Diocesan News

Award-Winning Author’s Message to Diocesan Students: Reject Hate, Embrace Tolerance

Liza Wiemer shares the story behind the book “The Assignment.” (Photo: Alicia Venter)

QUEENS VILLAGE — About seven years ago, high school students in a small city along Lake Ontario in upstate New York were assigned a project. Their teacher told them to pretend they were members of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party and argue for, or against, the Holocaust’s Final Solution. 

Outrage followed, and two students reported the exercise, resulting in the assignment being withdrawn. The incident inspired Liza Wiemer, an author and educator, to write “The Assignment,” telling their story of standing up to adversity. 

On Tuesday, May 14, Wiemer spoke to more than 40 seventh and eighth grade students at Ss. Joachim and Anne School in Queens Village, encouraging them to do the same thing: stand up to adversity, bigotry, and hate of all kinds. 

“Every single one of these students has a gift, or gifts. What are they going to do? That’s exciting,” she told The Tablet after addressing her audience. “These are brilliant kids.”

Many of those students already knew her. A few weeks ago, as part of the Great Diocesan Read Aloud, Wiemer sat in her Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home, reading “The Assignment,” via Zoom, to the eighth graders at Ss. Joachim and Anne School. 

Compelled by the student’s attentiveness there and at the other three classes she addressed remotely across the Diocese of Brooklyn, Wiemer decided to visit the schools in person. 

That opportunity came when she traveled to New York in conjunction with the New York Education Initiative, an effort powered by the Jewish Education Project. Wiemer’s message was to promote kindness, while reinforcing students’ power as the future generation of leaders. 

“Doing this kindness isn’t going to hurt us in any way. It’s actually going to elevate us and make us feel good about ourselves, knowing that we did something good. … I think it’s good to be kind always,” said seventh grader Christnah-El Charles.

Though Jewish herself, Wiemer says that the “groundwork” for Catholic school students to become ethical leaders in society is laid thanks to their diocesan education, and is borne out by their behavior, well-thought-out discussions, and questions.

The cover of “The Assignment,” Wiemer’s award-winning novel based on a real-life event in upstate New York, when students were asked to defend the Holocaust. (Photo: Delacorte Press)

“Their level of respect is exceptional. I am an experienced teacher, so I walk into many different environments. But consistently, diocesan school after diocesan school after diocesan school, the students have been absolutely so receptive,” Wiemer said.

“The Assignment” has received 12 honors, including as a Sydney Taylor Notable Book, and it has been optioned for film. 

The book was written in 2020, and its message is particularly relevant today amid rising antisemitism, hence its selection for the Great Diocesan Read Aloud. While last year’s statewide crime data is still being collected, the New York City Police Department reported a 10% increase in hate crime incidents from 2022 to 2023, according to the department’s Hate Crimes Dashboard. The incidents more than doubled in the last quarter of the year.

Over four days, Wiemer visited 10 schools across the diocese to talk about fighting against oppression and sharing the behind-the-scenes details that brought “The Assignment” to life.

“She was brave for writing a book about that. She’s brave for showing that it’s not right to do that,” said Aaden Bhagwan, an eighth grade student at Ss. Joachim and Anne School.

Eighth grader Nathaniel Godard, one of the students most involved during the workshop presentation, said that his belief is that teachers are meant to uphold values, and that he was shocked students would be asked to defend murder and the Holocaust. 

Even at his young age, he already knows he plans to pursue a career in law, and said Wiemer’s presentation reminded him of what he sees as his responsibility to uplift people.

Nathaniel said, “It made me feel like the lawyer I need to be is one that helps people out, who doesn’t go after the money, who just does the job to help people.”