New book explores standing up for what you know is right

Liza Wiemer’s novel explores effects on students, community

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Students are often asked to debate the merits of a position contrary to their personal beliefs, but two New York High School seniors drew the line when their assignment was to defend the Nazi plan for Jewish genocide. The moral battle led by these 17-year-olds--neither of whom was Jewish--led to an exponential increase in antisemitic behavior. It divided students, their parents, and the larger community, while gaining state and national attention.  

Author and 20-year educator Liza Wiemer happened to be speaking in the same community at the same time. "From my perspective, it was divine providence. I thought, 'I have to do something about this,'" she said.  

Her resulting young adult novel,  The Assignment  (Delacorte Press), was released in August. The story is a fictional account of the situation in New York, and she wrote it with the blessing of the students involved. 

"The issue is not that the teacher asked students to learn what the Nazis did or what the 'Final Solution' was; it was that asking students to pretend they were Nazis and debate whether it was best to exterminate Europe's 11 million Jews--or sterilize them, put them in ghettos and work camps--gave it legitimacy," she said.   

"There is nothing wrong with the concept of debate, but this is not a debatable topic. There is never any justification for genocide," Wiemer said. 

During her research for the novel, she learned these types of assignments are commonplace--such as building a model crematorium, pretending you are a child in a death camp writing home to your parents, or defending your actions as a slave owner. 

While the novel is aimed at young adults, it's also a cautionary tale for teachers who have students examine a moral dilemma. "They should ask, 'am I crossing a line?'" she said. 

Wiemer said she gives her fellow educators the benefit of the doubt, noting that a majority are simply misguided. "They don't recognize that these assignments are reprehensible," she said, adding that the problem is when a teacher refuses to recognize their error in judgment--and that the ensuing cognitive dissonance can be traumatic for young people.  

As a Jew, Wiemer felt a huge sense of responsibility writing the book, as she does when she speaks to students, particularly in small towns where "I am the only Jew they've ever met."  

She said growing up in a community without many Jews, "I was always an 'other' because my name was Goldberg…I love being Jewish and I grew up feeling a sense of pride--while also knowing that people hated us." 

"[ The Assignment ] is a window into the world that Jews live in," she said.

While the story is focused on the Holocaust, its broader theme is the importance of fighting systemic racism and defending other marginalized groups. "That's a tenet of who we are as Jews," Wiemer said. "I needed to speak up and say these things are wrong." 

Liza Wiemer is available for school visits and workshops and for speaking at libraries and community groups. For information, visit lizawiemer.com or email her at LizaWiemerAuthor@gmail.com.  

 



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