My daughter came home from Middle School where they were studying the Holocaust and asked me about my father's political past in WWII Germany. How do you answer such a question? Easy! I told her my father did not belong to any party because all of my life I had heard my parents rail against the Hitler regime. They sent my father to the Russian front and my mother to the basement for shelter from the Allied bombers attacking Berlin. But thirty years later, a fifth-grader in my French class, who was also learning about the Holocaust, asked me, "Why are the German people so awful?" Now the answer was not so easy, because the student unwittingly used a stereotype painting all present-day German people as Nazi criminals.
If an entire people can be regarded as "awful" in the eyes of a child, what is the cause? No doubt bigotry is learned at an early age. Exposure to negative stereotyping determines the way children look at others. On their own they communicate and play together, regardless of their color or creed. Once they learn prejudice from misguided adults, they discover they can inflict pain by hurling racial epithets at each other. If they are lucky, they are cured of this "disease" through self-examination or by enlightened teachers who appear along their life's path.
I discovered food played an important role in the stories of family members and friends about prejudice. This led me to believe having a meal with people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds has a positive, lasting effect on our perception of the world. Food seems to cause a chemical reaction, arousing our curiosity about the ingredients in the dishes and leading to questions about our fellow-diners. By the end of the meal we may find we have more in common with one another than when we shared our first bite.
Fortunately, my parents taught me as a child to regard people of all ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds as equal. They provided me with solid, multi-colored building blocks on which to base my social beliefs. The Polish refugees who lived in our town right after WWII, were "Poles", not Polacken. Later on, the Italian guest workers in Germany were not Spaghettifresser" (pasta eaters), rather they were people from the land of Puccini, Caruso and da Vinci.
As a foreign language teacher, I believe it is important to show the students how much the culture of the foreign language under study resembles their own. Immigrant students have so much courage trying to fit in with their new peers. It seems to be a sink-or-swim attitude that helps them adapt so quickly. Above all, the love and support of parents and teachers is essential to helping children deal with the prejudice they are bound to encounter in their new surroundings. Many children do not hesitate, especially as part of a group, to harass immigrants. A teacher must show patience and understanding and immediately report any bigoted behavior to the school administration. Hopefully, the school's leadership forbids all prejudiced behavior among the student body and the faculty. Awareness is the key, and school events that focus on the issues of prejudice can offer lessons that are helpful in bringing students and faculty together. An "International Day" with diverse ethnic foods may help open the minds and palates of student body and staff, bridging cultural gaps -- one meal at a time.
Author of "Mommy, Was Grandpa a Nazi? : Recipes for Tolerance and Understanding"
Elisabeth Falcone was born in Germany and immigrated to the U.S. as a teen. She has traveled all over the world and speaks four languages fluently. Falcone, a retired teacher, now resides in Sunrise, Florida. Falcone's book, Mommy, Was Grandpa a Nazi?: Recipes for Tolerance and Understanding, explores the way food connects us all. It helps us to find similarities among diverse cultural backgrounds of people sharing our food. For more information, visit http://www.mommywasgrandpaanazi.com/
"Mommy, Was Grandpa a Nazi? : Recipes for Tolerance and Understanding"
By Elisabeth Falcone
Author House Corp