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Facing the Lion review

by Denise L. Baker, Esq. Fort Lauderdale, FL

Arnold Liebster Foundation : Facing the lion

Memoirs of a Young Girl in Nazi Europe

Simone Arnold Liebster

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Facing the Lion is a memoir based on the experiences of a young girl living on the border of France and Germany in Nazi Europe during one of the greatest human rights crises in the history of mankind.  Beyond its historical significance, the account provides valuable insight by focusing on a unique autobiographical perspective of a school girl enrolled in a school system controlled by the Nazi government.  Author, Simone Arnold, describes her struggle to balance the demands of secular education compelled by the government, with religious training extolling the value of conscientious objection in opposition to war efforts as a Christian group called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

After peering beyond the flagrant atrocities and subtle, yet valiant, resistance during this devastating time, fundamental questions often remain.  Simone’s childhood journal provides insight into at least one essential elemental query:  How could this happen?  The answer is provided by the evidence vividly chronicled in Simone’s journal: Education.  The Nazis used education as a main vehicle to proliferate its propaganda.  The diary provides compelling direct and circumstantial evidence as well as valuable insight into the Reich’s attempt to systematically reeducate and indoctrinate contemporary youth to conform to Nazi ideology.  Simone’s adopted code word for the Nazi regime was symbolized by the word “the Lion”, and the once innocuous endearing schoolhouse was transformed into the Lion’s lair.

Simone describes her first day of secular school more than seventy years ago on October 1, 1936 shortly before the threatening sound of crushing rocks beneath the tracks of German tanks.  The memory left an indelible mark on Simone.  She describes the exact location of the sandstone building and the deep blue eyes of her first grade teacher, Mademoiselle.  Simone intuitively observes that she, “...could tell right away the teacher liked me…” as she quickly made childhood friends typically found in a schoolyard setting.  Unfortunately this affable schoolhouse environment would change within a very short period of time.

Simone’s spiritual education began when her mother (and later her father) began a study of the Bible with Bibelforscher or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Consequently adults and children alike began to ridicule Simone for her zealous stand in her new faith, and the one time pleasant, friendly Mademoiselle began to ostracize her student.   Even so, the worst was yet to come.  Simone gained comfort from her newfound fellow Bibelforscher “schoolmates” at congregation meetings: André Schoenauer; Edmund Schaguené; Mr. Huber; Marcel Graff; Adolphe and Maria Koehl; Alfred Zinglé, Aunt Eugenie and her beloved “brother” Marcel Sutter.  The memories created by such genuine fellowship would serve to help Simone endure future trials. 

In May of 1940, German troops invaded Northern France and occupied Paris by mid June the same year.  Simone prepared to start a new school year in the fall, only this time it was German School! From a simple, yet profound, salutation to the theory of evolution and the superiority of the Aryan race, school days became filled with creative efforts to respect authority, but maintain integrity and avoid compromise.  Everything became a challenge, and Simone’s Christian refusal to participate in war efforts and firm position as a conscientious objector did not go unnoticed.  She stealthily avoided using the compulsory “Heil Hitler” greeting and fundamentally questioned the tenets promoting genocide and what we now term ethnic cleansing.

As an attorney, advocate and adjunct professor teaching Private Education Law in the United States, I examine the role of education as a fundamental human right and the influence of the government in the regulation of education in public and private religious and non-religious schools.  This role may be defined by international treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and individual sovereign constitutions and regulations.  In the United States governmental regulation of education is determined by the United States Constitution, Federal Statutes and State Legislation.  The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is an express prohibition on governmental regulation of religion and religious education.  School children in every classroom learn that:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This means that the United States government may not establish or endorse any religion in any official capacity; the government may not prevent its people from exercising a sincerely held religious belief; and the government may not prevent the right of the people to peaceably assemble for religious worship. 

Yet paradoxically the government often exerts a fundamental role in the regulation of education in general largely through Federal Statutes and State Legislation.  A strict interpretation of First Amendment principles is paramount when examined as a backdrop against the relatively less significant right of the government to regulate education.  Otherwise under the guise of education, the government’s role could easily challenge a parent’s right to train up or educate his or her minor child in whatever religion he or she chooses and, as in the case of Simone, encroach upon the right of minor child to adopt the same sincerely held religious beliefs. 

In Simone’s case, the evidence and the facts are compelling as applied to the First Amendment of the United States.  Not only did Nazi Germany use the schoolhouse to enact and promote legislation respecting the establishment of religion by attempting to force a minor child to Heil Hitler as her personal savior rather than Jehovah God, but the Reich prohibited Simone’s free exercise of her sincerely held religious beliefs which included a prohibition on working to support war efforts.  The government further proscribed Simone from speaking freely to others about her new faith; banned the use of her religious material such as the Bible and Watchtower magazine; and actively forbid Simone to meet with others of like faith for religious worship upon threat of death.  On careful examination, the Nazi government used the secular education system and educator as a means to obliterate every single human right afforded to students like Simone by the First Amendment of the United States and similar constitutions around the world.

In more modern times the German counterpart to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the German conciliatory counterpart states: 

“Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing, and pictures and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources.  Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed.  There shall be no censorship.  These rights shall find their limits in the provisions of general laws in provision for the protection of young persons, and the right to personal honor.”

In hindsight nowhere were the rights referenced in the German (albeit post Nazi context) Constitution violated than in the German classroom especially as applied to young conscientious objectors such as Simone Arnold.  From the indifference of Mademoiselle to verbal abuse of Principal Ehrlich; from insidious Monsieur Zipf to the physical abuse suffered at the hands of Principal Gasser; from Mittelschule to Volksschule; from the unjust Jugendamt to cruel Fraulein Messenger; and from the evil Fraulein Lederle to confinement, isolation and hard labor at Wessenberg Reformatory - a “re-education school”.  Every single facet of Simone’s secular education system served as a vehicle to misappropriate her childhood years and violate her fundamental human rights. 

In every schoolhouse the lesson was always the same: “Whoever will not bend, will break.” Yet Simonette did not bend and neither did she break.  Even as a child she held fast to a value system insisting that Jehovah God was sovereign and she kept her integrity by opposing war efforts.  Today, contemporary educators are charged with protecting the mind and body of the most vulnerable members of our society - children.  However, each would do well to stand in the shoes of every teacher, principal and administrator who were responsible for Simone Arnold’s horrific educational experience and ask again “How could this happen?”

Throughout the journal, Simone made repeated reference to the three young Hebrews who, despite being far from home, kept their integrity and were saved from the fiery furnace by the angel of Jehovah.  This account was authenticated and recorded by the contemporary prophet Daniel who although exiled served under Babylonian rulers Nebuchadnezzar and Darius.  Daniel himself was faced with keeping his integrity by refusing to obey the government edict enacted by trickery prohibiting the free exercise of Daniel’s religion upon penalty of death by being thrown into a pit of lions.  After being thrust into the pit, Daniel himself “Faced the Lion” and lived to tell about the role of his faith under such dire circumstances.  Likewise Simone thrust into the pit or schoolhouse lived to tell about her endurance and faith under trial.

Facing the Lion is a “must read” for educators who are most apt to provide a tolerant academic environment in the classroom free from dangerous fanaticism, ostracism and abuse.  Such should serve to highlight the obligation shared by educators at large to promote the classroom as a safe haven or place of refuge for the benefit and protection of the most vulnerable members of society, our children. 

Denise L. Baker, Esq.
Fort Lauderdale, FL

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