Sometimes we confront our past, and sometimes it confront us. That’s how it works for author Eric Mondschein of Queensbury in Upstate New York. It’s his own past, and that of his family. And it led to a second career, teaching people to cope with bullies.
When I was promoted from the sixth to seventh grade, I saw it as a great adventure. After spending the summer of 1962 in upstate New York where I lived hiking, fishing, and playing ball with my friends, I was really excited to start seventh grade at the junior senior high school. I would meet students who had attended the several elementary schools throughout my district. It was also the grade in which students from the parochial system joined us.
Up to then, I had never personally experienced religious bigotry. Sure, there were kids who picked on others, called them names, made fun, but I never saw it or let alone had it directed at me because of faith. My dad was Jewish and my mom was a Bahá’í. I was raised to respect all religious beliefs and traditions. Every summer we spent a week or two at a Bahá’í retreat, and in order to know more about my dad’s Judaism, I was sent to Hebrew class after school several days a week.
The adventure I could not wait to undertake all summer arrived and it was far from what I had expected. Classmates from my elementary school were there, but so too were the other kids. And it was a few from the parochial schools who made my life a living nightmare. Before even getting to know me, simply based on my last name, they called me a “dirty Jew,” a “Kike,” and a “Christ Killer.”
I found myself in the nurse’s office almost once a week with a bloody nose or black eye or sometimes both. I guess it was in the halls and restrooms of seventh grade that I developed my disdain for bullies and empathy for those bullied. It was also, I am ashamed to say, one of the major reasons why, at the time, I was embarrassed that my dad was a Jew.
So my seventh and eighth grade years were filled with being bullied and beaten almost on a weekly basis, until my eighth grade art teacher, Mr. Schuck, who had also been an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, took me under his wing. Here I found a mentor, a man who was an artist yet also a warrior. He would keep me after school to teach me how to defend myself, to have self-confidence, and yet to be considerate and helpful to others.
This was also the time when I began learning about the Holocaust, and that some of my dad’s relatives had been sent to concentration camps and ultimately murdered. It was about this same time when Dad lost his older brother, my Uncle Jerry, to a heart attack suffered while pushing a car in a snowstorm. Only after his death did Dad tell me he not only participated in World War II, but that he fought under General George H. Patton in the Third Army and commanded a tank that was one of the first to cross the Rhine River and enter Nazi Germany.
By the tenth grade I was no longer willing to tolerate the bullying and was now fighting back. Mr. Schuck had taught me that a real man could be sensitive and artistic, seeing the beauty in life, while still being tough. Word traveled fast in school, and by the end of the school year I was no longer bullied.
It’s again summer in upstate New York, and while taking a break from preparing materials for a presentation on confronting bullying, I once again thought about what my extended family had experienced in the Holocaust. This led me to further explore the Mondschein name.
I discovered that a Jerzy Mondschein had also responded to the ultimate anti-Semitism and bullying. I learned that he had been murdered by the Nazis during World War II, not as a victim of the Holocaust, but as a soldier who was part of the British RAF’s Polish #304 Bomber Squadron. He was taken prisoner when his Vickers Wellington Bomber was forced to land in a field in Belgium and sent to Stalag Luft III. This is the same stalag made famous in the 1963 movie, “The Great Escape.”
But it was not just a movie, it was real. In preparation for the escape, Jerzy was one of a few tailors who secretly converted uniforms into civilian clothes and made warm coats from the POW blankets. His ability to speak and read German also came in handy after they had escaped the camp. His small party made it to the local train station where he was able to purchase their tickets. Riding the train to the end of the line, they split up into groups of four and Jerzy’s band headed for Czechoslovakia. They had to walk twenty kilometers through waist deep snow to reach the border, but sadly they were captured by a German patrol. The Great Escape so enraged Adolf Hitler that in defiance of the Geneva Convention he ordered those who had been recaptured, including Jerzy Mondschein, to be executed.
The Great Escape was another example of one of my extended family members fighting back. It was not just going silently into the night as so many did during the Holocaust, for whatever reasons I don’t fully understand.
My personal experiences of being bullied, simply because of my last name that apparently identified me as a ‘Jew,’ had a great impact on my personal and professional life, so that I have worked to stop discrimination and bullying of any kind. That many of my relatives were slaughtered in the Holocaust and still others fought back has brought me to a better understanding of the meaning and import of ‘Never Again.’
You buy Eric’s book here: Sexual Harassment and Bullying: Similar, but Not the Same (N O L P E Monograph Series).