Howard Kerner, like all of us, has no escape from constant reminders of cruelty in this world.
Victimized children. Senseless murders. Wartime violence. They are found with every tap of the remote, click of the mouse, spin of the radio dial.
Yet, unlike many of us, he still believes — and not in a flickering, fading way — in the power of human goodness to prevail over evil. Goodness is all around us, it is within us, and as he tells Polk State students and crowds of strangers across the county, it has endured much worse times than these.
“I have six million reasons to teach about altruism — it’s for those who can’t stand up, and can’t do good in this world because their lives were taken from them,” said Kerner, referring to the estimated number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Since 2009, Kerner has taught his “Literature of the Holocaust” course at Polk State, an intensely personal endeavor. In the years since, the course has taken on an existence separate from the College, its message sought by area schools and churches, where Kerner is often asked to lecture.
In his class and at his speaking engagements, Kerner’s approach is the same: First he delivers a review of always-disturbing, heart-wrenching Holocaust horrors, the atrocities found in so many films and books. Then, with the emotions of his audience members still raw, he introduces names such as Raoul Wallenberg and Georg Duckwitz, rescuers who risked their own lives to save tens of thousands of Jews, but who are all but forgotten in history.
“The reaction is always the same. People come up to me, just stunned. They ask me why they didn’t know about this,” Kerner said.
One such stunned student is Vicki Tindall, who took “Literature of the Holocaust” in 2011, and whose life has never been the same.
“The message (Kerner) conveyed repeatedly is that we owe our fellow man a debt, and that it is our responsibility to repay that in any way we can,” said Tindall, who took the course as part of her teacher recertification.
“Just this morning, at the post office, I saw a woman in a wheelchair with extra packages in her hands that looked heavy. I asked her if I could carry them for her. Going through the checkout line at the grocery store, I look people in the eye, and I recognize that they are people, rather than just walking on past.”
That “Literature of the Holocaust” forever changes students in profoundly personal ways has a lot to do with its roots in Kerner’s own personal experiences.
At age 9, Kerner, who himself is Jewish, first learned about the numerous relatives his family lost to the Holocaust. He corresponded for years with his great-uncle, a Holocaust survivor once detained at Auschwitz, gaining personal insight into the lives of family members who never made it out of the concentration camps.
“At 9, I was not able to get much more than the fact that this was a relative who had been in a terrible place. It didn’t all come together until high school, when I started learning about the Holocaust,” Kerner said.
With the firmly instilled knowledge of how senseless evil had affected his own family, Kerner set off to college and graduate school at the University at Albany and University of Virginia, respectively. It was during his higher education that he was deeply affected by the power of pure human kindness.
He recalls professors who took a personal interest in him, recognizing in him talent and potential he’d never thought possible. At a time in his life when he made a box of spaghetti last for a week, those professors fed him. They invited them into their homes, treating him as an adopted son. They guided him through career decisions, becoming trusted advisers and lifelong friends.
“The only thing I can say in my behalf is I trusted them. They never led me wrong, and they taught me at an early age the impact altruism has on a life,” Kerner said.
In the years that followed, these extremes of human nature — the power evil has to destroy, the power good has to uplift — became a consistent theme of Kerner’s work.
Kerner, who moved from New York to become an English professor at Polk State in 1989, spent several years teaching a course titled “Heroes of the Holocaust” at Stetson University for Elderhostel, a nonprofit that offers educational programs for adults.
Then in the late 1990s, he was asked to write a piece about The Diary of Anne Frank for a publication titled The Cyclopedia of World Authors. That article affected him more than any others he’d written at that time in his career or since — a body of work that includes nearly 800 published articles.
“As I wrote that, I couldn’t get out of my mind the rescuers that had kept her and her family going. It continued to haunt me,” Kerner said. “I had never really thought about the people in the Holocaust who had done such wonderful things.”
Soon afterward, while working as literary manager for the Massachusetts-based Berkshire Theatre Festival, Kerner co-wrote a dramatic production called “No Choice” with Kelly Curtis, sister of actress Jamie Lee Curtis. “No Choice,” produced for the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, told the story of Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who led an extensive mission to save the lives of nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews.
“During that experience, I kept reading about people who had saved Jews,” Kerner said. “But all the books that I found from libraries about the rescuers had been marked, ‘discarded.’ Why is it that we know so much about the people who carried out evil, but we discard books about those who risked their own lives to save the lives of others?” Kerner said.
In 2008, then, when Polk State President Eileen Holden asked Kerner if he’d develop a course on the literature of the Holocaust, he knew just the direction to take.
“I knew the first half of the course would be about what people did to other people, and that the second half would be about what people did for other people,” he said.
Arthur Wright, who took the course in its first year, is now at the University of Central Florida, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering. What it taught him about humanity — specifically the power humans have to choose between right or wrong — is with him every day.
“It teaches you how to be a better person. I gained a new sense of compassion from the course,” Wright said. “The best example I can give is how I respond to homeless people. Before the course, I was one who assumed that any money I gave them would be for drugs or alcohol, but now I realize that I don’t know these people and I don’t know their personal situations, and I never know when it might be me who needs help.”
Polk State Vice President of Academic and Student Services Ken Ross said “Literature of the Holocaust” is appreciated on a college-wide, as well as student-by-student, level.
“He has provided our students with truly wonderful opportunities to broaden their horizons and deepen their appreciation for the world around us,” he said.
Kerner’s “Literature of the Holocaust” course has morphed into a presentation he is often asked to give at area schools, churches and other organizations. He has spoken at Lake Region High School, Brigham Academy, Jewett Academy, the Winter Haven Rotary Club and St. Joseph Catholic Church in Winter Haven, to name a few.
“We thought that if we got 25 people, that would be good, but instead we had more than 100. You never hear about all the good that happened during the Holocaust. It was an awesome presentation. I got chill bumps several times. It made me want to learn even more,” said St. Joseph Family Life Minister Laurie Spang about Kerner’s April presentation.
Seeing his message spread, both here at Polk State and beyond, is gratifying for Kerner. By stoking kindness in others, he honors the altruism he has known in life — and that’s been his ultimate goal all along.
“We live forever in the people we help, and it’s up to us to decide whether to be selfish and rotten, or caring, peaceful, loving and kind,” he said.
Kerner’s “Literature of the Holocaust” will be offered in the fall. Registration is now underway. Visit polk.edu for more information.