All in the Name

I was delighted to have Boomercafe.com publish my article, All in the Name under the title,  A baby boomer works to stop bullying.

Sometimes we confront our past, and sometimes it confronts us. That’s how it works for author Eric Mondschein of Queensbury in Upstate New York. It’s his own past, and that of his family. And it led to a second career, teaching people to cope with bullies.

When I was promoted from the sixth to seventh grade, I saw it as a great adventure. After spending the summer of 1962 in upstate New York where I lived hiking, fishing, and playing ball with my friends, I was really excited to start seventh grade at the junior senior high school. I would meet students who had attended the several elementary schools throughout my district. It was also the grade in which students from the parochial system joined us.

            Author Eric Mondschein

Up to then, I had never personally experienced religious bigotry. Sure, there were kids who picked on others, called them names, made fun, but I never saw it or let alone had it directed at me because of faith. My dad was Jewish and my mom was a Bahá’í. I was raised to respect all religious beliefs and traditions. Every summer we spent a week or two at a Bahá’í retreat, and in order to know more about my dad’s Judaism, I was sent to Hebrew class after school several days a week.

The adventure I could not wait to undertake all summer arrived and it was far from what I had expected. Classmates from my elementary school were there, but so too were the other kids. And it was a few from the parochial schools who made my life a living nightmare. Before even getting to know me, simply based on my last name, they called me a “dirty Jew,” a “Kike,” and a “Christ Killer.”

I found myself in the nurse’s office almost once a week with a bloody nose or black eye or sometimes both. I guess it was in the halls and restrooms of seventh grade that I developed my disdain for bullies and empathy for those bullied. It was also, I am ashamed to say, one of the major reasons why, at the time, I was embarrassed that my dad was a Jew.

So my seventh and eighth grade years were filled with being bullied and beaten almost on a weekly basis, until my eighth grade art teacher, Mr. Schuck, who had also been an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, took me under his wing. Here I found a mentor, a man who was an artist yet also a warrior. He would keep me after school to teach me how to defend myself, to have self-confidence, and yet to be considerate and helpful to others.

             Jerzy Mondschein

This was also the time when I began learning about the Holocaust, and that some of my dad’s relatives had been sent to concentration camps and ultimately murdered. It was about this same time when Dad lost his older brother, my Uncle Jerry, to a heart attack suffered while pushing a car in a snowstorm. Only after his death did Dad tell me he not only participated in World War II, but that he fought under General George H. Patton in the Third Army and commanded a tank that was one of the first to cross the Rhine River and enter Nazi Germany.

By the tenth grade I was no longer willing to tolerate the bullying and was now fighting back. Mr. Schuck had taught me that a real man could be sensitive and artistic, seeing the beauty in life, while still being tough. Word traveled fast in school, and by the end of the school year I was no longer bullied.

It’s again summer in upstate New York, and while taking a break from preparing materials for a presentation on confronting bullying, I once again thought about what my extended family had experienced in the Holocaust. This led me to further explore the Mondschein name.

Vickers Wellington bomber

I discovered that a Jerzy Mondschein had also responded to the ultimate anti-Semitism and bullying. I learned that he had been murdered by the Nazis during World War II, not as a victim of the Holocaust, but as a soldier who was part of the British RAF’s Polish #304 Bomber Squadron. He was taken prisoner when his Vickers Wellington Bomber was forced to land in a field in Belgium and sent to Stalag Luft III. This is the same stalag made famous in the 1963 movie, “The Great Escape.”

Gardening at Stalag Luft III

But it was not just a movie, it was real. In preparation for the escape, Jerzy was one of a few tailors who secretly converted uniforms into civilian clothes and made warm coats from the POW blankets. His ability to speak and read German also came in handy after they had escaped the camp. His small party made it to the local train station where he was able to purchase their tickets. Riding the train to the end of the line, they split up into groups of four and Jerzy’s band headed for Czechoslovakia. They had to walk twenty kilometers through waist deep snow to reach the border, but sadly they were captured by a German patrol. The Great Escape so enraged Adolf Hitler that in defiance of the Geneva Convention he ordered those who had been recaptured, including Jerzy Mondschein, to be executed.

Memorial to Jerzy Mondschein

The Great Escape was another example of one of my extended family members fighting back. It was not just going silently into the night as so many did during the Holocaust, for whatever reasons I don’t fully understand.

My personal experiences of being bullied, simply because of my last name that apparently identified me as a ‘Jew,’ had a great impact on my personal and professional life, so that I have worked to stop discrimination and bullying of any kind. That many of my relatives were slaughtered in the Holocaust and still others fought back has brought me to a better understanding of the meaning and import of ‘Never Again.’

10 Comments

    1. Joe, some of the information I did not know at that time. As for my experience, it did help shape who I am. Hope all is well.

  1. Well written Rick. You express yourself very well & I so identify with some bullying myself. I did come from parochial school transitioning from 8th to 9th. My sister & I experienced bullying because of our last name, Kuplinski, and also because of where we came from. I, however, learned how to take care of myself at a young age because if I didn’t, I would have to take the humiliation of being bullied by those kids that wanted to pick on my sister and I. Even so, those that did the bulleying left feelings of not being good enough.
    I know I wouldn’t have bullied you, Rick. I never judged a person by their last name. I wouldn’t have known you were Jewish by your last name either.

  2. Hi Rick,
    Found your essay very interesting and amusing. Good ol’ SHS was a breeding ground for bullying! Wish you and I had chatted before your article. You’d be amazed at what this potential whistle blower could tell you about Good Ol’ Suffern High. It was a nightmare in Hell for me!
    I experienced bullying from all venues and complacent teachers were some of the worst, meaning those adults should have known better. Your comments about religious prejudice is right on the money, yet SHS was the breeding ground for other types of prejudice and bullying. If you weren’t blessed with being an athlete or on the rah-rah scholastic squad, you were chastised! Sure, the general population of students skated by and survived, but what about the few? People like you, Gary Kaplinski, Mary Spiegelman, Greg Oliver, and so forth.
    Remember how our gym teachers were exalted and worshipped in Suffern High?
    Did you know how they mercilessly bullied the weak and the oddballs? Did you know how people like Gary K. and I were subjected to corporal punishment (being struck with a wooden paddle) because we were ashamed to take a shower in front of the older boys? The issue was we didn’t reach puberty yet and were teased about genetal hair growth and other development. That’s outright cruelty (from adults)!
    But of course you remember Suffern? If a minority spoke up, they were labeled a whinner or complainer.

    So, do remember me? I survived Good Ol’ SHS by being a wiseguy and a punk, always fighting- always in trouble. A regular “JD” without a record. They must have had a status board in the Faculty Room which read, “Have you paddled Neil, yet?”

    So there you have my unsolicited comments from one Tallman boy to another.

    I’m proud of your accomplishments and wish you every success.
    Neil

    1. Hi Neil, of course I remember you! Was disappointed you were not at our 50th Reunion. It is hard to disagree with what you wrote. I had the same problems with Mr. C. and met his paddle a few times. As for being a JD, that’s not they way I remember you. Good to hear from you, and thank you for your service.

      1. Thank you Rick for replying. I’m an email type and very seldom use Facebook.
        What was the name of that secretive camp behind your house? REMEMBER that summer we all went nuts listening to The Doors “Light My Fire”?
        Warmest,
        Neil

        1. Neil you can send me an email through my website contact page and then I can respond and give you mine. Scroll down to the bottom right and see pages then click on contact

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