Gross helps young vandals understand the hurt a swastika causes
For many years, Holocaust survivor Fred Gross has been sharing his family’s story with various groups around the Louisville area, and even in other states. It is always an emotional experience, and he hopes people learn tolerance and understanding from his story. Recently he was asked to tell his story to a very different, very small group for a very specific reason.
It started when Gross received a call from Jewish Community Relations Council Director Matt Goldberg. Goldberg had been contacted by Restorative Justice Louisville, an organization that works with youth who have had run ins with the law to find ways to work with the young offenders to find alternative punishments that help them understand the harm they caused and to set new, positive paths.
Restorative Justice was looking for a Holocaust survivor who would be willing to talk to three middle school students who had defaced their school building with profanity and a swastika and help the youngsters understand the hurt the swastika causes others. It was made clear that the students had to pay restitution to repair the damage they caused.
Gross agreed to talk with them and each came to the meeting accompanied by a responsible adult. A representative of Restorative Justice facilitated the discussion.
Before sharing his story, Gross wanted to know why the students had done what they did and if they understood what the swastika was. One student, acting as spokesperson for the group, said they did what they did because they were discouraged with school and the teacher didn’t understand their needs.
At the time, they didn’t really know what the swastika was. It was just something they had seen on television. Since then, they had learned the history of the symbol and what it stood for.
Then it was Gross’ turn. For two hours, he spoke with them, sharing the story of his family’s flight and terror his mother felt whenever she saw the swastika. At the end of their meeting, Gross gave each student an autographed copy of his book, One Step Ahead of Hitler, with the understanding that each would read it and, upon completion, write a reflection. All three complied.
“The intervention was helpful,” Gross observed. “When you read their comments, they were apologetic. They learned the meaning of compassion and empathy.”
“It was an experience for me as well,” he added. “I felt that I was undertaking a challenge, which was to educate them and not simply to make them understand what I went through and what they did, but to feel it in their guts.”