An Intergenerational Conversation about War, Peace, and Family Values

Posted: April 10, 2013

On March 12, 2013, at the State College Area High School in Central Pennsylvania, all of the ingredients were in place for a memorable intergenerational dialogue about war, conflict, reconciliation and peace. The impetus for the meeting was Hitler’s Daughter. This is the title of a novel written by Jackie French and a play adapted from the novel and performed by the Monkey Baa Theatre Company (from Australia) at Penn State University's Eisenhower Auditorium.
State College Area High School students and older adult volunteers discuss the "Hitler's Daughter" story and issues of war and peace.

State College Area High School students and older adult volunteers discuss the "Hitler's Daughter" story and issues of war and peace.

The key actors for our own intergenerational dialogue: 24 students in a 10th grade English Honors class and 18 older adult volunteers recruited from Foxdale Village, Centre Region Senior Center, and through word of mouth. All participants read the book before meeting and arrived ready to discuss the fictional Hitler’s Daughter story. For the 90 minutes spent in intergenerational pairs and small groups, the participants engaged each other in spirited discussion about WWII, the Holocaust, moral and ethical issues related to war and peace, and family relationship issues particularly in times of turmoil.

Several of the older adults played the role of “time witness.” For example, Nel Kopp, who was a child living in the Netherlands during WWII, provided vivid testimony about what it was like to have classmates who suddenly and mysteriously stopped attending school. She noted that nobody, including her parents, told her anything about what was going on, though she did catch the occasional whisper which alluded to the resistance effort.

Equally informative were the narratives provided by some of the seniors who noted that it wasn’t until many years later that they had a clue as to the extent of war atrocities. They explained that they were at a distance – emotionally, intellectually, and geographically from the war. One senior recounted that even as a Jew growing up in Southern California, how little she knew. It wasn’t until Pearl Harbor that they felt involved in the war and it wasn’t until she was an adult that she was even aware that there had been a Jewish holocaust. Another senior noted how growing up then was different than it is today. “Children were seen and not heard. In the 1930s you could be shielded. My parents didn’t even want us listening to radio.”

Noah Kaplan, a student in Mr. King’s English class commented, “The class gave me an experience that no account of history can give. I was given a human connection to WWII and a sense of the real emotions for the events that took place… I learned that war really should not be glorified in any way, as some of the seniors explained how they realized this after WWII.”

The learning went both ways. Eighty+ year old Shirley Sacks stated, “Since I am not in contact with young people now I was impressed with their knowledge of those events and years.  I am glad to hear that the WW II history is being taught so thoroughly.”

Bernie Bronstein commented, “(I felt) a sort of reassurance that these youngsters are sensitive beyond what I anticipated from people their age… and that they can project their personal notions with such articulation.”

The discussants didn’t shy away from tough issues. For example, there was spirited discussion about what to do when learning that something bad is happening yet we know that taking action, and “stepping out of line,” can make one very unpopular. What is our social responsibility as individuals, as family members, as community residents, and as citizens of the world? It was agreed that to take action in the face of injustice, a person needs to have a strong sense of humanity, the intelligence to “see past the propaganda” and plenty of courage.

Collaborating organizations and workshop planning team:

  • Penn State Intergenerational Program (Matt Kaplan, Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging)
  • Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State (Medora Ebersole, Education Programs Manager, and Amy Dupain Vashaw, Audience & Program Development Director),
  • State College Area High School (Jeff King, English 10 Teacher)
  • Center for Healthy Aging, College of Health and Human Development (Amy Lorek, Research and Outreach Associate)
  • Centre County Office of Aging (Jane Taylor, Director)
  • Foxdale Village (Dave Beppler, Coordinator of the Foxdale intergenerational program group)

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