Sartorial Armor

April 19, 2004

We covered most of World War II and the Holocaust today. Surprisingly, I did not break down in class. Not so surprisingly, the closest I got to losing it was not in the discussion of the Holocaust, which I had braced for, but in my discussion of the Great Patriotic War, the USSR's effort to drive out and then destroy Nazi Germany.

In part I was able to handle the Holocaust because I had prepared for it. I had gotten upset on Saturday, while writing the class, and then given myself time to relax. I had also, in a gesture that I understood and that the kids probably did not catch, wore a dark grey suit and a black tie today. I normally teach in blazer and chinos, but I dig out the go-to-meeting outfit on November 11 and on other days when I need a bit of sartorial armor. Today I told myself it was my mourning suit, and as usually happens when we wear clothes that affect our self-perceptions, the garments provided a needed emotional crutch.

Let me give some context for the Great Patriotic War. Back in the early 1980s, while in high school, I went on a trip to the Soviet Union. Several dozen of us went, met some Russians, looked at the sights, and were American teenage tourists. It was a good trip.

At one point we went to a Moscow movie theater and watched a film. I have no idea what it was about; something involving a man, a woman, love, and a thriller plot. At one point in the movie the narrative plot stopped for a flashback: the soundtrack volume jumped noticeably, the actors were replaced by 1940s newsreel footage, and we were treated to dive bombers, explosions, and devastation. I missed it, but some of the other folks on the trip looked around and noticed that most of the older Russians in the theater cried during this sequence which, to us, seemed jarring and out of place, breaking the flow of the movie.

I did not tell this story to the students; I just mentioned that if you mention the Great Patriotic War to a Russian (former Soviet really - not just Russia) of the war generation, then they will cry. The war was devastating and deeply emotional. Between over twenty million Soviet citizens died in the war, perhaps as many as twenty five million. That is an inconceivable number. It was while recounting the Great Patriotic War and explaining how it was that the Soviet people were willing, even glad to incur these costs if it let them repay the atrocities that the Germans had inflicted upon them, that I struggled for self control.

One of the hardest things to do is to recount strong emotion, or stories of strong emotion, to another without channeling that emotion yourself.

Wednesday we will finish the war and start the Cold War - the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War are linked so I teach the two together. I have broken up the sadness of the Second World War in a manner that, while it is decent pedagogy, lightens the emotional load on the instructor.

Posted by Red Ted at April 19, 2004 09:36 AM | TrackBack