to DCist/WAMU, the lesson was conducted by Kimberlynn Jurkowski, who is listed as the library media specialist on the school’s website. The parent also wished to remain anonymous, because she was embarrassed to have her family associated with the incident.
How does someone find the right words for this story? How do I write this with any degree of adequacy? What is a fitting consequence for an adult who inflicts this kind of emotional trauma on children? Eight-year-olds? Babies?
Jurkowski was fired from a job as a school librarian in 2013 after being convicted of fraud in a $24,000 tutoring scam. In 2017 she was stripped of her New Jersey teaching license for a period of three years, due to the conviction. She was also charged with animal cruelty in 2019, after allegedly keeping five dogs outdoors in freezing temperatures, leading to one death.
We know animal cruelty is often a practice run for cruelty to humans. According to one of the parents, this librarian’s past, and her current penchant for alarming behavior was well-known among the school community, and brought to the attention of the principal. Now we have young children in deep crisis.
Something tells me that these poor babies and their families will need more than support from the school’s “mental health response team.” But what? How do they heal from this? How do they “unlearn” what they know? The cynic in me smells “lawsuit,” which might at least help pay for the highest quality on-going therapy, but does that guarantee Jurkowski will never be near another child?
I keep hearing the phrase “hurt people hurt people” in my head.
Now, I’m digging more into Jurkowski’s history, and I gasp when I clicked on an article about past run-ins with employers. Why do I gasp? She is Black.
I don’t gasp because I’m shocked, really. I’m well aware there’s antiSemitism in the Black community, but it’s so much rarer than from what I encounter and read about from white people, I reflexively assume she is white. And if you for one second her being Black doesn’t complicate the dynamic, here, you’re deeply undereducated on the subject.
Without going into a detailed, diagramed flow chart, please allow me to stipulate that the Black and Jewish communities are more alike than different in our historical and emotional timelines, and in a perfect world, would see ourselves as allies always. Yet, just as there’s antiSemitism in the Black community, there’s plenty of anti-Black racism among Jews, too. Clearly, we all have some work to do. Not all Blacks and Jews can form the dream team of Warnock and Ossoff.
I pull myself out of my justifiably Jew-centered despair to remember the outrageous number of stories just in the last few years I’ve heard about Black children being forced to re-enact the atrocities of slavery in the name of being “taught” American history.
In 2013, middle school students were forced to pretend they were slaves being sold at auction, told to show their teeth for inspection, to jump up and down, to not make eye contact with their “masters.”
In 2017, fifth-graders in New Jersey filmed a mock slave auction in which a white student pretended to sell a Black student.
In 2020, fifth-graders in Washington, D.C. participated in group projects which also led to Black students being “sold” at a mock slave auction, and told to drink from “segregated” water fountains.
In 2020, Tennessee students were subjected to an assignment called “Let’s Make A Slave,” wherein they were to listen to a wildly graphic and racist speech written in the 1700s about how to control one’s slaves, and also instructed to pretend to be slaves trying to escape to freedom.
Don’t even get me started on the materials students are given asking them to list the “pros and cons” of slavery, or assignments to read which are filled with obscene gaslighting on how pleasant slave-life could be.
Does Jurkowski’s being Black begin to excuse her horrendous emotional abuse of innocent third-graders? Not. In. The. Slightest. It doesn’t mean she shouldn’t see the same consequences a white woman would see. She should. Please don’t misunderstand me.
It also means, though, that she shouldn’t see any EXTRA or additional consequences for being in Black skin while having perpetrated this abuse, and I’m talking to my fellow white people, here — Jews, in particular. It means we need to bring equal, if not greater outrage to the abuses perpetrated by white people on Black children, and I’m talking to my fellow white people, here — Jews, in particular.
Mostly what it does, though, is cut through the heart-pounding rage that’s trying to drown out what’s left of my depleted empathy stores, like noise-canceling headphones closing over my ears. And it just leaves me feeling deeply, deeply sad.