THE ASSIGNMENT by Liza Wiemer: MAKE HISTORY – SPEAK UP! – Book Review by Aliza Werner
History is persistent and if left unattended, or in untrustworthy hands, it has the potential to breathe new life into its darkest, deadliest disasters. History is a shapeshifter. It hopes you do not recognize a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or war disguised as peace. We must be vigilant, insistent that learning history’s lessons is not dependent on repeating it.
History was not meant to be an untouched relic, destined to be contained and preserved behind museum glass and flattened between textbook pages. History was meant to be held, examined, prodded, pried open, and deconstructed from infinite angles.
History is the extensive user’s manual for today.
History is the sharp elbow that jabs us between the ribs and begs us to pay attention to both the best and the worst of humanity.
History is the alarm that screeches through silence, rousing us to a new day and warning us of imminent danger.
History is the raging forest fire that demands to be quenched, and the fireplace embers that desire to be stoked.
History is our reminder that humans are capable of great love and great hurt, wondrous creation and vast decimation.
History requires our constant supervision.
On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking members of the Nazi party and officials from the German government convened The Wannsee Conference to discuss “The Final Solution of The Jewish Question”, a code name for the total annihilation of Europe’s Jewish people. The men did not debate whether or not a complete genocide of 11,000,000 Jews was moral. “The men at the table did not deliberate whether such a plan should be undertaken, but instead discussed the implementation of a policy decision that had already been made at the highest level of the Nazi regime (ushmm.org).”
I expect (I do not hope, nor ask) that we all agree that any lines of morality had not only been crossed, but left light-years behind in the dust.
In February 2017, a class of high school students in an Oswego, New York education program received an assignment to write an argumentative text in the form of a memorandum. The assignment asked students to step into the roles of Nazis to debate the merits of the Final Solution. Yes, you read that correctly. Students asked to portray Nazis was problematic itself, but causing further damage was asking students to inhabit a Nazi perspective arguing in favor of the mass murder of Jewish people.
Seniors in the class, Jordan April and Archer Shurtliff, were horrified. In their eyes, they were being asked to defend the indefensible.
The teens believed that participating in this assignment would only give legitimacy to hate. After expressing concerns to their teacher and administration, who would not budge, the teens contacted the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization that fights against antisemitism and works “to secure justice and fair treatment for all”. The story blew up and made the papers.
In a twist of fate, Wisconsin author Liza Wiemer, happened to be in upstate New York for a book signing in April 2017. Arriving early and avoiding a drenching downpour, she waited in the comfort of her car. As she scrolled through social media, an article about Jordan, Archer, and their assignment caught her eye. Liza, who is Jewish and an educator, was appalled reading about it. She saw that the teens lived in Oswego…the exact town where her author event was to take place. Even more coincidentally, when she walked into the bookstore she saw none other than Jordan herself. She worked there.
This experience resonated for Liza and became the planted seeds for her new upper middle grade/young adult novel THE ASSIGNMENT, publishing August 25, 2020. Based on this true story, Liza explored through an #OwnVoices lens, the concept of speaking out, for yourself and for others, when it is hard, when you’re the only one, when no one is on your side, when you must challenge authority. The novel is especially timely and relevant as racism, bigotry, xenophobia, as well as, antisemitism and hate crimes targeting Jews, ranging from vandalism to synagogue shootings, have increased to record levels in the United States.
THE ASSIGNMENT follows Cade and Logan, high school seniors, who receive an assignment from Mr. Bartley, one of their favorite teachers. The assignment? A debate: Pretend you’re a Nazi. Half the class is to argue in favor of exterminating Jews and half the class is to debate the merits of sterilizing Jews and putting them in work camps and ghettos in order to implement the Final Solution. In other words, murder Jews outright or enslave them and work them to death. Refusing to participate and legitimize hate, Cade and Logan not only want to be exempt from the debate, they want it to be canceled altogether.
“It’s just role playing!” Mr. Bartley insists. But Cade and Logan knew the assignment’s implications were not harm-free. Some lines should not be crossed. Some arguments have no defense. Rationalizing the genocide of a targeted group of people is one of them.
There are countless other ways to learn about The Wannsee Conference within the context of the Holocaust without having to justify evil.
Eventually, the community members become involved in the support or suppression of Cade’s and Logan’s efforts. Facing overwhelming opposition and obstacles, the teens lean on each other to speak out against intolerance, antisemitism, and discrimination. A modern story told in alternating voices and various formats (prose, text messages, video chats, articles), THE ASSIGNMENT, deftly weaves challenging topics into a realistic narrative wrapped in mystery, young love, empowerment, and grassroots resistance.
This novel shows different aspects of what took place during the Holocaust and there is plenty of history for readers to learn and absorb. But it also is a book about bravery, morality, humanity, and unconditional empathy in action. This is a book that underscores the idea that impact is always greater than intention, that a teacher can be both beloved and cause harm. Mr. Bartley is not the evil that history warned us about. He’s a sympathetic, dynamic character who reflects all of us. We all need redirection at some point, to do better when we know better, to speak up when it’s difficult, but right.
The lie about history is that it remains in the past. THE ASSIGNMENT shows how easily it can be resuscitated and recycled, dire consequences and all.
THE ASSIGNMENT is a powerful, engaging, five-star read, perfect to include in classrooms and curriculum across the globe. It provides a modern and robust foundation to spark critical discussions on how history’s events become relevant lessons for today. THE ASSIGNMENT transcends its own specific narrative, broadening discourse around combating hate and discrimination in any form. Young people must see that history is living and breathing. This book has the potential to guide students toward consciously embracing their role as active participants in the making of history.
If you have ever wondered how far you would go to speak up for others from cultures, religions, and languages not your own, ask yourself: What am I doing today? What am I doing to speak up in this moment in history?
Liza Wiemer is an award-winning educator with over twenty-five years of teaching experience. Hello?, her debut contemporary YA novel, was named a Goodreads Best Young Adult Novel of the Month. In addition, Liza has had two adult nonfiction books published and several short stories included in the New York Times bestselling Small Miracles series. A graduate of UW-Madison, Liza lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband and has two married sons. For more information about Liza, buying her books, her Zoom book launch, and swag giveaways, find her at lizawiemer.com, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Goodreads.
Aliza Werner (she/her, @alizateach) is an elementary educator in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Aliza holds a B.S. in Deaf Education from Boston University and M.S. in Curriculum & Instruction with a focus in Language and Literacy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She serves on the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Children’s Literature Committee. At Milwaukee Film, she is a Curriculum Writer, on the Education and “Rated K For Kids” Film Screening Committees, and is developing media literacy programs for educators and families. Aliza is passionate about literacy education: multimedia/multimodal literacies, anti-bias/antiracist pedagogy and practice, and inclusive, diverse, & representative children’s literature. She and her husband have one kid with paws, Liffey the wheaten terrier. World traveler. Reader. Writer. Jewish. Acquired disability. Knitter. Photographer. Auntie.