Lessons from Poland’s Past: Empowering Student Voices

I knew spending a week studying the Holocaust would be an intense undertaking. What I didn’t realize is that spending a week bearing witness at the sites of these atrocities would also be heartbreaking. And while my experience on Echoes & Reflections Educational Journey through Poland with Yad Vashem was both of these things, it was also enlightening and empowering. We all left a piece of ourselves in Poland, but took away so much more.

Holocaust education has always been a passion of mine. Something about the resilience of the Jewish people, the ability to have seen so much hatred, but still stand strong inspires me.  I have participated in numerous professional development programs on the subject. I have also been lucky enough to spend two summers as part of the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Conference with ADL, which allowed me to convene with other experienced Holocaust educators from around the country for a multi-day in-depth exploration of Echoes & Reflections materials. I have always left these experiences with a renewed mission and a stronger commitment to my students to educate them on the important lessons of the Holocaust, which often includes telling the stories that are difficult to hear. When I saw the opportunity to further my studies and my understanding of the Holocaust with a group of educators who are equally as passionate as I am, I jumped at the opportunity to visit Poland. I have always told my students that my voice cannot do justice to the stories of this time period. I was not there, I did not live it, and I never stood where the victims and survivors stood, so how could I truly understand? It was my hope that in taking part in this journey that I would be able to do just that—to give voice and do justice to those who lost their lives.

As our group came together, we discovered we were all on this trip for different reasons. Yet, we all had one thing in common: we were all there to bear witness. To say, “I have seen. I will not forget.” Every day was harder than the one before. Every day we would feel both depleted and fulfilled. Every night we would question whether we could see any more, feel any more. It is something special to allow yourself to be vulnerable with a group of strangers. But through this journey, we became something more. Sharing in this experience has changed all of us—it has left its mark on our hearts.

Our week in Poland was heavy and it would have been easy to be pulled into a spiral of depression. In our five days, we visited extermination camps, sites of mass graves, and heard the stories of death and destruction as we stood within the ghetto walls. But throughout these visits, we also heard stories that filled us with hope. We heard stories of resistance—people who fought back in any way that they could. We heard stories of love, of friendship, of family. Through these stories, we began to see not the nameless faces of the victims, as the Nazis intended, but the individuals. One of the most powerful moments during the trip was when we each presented on a person that we were asked to research. When we arrived to a site that connected with our person, we shared about their life.

I was asked to research Mordechai Anielewicz. Mordechai was a leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and was instrumental in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and inspiring and leading the Jewish people to fight back against the Nazis. As I was researching and sharing his life, I was struck by how incredibly young he was during these events. I always talk to my students about how their voice matters and Anielwicz’s story further confirmed my belief that today’s youth have the power to inspire change. I viewed testimony where a survivor remembers being introduced to Anielewicz as “Mr.”, even though he was only about 20 years old. It didn’t matter to his people how young he was, what mattered was his passion and his belief in what he was asking of his people. I was also struck by Mordechai’s willingness to give his life for his cause. In his final letter, he writes “The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality.” As I stood at the site of the bunker where Mordechai took his final breaths, I was overwhelmed by his bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of evil.  As we shared stories of bravery, resistance, and love , these victims have marked our hearts and we will never forget their names. We will remember them. We will be their voice.

I believe in “never again.” I believe if we show our students and teach them about the atrocities of the past, we can make a better future. This trip strengthened this belief and emphasized the importance of what we do every day as educators. Every voice matters. It is our job as educators to help our students find their own. It is our responsibility to ensure that our students have open eyes and open hearts, using the stories of the past to shape our future.

About the Author: Ashley Harbel is an English teacher at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH.

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