Local teacher’s humanity, creativity sparked by sixth-graders’ Nazi salute


Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

It was just an average March morning at Dorris Intermediate School in Collinsville. Elizabeth “Betty” Baumgartner’s sixth-graders were filing back into her room after music class when she saw a boy make a gesture that she had never seen a student make in her 20 years of teaching. 

“I saw the boy make a Heil Hitler gesture right in front of the class and I thought, ‘That can’t be what I saw. That can’t be right,’ ” she said.

Sadly, she was right. The boy, whom Baumgartner identified as a classroom leader, was raising his arm in a Nazi salute. Two other boys responded in kind.

“I kept my composure,” she said. “I wasn’t acting angry. I said, ‘What was that? What are you guys doing?’ The boy leading the salute turned around and said, ‘Well it’s a Heil Hitler sign.’ ” 

Caught by surprise, Baumgartner asked the boys what they knew about the salute and the Nazis. They admitted they knew nothing, but they had seen videos of people making the salute, and it “looked cool.” 

“I’m thinking, I can’t believe what I’m seeing, and I’m starting to get really angry,” she said. “I could feel my blood pressure rising and I thought, ‘I think we need an education on this.’ ”

Within minutes and with no consultation with her principal, she began searching online for a good video to help explain who the Nazis were and what they did. She found a video on YouTube produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was the story of Irene Fogel Weiss and part of the museum’s First Person Series.

Baumgartner got her class seated and began to explain what was coming next.

“I said, ‘Guys, I said I think it’s time that we know who Nazis are and you to understand this before we do some of the things we see on social media,’” she said.

For the next hour, the students watched and learned the story of Irene Fogel Weiss. Baumgartner, who is not Jewish, learned along with them.

“I am watching my students, and they had no real idea of the history,” she said. “They are sixth-graders, so I’d say they were consciously aware, but when a video tells them that these kids their own age were being separated from their parents and killed, they get that.” 

The students sat, watched and discussed the Nazis and the Holocaust for two hours.

“And the whole time, I’m thinking, ‘Holy cow, I haven’t gotten any kind of OK from anybody to do this. I didn’t want to be in trouble,’ ” said Baumgartner, who went to her administrator’s office when her students were at lunch.

Principal Kevin Stirnaman did not hesitate to support Baumgartner’s quick thinking and decisions.

“My biggest support for Mrs. Baumgartner was she took a situation where we had a student make a statement that was problematic and she didn’t simply send him to the principal’s office for discipline,” Stirnaman said. “For her to turn this into a learning experience was absolutely the right thing to do. If she sent the boys to me, they\wouldn’t have had this learning experience, and we would have missed out on a golden opportunity to educate children.” 

And the education didn’t end with the video. After lunch, the students came back to class and Mrs. Baumgartner welcomed them with a condensed class set of the book “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” by John Boyne that she found in the school library. She spent the next hour reading to her class the story of the friendship between Bruno, the son of the Auschwitz commandant, and Shmuel, a Jewish boy held in the concentration camp. 

“Every kid in my class was blown away by the story,” she said. “In the book, Bruno and Shmuel are getting swept up with the group, and they’re moving forward. Bruno says he has to get home, it’s roast beef night, but they keep moving and it becomes clear that they’re going into the gas chamber. One girl in my classroom said, ‘No, no, no!’ and she was saying it out loud. And then the story tells how the boys were stripped of their clothes and they held hands. I had kids crying, and it was just very emotional.” 

As the school day ended, Baumgartner said, the boys who displayed the Hitler salutes were remorseful. She says she accepted their regret but told them that this kind of talk and actions would not be tolerated in school. Nonetheless, the understanding of the salute’s symbolism and the lessons of the Holocaust were not complete. Not yet.

“We have to have a cap to this entire experience. I thought the best thing we could do was set up a field trip to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum,” said Baumgartner, who had never visited the museum.

Two months after the Heil Hitler incident, Baumgartner and her class visited the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum. That’s where the kids experienced the power of the museum through the stories of St. Louis survivors. Their guide gave special attention to the stories of Jewish children.

“The kids learned about the depravity of the Nazis and what they did, Baumgartner said. “How they stole Jewish children’s identities, took away their clothes, wouldn’t let them say their names. The guide explained how it became an act of protest among the children to just say their names. This truly opened the eyes of my students.” 

But it was a video montage of the survivors who lived in St. Louis that may have made the biggest impression. As the children watched the video, Baumgartner spotted a girl who was so moved in her classroom, crying. 

“I put my arm around her,” Baumgartner said. “She said, ‘I can’t believe it. They have their own families now. I can’t believe it.’ It was just so emotional for her.” 

Baumgartner’s experience, from her Collinsville classroom to the Holocaust Museum, brought out the best in this humble veteran teacher. But she knows it was only a small victory against ignorance.

“The entire experience made me ashamed of my own ignorance,” she said. “That while I know what happened then, and I see what’s happening now, I really didn’t see what’s happening now until we did all this.”