Wilton columnist: The benefits of reading together

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Some innovative programs are so impactful they deserve national recognition to inspire other communities in the same direction. Last year’s Wilton Reads presented by the Wilton Library is exactly such a program. It culminated in the author of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” filling the entire center of the library with an audience in the hundreds to hear her moving presentation.

Most extraordinarily, this program on the Holocaust fanned out in multiple directions to encompass our schools, civic organizations, and religious communities so that all could work together to make an educational program for our whole town. That program not only addressed a crucial subject for our times but also brought the community together in a powerful expression of our strong desire to educate ourselves and bring to the forefront of our collective consciousness those things we must never forget. The program especially encouraged us to consider how we can live out being an upstander instead of a passive bystander when targeting happens in the here-and-now.

The library has had a foundational role in these community-wide educational efforts for years, many times under the banner of Wilton Reads. When the library distributes hundreds of copies of a carefully chosen book like “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” for our “town read” each year, we know that in participating in this process, we will have opened ourselves to a part of the world and a subject matter we need to understand better. We also know that a community-wide program is a powerful way to come to that understanding as we participate in the process together.

There is no higher calling for a library than bringing a community together in this way, with focused energy on a subject of transcendent importance. In the 2019 Wilton Reads program, the library courageously focused us on a subject that events both here and nationally have underscored needs special attention across our whole nation: How do people come to be stigmatized as “the other,” and what do those who choose to be upstanders — hopefully all of us — do when faced with perpetrators of evil against those deemed to be “the other?”

This is not a subject for adults alone of course, and one of the many brilliant aspects of the program was its multi-dimensionality as it was tailored to the level of understanding even of some of our youngest children. We’ve seen that firsthand in its coordinated reach into our schools. For example, adults read to our youngest elementary school students from compelling children’s books on the subject of the Holocaust even as our town adults and older youth were reading “The Tattooist of Auschwitz.”

The books for these very young students were entirely age-appropriate, of course, but they also made accessible to the students in very tangible terms the idea that one could be an upstander even in the worst of circumstances. Discussions around dinner tables in town were undoubtedly very lively as these children recounted their reading-time experiences to their parents and parents heard those experiences in light of their own “Tattooist of Auschwitz” reading.

Both Middlebrook and Wilton High School programs done in connection with the Wilton Reads program included presentations by Stamford Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann who has spoken around the world about her experiences. In those school assemblies, you could hear a pin drop as she galvanized her audiences with her firsthand experiences. The program also expanded into school curriculum development as well. The result has been tremendously innovative as the curriculum developed has rolled out this academic year and is expected to have a significant impact statewide as a model for how to encourage students to be upstanders, not bystanders.

This 2019 Wilton Reads series also inspired the Wilton Clergy Association and the lay-led Wilton Interfaith Action Committee (Wi-ACT) to focus their Wilton Library series on the same subject. They chose Dr. Fariborz Mokhtari, author of “In the Lion’s Shadow,” as the lead-off speaker for the series. He discussed Muslim Iranian diplomat Abdol-Hossein Sardari’s saving of Jews during the Holocaust by issuing over 2,000 diplomatic passes from his post in Nazi-occupied Paris and acting with great courage and ingenuity to facilitate escape from Nazi-controlled lands.

In short, the Wilton Library’s 2019 Wilton Reads program underscores the central role our library plays in our town’s life. We here in Wilton know that the Wilton Reads program deserves to be held up prominently as an example of an innovative and transformative undertaking worthy of emulation by other libraries and their communities nationwide.