Would you defend the indefensible?
That's what seniors Logan March and Cade Crawford are asked to do when a favorite teacher instructs a group of students to argue for the Final Solution--the Nazi plan for the genocide of the Jewish people.
Logan and Cade decide they must take a stand, and soon their actions draw the attention of the student body, the administration, and the community at large. But not everyone feels as Logan and Cade do--after all, isn't a school debate just a school debate? It's not long before the situation explodes, and acrimony and anger result.
Based on true events, The Assignment asks: What does it take for tolerance, justice, and love to prevail?
"An important look at a critical moment in history through a modern lens showcasing the power of student activism." --SLJ
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Are we supposed to pretend we’re Nazis? The second Mr. Bartley turns his back to our class, I lean over to my best friend, Cade, and whisper, “What do you think?” I tap the assignment on my desk.
He lifts his hands, palms up, mirroring my confusion. “Weird, right?” He says it a little too loudly, drawing Mr. Bartley’s attention.
I nod, face forward, and refocus on the assignment. I read it one more time, hoping that somehow I’ve misunderstood the instructions.
MEMO TO: Senior Members of the Nazi Party
FROM: SS General Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of the Reich Main Security Office
SUBJECT: A FINAL SOLUTION OF THE JEWISH QUESTION: Your attendance is required for this critical meeting scheduled for 20 January 1942 at the Wannsee Villa in Berlin, Germany.
PURPOSE: As members of Hitler’s elite Nazi leadership, our purpose is to debate a Final Solution of the Jewish Question and to share perspectives on how to resolve the storage problem of Europe’s eleven million Jews.
Con: Sterilization, ghettos, work camps
WHAT TO PREPARE FOR THE MEETING: As a Nazi, you must thoroughly research and analyze five reasons supporting your position of a Final Solution of the Jewish Question.
a. The Nuremberg Laws
b. Attitudes on religion and race
c. Our policies on education, including who may attend or teach at primary and secondary schools and universities
d. Economics, including our perspective on who has the right to own businesses and property
e. Our leader’s stance on Darwin and survival of the fittest
f. How to increase our superior Aryan race by exploring key ideas such as emigration expulsion, evacuation, and eradication to be judenrein (Jew-free)
Note from Mr. Bartley:
The Wannsee Conference was one of the most pivotal historical moments that had a destructive force on humanity in the twentieth century, one that continues to leave a profound mark on society today. As you complete the research for this assignment, it is important for you to know that the goal is not to garner support or elicit sympathy for the Nazi perspective. It is, however, imperative for you to understand the Nazi mentality, even if it makes you uncomfortable and is diametrically against your moral, ethical, and philosophical beliefs. Researching this historical meeting and your side of the debate allows you to broaden your points of view and develop critical thinking skills.
I flip the page, read through the requirements for our papers and how we’re going to be graded on the debate. My stomach somersaults. Get an A by successfully debating reasons to put Jews in gas chambers versus torture them, starve them, force them to be slave laborers for profit until they’re dead. Either way, Mr. Bartley is asking us to advocate for murder.
Everything in my body screams, This is so wrong! But do I say it to Mr. Bartley? Looking at the other sixteen seniors in our class, I don’t see anyone other than Cade who seems uncomfortable with this assignment.
“One more minute,” Mr. Bartley calls out. “Then I’ll answer questions.”
I have a question. Is this a sick joke? I can’t bring myself to ask it out loud. Mr. Bartley isn’t any teacher. He’s a great teacher, my favorite teacher.
He must have a reason why he wants us to be pretend we’re Nazis. I reread his note. It makes me more than uncomfortable. For the first time ever, I’m tempted to get out of class by asking to go to the girls’ bathroom or the nurse’s office. I could say I have a pounding headache. Thanks to this assignment, I do.
Mr. Bartley leans against his desk, and when he notices me staring at him, his warm smile fades. I pick up my pen and trace the blood-red “TOP-SECRET” that’s stamped on top of the memo. I don’t get it. Why would Mr. Bartley want us to keep this a secret? History of World Governments is the fourth class I’ve taken with him, and we’ve never had any assignment like this.
Soon after Mr. Bartley started teaching at Riviere High School my sophomore year, he became our most popular teacher. He has the kind of smile that makes you know you’ve been seen, that you matter. During lunch and his free periods, his room is always filled with students. I’ve liked him for bringing in guest speakers, for taking us on field trips, showing movies, and letting us decorate his papered walls with quotes, facts, and pictures for every new unit. I love to contribute quotes. He makes history exciting, interesting, and challenging.
I run my thumbpad over the silver bracelet my cousin Blair gave me for my seventeenth birthday and wonder what she would think of this assignment. I’m tempted to take a photo and text it to her, but I don’t want to get caught with my phone and have it taken away.
Cade’s bouncing knee catches my attention. He writes in his notebook, then flashes it at me. He’s drawn an X over “Nazi” and written, “No. Freaking. Way!”
The Allies defeated Nazi Germany during World War II. Why would I want to pretend I’m a Nazi? Mr. Bartley wants us to broaden our points of view. Really? How is it possible anyone would think murdering millions of people was okay? It’s simple. Killing is wrong. Debate over. This is ridiculous.
Despise barely describes how I feel about this class and I have no one to blame but myself. I let Logan rope me into taking it instead of Advanced Web Design so we could spend more time together before we graduate. I look at my best friend and know it’s worth it. She’s worth it.
But this assignment?
It fills me with dread. My grandparents grew up in Poland and lived through World War II. Grandpa was fifteen at the end of the war. Nana was fourteen. They immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. The one time I asked Nana about her family, she smiled and said, “I have you right here.” Then she pulled me into her arms and squeezed me tight.
A memory returns to me. I was twelve. Nana and my parents were at church, and Grandpa and I were in his workshop. The smells of linseed oil and sawdust filled the air. We were elves, making puzzles for Santa to give to children on Christmas. As we sanded the pieces we’d cut from old drawers, I asked Grandpa what his life was like when he was my age. I remember Grandpa said he didn’t like to talk about it, that lots of bad things happened in Poland during the war. His expression grew solemn. His tone was firm. “Promise me you won’t ask Nana about her childhood, either. It will only upset her,” he said.
We kept working, but then a little while later he said, “Other than your grandma, I haven’t told another soul about my life in Poland. Not even your mom. But you’re old enough to understand, and I’m growing old.” He paused. “The story might frighten you.”
I said I didn’t care.
I can’t quite remember. Something about watching his Jewish neighbors being rounded up by Nazis? I buried those stories when we buried Grandpa two months later.
Mr. Bartley plants himself in front of Logan’s center row. A murmur goes through the room as if Mr. Bartley broke a silencing spell. He holds up a palm like he’s a crossing guard halting traffic, and it’s quiet again. “Questions?” he asks.
Logan’s hand shoots up, but then she lowers it when Mr. Bartley aims his clicker at the Smart Board and brings up the assignment.
Kerrianne Nelson gets called on. “I’m confused. The Final Solution of the Jewish Question. Do you mean the Holocaust?”
Mr. Bartley says, “Exactly. The Final Solution was the plan and implementation of the Holocaust.”
“Ah, okay. I thought so.” She smiles at her boyfriend, Mason Hayes, but he’s too busy picking at a thread on his hockey jersey to notice. When she sees me looking at her, she frowns. Like most of the people at our school, I’ve known Kerrianne since kindergarten. We always got along, but for some reason when Logan moved to Riviere and joined us in eighth grade, Kerrianne stopped sitting with us at lunch and started hanging out with the hockey players.
“Question, Spencer?” This is a surprise. Like me, Spencer Davis never raises his hand in class. If Spencer talks, it’s to his hockey teammates or to the girls he deems worthy of his time and attention. He claims to have hooked up with at least a dozen. As if. Thank everything holy Logan isn’t one of them.
“Can we get extra credit for dressing up for the debate?”
I turn around to see if he’s serious. Oh yeah. Dead serious.
Mr. Bartley says, “Although I appreciate your desire for authenticity, Spencer, that does not extend to dress. No uniforms for this debate.”
Someone whispers, “Damn.” I glance around, but I can’t figure out who it was.
“Excuse me, Mr. Bartley” Logan breaks off when Mr. Bartley calls on someone else.
He answers a question about citing sources, then another on the structure of our papers that are due the same day as the debate. Moving over to his desk, Mr. Bartley grabs a paper bag and shakes it. He says, “Each of you will draw a numbereither a one or two. Call it out after you pick. Mason, you start.”
When it’s my turn, I mumble, “One.” Logan says, “Two.”
“All the ones will take the pro side. Twos will take con,” Mr. Bartley says. “You may work together to create your platform, but your paper must be your own. Your arguments should be based on the Wannsee Conference held on January 20, 1942. A week from this coming Monday we’ll transform our room into the Wannsee Villa and hold our own top-secret Nazi conference to debate how to handle the biggest threat to the Aryan racethe Jew.”
The Jew. The way he said it makes my skin crawl.
Mr. Bartley advances to the next PowerPoint slide. “These were the fifteen Nazi men who came together to address how to handle the storage problem of Europe’s eleven million Jews. Adolf Eichmann is in the center because he was instrumental in implementing the Final Solution. He oversaw the deportation of Jews from their homes to ghettos to death camps. Tomorrow, we’ll watch the movie Conspiracy, which reenacts the meeting with these men.”
Men? More like monsters, I think.
“The movie will be a good resource, but I highly recommend you get a jump start tonight on your research to support your arguments.”
“But theythey’re . . . Nazis,” Logan stammers without raising her hand.
Mr. Bartley’s stern expression cautions her not to speak out of turn again. “Yes, and your job is to understand their mentality. I know re-creating this debate is a challenge, but history is filled with many horrors and this is an impactful way to learn. Experience is always a great teacher.” Mr. Bartley smiles. “Unless you’d rather memorize dates and facts and take multiple-choice tests like I had to in my boring high school history classes.”
The room erupts with groans and “No thank yous.”
Once again, Mr. Bartley raises a hand to quiet us down. “All right then. Back to the Wannsee Conference.” He goes through several more slides. My eyes meet Logan’s, and then hers dart over my shoulder.
She gasps. I twist in my seat to see why Logan’s freaked out and my mouth drops open.
Jesse Elton stands and snaps his feet together. He lifts his right arm and salutes like a Nazi. “Heil Hitler,” he calls out.
Several people laugh, and Jesse gives them an appreciative grin. Cade’s stunned expression matches mine. Does everyone else find that funny? I look around. Revulsion flashes across Daniel Riggs’s face, but it disappears so quickly that I question whether it was there to begin with.
Spencer holds out his fist to Jesse, then mimics the salute and says, “Seig Heil. Hail victory.”
This can’t be happening here, in my favorite class with my favorite teacher.
And just as I wonder if Mr. Bartley is going to do something, he walks over to Spencer and Jesse. His tone is sharp as a blade cutting through metal. “Those actions are inappropriate. This isn’t a joke and you are never to make light of the Nazi salute and the hate it represents. I expect you to take this assignment seriously.”
Jesse drops his gaze, but not his smirk. Spencer shrugs his shoulders and looks at Mason, the RHS varsity hockey team captain and my biggest rival for valedictorian. Jesse and Spencer are his guys, his teammates, and for one second I hold out hope that maybe Mason will be the leader he’s supposed to be, to say something, do somethingeven a look of disapproval. But he’s not looking at them. He’s not looking at anyone. He’s picking at a stupid thread on his jersey.
Another teammate, Reginald Ashford, however, shoots daggers from across the room at Spencer and Jesse. The muscle in his jaw tics. He’s pissed. Good. There’s always been a bit of a rivalry between Mason and Reg, and now I can’t help but think Reg should have been team captain instead of the coach’s son.
And then there’s Spencer. He shrugs his shoulders when he sees me glaring at him. Disgusted, I turn back in my seat. It hardly matters that Mr. Bartley reprimanded them. This assignment is a green light for these guys to act like Nazis. I don’t know if I’m more disappointed with Mr. Bartley or with Spencer and Jesse. Definitely Mr. Bartley. I don’t get why he thinks it’s a good idea to promote fascism by having us do an immoral debate.
Mr. Bartley says, “Let me be clear. I am not asking you to be sympathetic to the Nazis. Quite the opposite. This is a serious examination of a historical event. Let’s learn from this moment and remember to be respectful.” He looks pointedly at Jesse and Spencer.
“By examining these perspectives, this assignment gives you the opportunity to discuss and present a topic that will force you out of your comfort zone. Why is this important? It’s important because there will be plenty of times in your life when you’ll be in a situation where people will express ideas existentially and philosophically opposed to your own. It happens every day on the internet. You’ll face it on your college campuses.” Mr. Bartley looks at me. “The point is to understand all sides and be prepared to debate. I promise, after you complete this work, you’ll have a better grasp on how to create and present compelling arguments.”
“But, Mr. Bartley”
He goes all traffic cop on me and I close my mouth. “Let me finish, Logan.”