For me, like nearly every other teacher in the United States, March 11th was a fairly regular day. That week, my students had competed in their regional National History Day competition and my juniors had gone on a field trip to nearby Monticello. Although it was a Wednesday, I had scheduled time off for the next two days and told my students to have a great rest of their week at Staunton High School and that I would see them on Monday. Little did I know, it would be the last time I would see them for the 2019-2020 school year – at least in person.
The next morning, I received notification early on that an appointment I had in Northern Virginia had been canceled due to accelerating COVID-19 cases in that area. As Thursday turned into Friday, as a Department Chair, I found myself in frequent contact with my Principal regarding possible release to spring break one week in advance. Still, nothing was certain, and it wouldn’t be until 2:40 PM on Friday, March 13th.
Staunton’s initial plan was to add an additional week onto spring break; however, on the first day of our “official” spring break, we received word that Governor Ralph Northam would be canceling traditional schooling for the remainder of the year. I knew that this would be a challenge for my colleagues and myself and quickly switched into planning mode. Additionally, as a regional consultant for Echoes & Reflections, I also began to think about how I could assist the school districts in my region to meet the challenge of delivering effective Holocaust instruction in this unfamiliar setting.
In my time teaching virtually, I have experienced a lot of highs and lows. My colleagues and I all missed interacting with our students in-person, and we spent many hours mourning for their lost opportunities. We also worried about those young people who live in less than ideal home-situations, and for whom school was a refuge. We deeply cared about finding ways to help our students and colleagues navigate life in quarantine. Yet, these experiences have forced me to grow as an educator and more importantly, as a human being, and to recognize “silver linings” in the midst of an overwhelming situation.
Overall, despite the craziness of the time, I have seen many students eager and ready to “take the reins” to keep learning and to pursue their intellectual and emotional curiosity in new and exciting ways. This includes hearing from an African-American student who encountered liberator Leon Bass’ USC Shoah Foundation IWitness testimony, and who shared that this was the first time she has seen “someone like herself” represented in this era of history. His impact went well beyond his experience in the Holocaust and translated into a voice of inspiration for this young person and several of her peers. Curious to learn more about African-American liberators, she asked for other testimonies to review. In many ways, the bravery and strength showcased by my students during this turbulent time was inspiring and gave me continued hope that despite the countless losses, humanity would ultimately survive in spirit and fortitude.
Another powerful moment for me was the opportunity to help a first-year colleague tasked to teach about the Holocaust for the first time via a virtual setting. He has a strong background for someone in his first semester of teaching and knew that he needed to take careful steps but was not exactly sure how to navigate the situation. Echoes & Reflections provided the perfect pedagogy and resources through which to guide him in structuring a meaningful educational experience for his sophomores, and he ultimately ended up sharing it with other colleagues because he knew it was working well. Even though I was physically distant from my colleagues, I was grateful that I still had the power to support others to succeed.
This time is also about seizing new opportunities to learn and build community with my educator colleagues. The quarantine has allowed us to rethink professional development and explore “in-person” virtual opportunities at a deeper level. My participation in the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teacher’s Program partnership allowed me and nearly 50 other educators to reunite without the cost of travel expenses and extended time away from families and work. We spent an incredible three hours learning together about Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust and further discovering how we can connect our students with this content in a virtual setting.
As we end the 2019-2020 school year, in many ways we also say goodbye to a distant world. Education will likely look different as we move forward and we will need to keep innovating, be willing to leave our own comfort zones, and take some risks. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that these unknowns, guided by our collective strength and dedication to this field, will unequivocally lead to success and allow us to positively impact our students’ futures.
About the Author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012.
…feels different this year. As we prepare to honor Holocaust Remembrance Day (beginning the evening of April 20 through sundown on April 21) an unprecedented global health crisis unfolds. In many ways, tragedies can bring out the best in humanity. However, historically, such crises can also lead to an increase in scapegoating, xenophobia, and hurtful or damaging rhetoric. Today, as COVID-19 continues to affect us all, ADL has documented a rise in these behaviors, specifically against Jewish and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the U.S. Teaching about the dangers of unchecked hate and antisemitism, both past and present, remains paramount.
Yet, in these dark times we are hopeful. We believe that one of the most effective ways to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate is through a deep understanding of the history behind these harmful attitudes and how they continue to influence our world today. Yom HaShoah, a call for remembrance, presents a meaningful opportunity for educators to help their students reflect on the past in order to build a positive and peaceful present and future. And, although you may not be in your regular classroom or have the ability to physically make a school trip to a memorial or museum, you can still honor this day and positively impact students with lessons from the Holocaust.
How can we remember the victims of the Holocaust during this turbulent time?
Teach the Human Story
Teaching the human story of the Holocaust is one of Echoes & Reflections key pedagogical principles, as it can have a profound impact on students’ connection to this event. Fostering empathy through personal stories is especially essential during this unsettling period of uncertainty and separation. We encourage educators to commemorate this upcoming day of remembrance by sharing visual history testimony from Holocaust survivors and witnesses with students, all of which are found in our lesson plans. Each testimony is accompanied by guiding questions to support student reflection and comprehension. The testimony of survivor Henry Oertelt in our Contemporary Antisemitism Unit is particularly powerful, as he states:
“I am the prime example of what can happen when no one speaks up against prejudice.”
Poignant words like Henry’s help students understand the importance of being an ally and work to make the world a better place.
Human stories are not only found in visual history testimony, but can also be accessed through works of poetry, art, photographs, and other artifacts from the Holocaust, also found in our lesson plans. These primary sources act as powerful tools to enrich students’ understanding of this history and can compel them to make change.
Engage with The Power of Community
Many of our friends at local Holocaust Museums and Centers, who would normally host in-person commemorative events for Yom HaShoah, have shifted to online ceremonies. We encourage you and your students to connect with others by participating in virtual commemorations offered by these institutions in your area. Additionally, we invite you to join our Partner Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center’s live broadcast marking the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day on 4/20 as well as their virtual name-reading campaign on 4/21 to record the name reading of a Holocaust victim and share the video on social media.
Even during this deeply difficult time, we still have the power to work towards change and connect with our communities. On Yom HaShoah, by looking towards the past we can support our youth to examine the present and build a more secure and peaceful future. Through remembrance we can inspire positive action.
During these unprecedented times, we remain committed to supporting you to teach about the lessons of the Holocaust. As many of you move to a virtual environment, we recognize that this creates added challenges to teaching about this complex topic effectively.
As you navigate this new education landscape, please find our recommendations for revised approaches to Echoes & Reflections lesson instruction that will best support students’ social-emotional well-being and bring them “safely in and safely out” of their learning. Furthermore, we offer some general strategies for Holocaust instruction in an online format:
- Take a “pulse check” of your students: use the “chat” function or a verbal check-in to ask students to share how they’re feeling at the top of the lesson
- Focus on the expansiveness of the “human story”: what lessons about strength and resilience can we apply to today?
- Provide spaces for reflection like journaling, personal connections, and break-out conversations
- Fully utilize the features of your distance learning tools: chat boxes, word clouds, quizzes, and breakout rooms can put students at the center of the conversation.
While all Echoes & Reflections content is digital and accessible to you and your students, we want to highlight a few student-facing resources that can be readily brought to your students:
- Interactive Timeline of the Holocaust and accompanying activities.
- Video Toolboxes – short videos with guiding questions that provide historical context on various Holocaust topics.
- We Share the Same Sky Podcast and Teaching Guide.
- USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness resources that are specially curated for distance learning and teaching.
- Stronger Than Hate Challenge – also from USC, students create a poem, story, video or artwork that uses the power of testimony to counter hate; with up to $10,000 in prizing.
As a reminder, we hope you’ll join us on an upcoming session of our newly formed Professional Learning Community to connect with colleagues and share best practices over the next month. This includes a series of 30-minute virtual meetings that support educators who plan to teach about a specific Holocaust topic online, such as Antisemitism and Nazi Germany, The Ghettos, The “Final Solution”, Jewish and Non-Jewish Resistance,and Survivors and Liberators. Registration information for these meetings and our regularly scheduled online offerings can be found on our program calendar. Please note, if you are unable to attend any of the meetings or webinars, all will be available to view on-demand.
We want to believe an attack on Jewish people worshipping in their synagogue is supposed to be a part of history, at least as far back as the Holocaust and on another continent. But, the Tree of Life shooting caused nightmarish memories to resurface and shook Pittsburgh’s residents, especially the city’s Holocaust survivors and their families. Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods and communities filled with diverse ethnic groups, religious beliefs, and immigrants from nearly every nation. Residents may argue over the best recipe for pierogis or which Penguin player is the most valuable, but working together for the sake of Pittsburgh binds its residents into one group. Pittsburgh came together before the Tree of Life tragedy, and Pittsburgh has not allowed the tragedy to change its fundamental identity.
Leading up to the first anniversary of the shooting, delicate questions were raised. How does a community mark this date? Nearly thirty different events were planned to commemorate the victims. Some of the events were private – for the victims and their families; for the specific congregations that worship at Tree of Life. Yet disagreements did arise. Wanting to honor the memories of the victims, some people insisted that politics be completely removed from any speeches or comments made during memorial services while others felt that this was impossible, under the circumstances. Agreement was reached on the overall goal: “Remember; Repair; Together” to prevent a similar tragedy in another time or place and to heal as a community.
One year after the Tree of Life shooting our work as Holocaust educators carries increased significance. With the fading memories of the Holocaust and the rise in global antisemitism, educating our students, and, hopefully, the broader community, is our most important tool for shaping a future of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. As a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, I am sent to a variety of educational sites. Each group of educators is a product of their own upbringing, their political views, the expectations of the community within which they teach, and the laws of their state. I cannot assume that in six hours of a program I can correct all misconceptions about this history. At the same time, I must reassure those educators that neither can they correct all the misinterpretations that their students believe. We are human, and changing another person’s thinking and understanding takes practice, empathy, and patience.
Hope for a more tolerant and accepting world grows when school administrators and teachers recognize issues within their buildings. Beginning with the 2015-2016 school year, the Act 70 Mandate for Holocaust and Genocide Education was implemented in Pennsylvania. Other states have enacted or are considering similar mandates. As Holocaust educators, this should fill our hearts with joy. At the same time, it should give us pause. Demanding that an individual only mention the words “Holocaust” and “genocide” is ineffective. Handing an educator a curriculum guide that includes a Holocaust lesson or unit does not mean that the educator is informed or prepared to tackle such a complex topic. The rise of antisemitic comments, information, and behaviors in this country and around the world make it clear that not all students, their families, or our fellow educators will accept the facts and welcome the discussions. Administrators and state education officials must provide the designated teacher with emotional support, professional development, and properly vetted resources. When parents, guardians, or community members question or criticize the curriculum, the administration must be prepared to defend vehemently and concisely the reasoning behind the lesson.
Educating people of all ages and situations in life is the best tool we have for fixing the misinformation, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation that have become facts in the minds of a significant number of people. We educators work diligently in our classrooms to create informed and compassionate individuals, and this is valuable and necessary work. But we also recognize that our students’ actions and thoughts are shaped and fueled by their home environment. Family members, religious leaders, and friends all wield power over our student’s vision of the world and their definition of “them.” Holocaust and genocide education must reach all members of society if anything is to change. This education includes recognizing and analyzing the propaganda and deliberate lies spread by selfish, fearful, or angry groups and individuals. This education must help to uncover the events and reasons that have encouraged hatred and distrust. Educators often carry the burden of providing a safe environment for students to discuss what they have heard at home or within their communities. At the same time, we educators sometimes think we know and understand but do not always recognize our own blurred vision of facts. If we are to help in preserving and protecting democratic values and institutions, then we must continue to educate ourselves and recognize exactly what we say and do in the classrooms, the faculty rooms, the meeting rooms, and in the world at large. We must continue to help each other to make a positive difference to create a more just world and to prevent future tragedies from occurring.
About the author: Lynne Rosenbaum Ravas retired from teaching and began presenting with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s Generations Program. In addition to serving as a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, she volunteers with the Federal Executive Board’s Hate Crimes Working Group and other organizations in the area.
On the occasion of Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, Anne Frank House Executive Director, Ronald Leopold, reflects on the relationship between the Holocaust and today: whether democratic societies, which were rebuilt with so much care in the shadow of the Holocaust, are in danger and how despite this fear, Anne Frank’s words can guide our youth to a brighter future. This piece was specially adapted for Echoes & Reflections from his keynote speech for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center on June 5th, 2019.
On the occasion of Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, we recall that the remembrance of the Holocaust is connected to the present and the future.
Anne’s fifteenth birthday would also be her last, because not much later, fate intervenes. On August 4th, 1944, a raid takes place in the building at 263 Prinsengracht, in which all eight people in hiding and the two male helpers are arrested. The people in hiding are deported via the Westerbork transit camp in the East of the Netherlands to Auschwitz and from there to various other concentration camps. Of the eight, only Anne’s father Otto Frank ultimately survives the war. The others perish under inhumane circumstances. Anne and her sister Margot succumb to typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in mid-February 1945, two months before the camp is liberated.
But the meaning of the Anne Frank House goes further than the tragedy in which it is rooted. The House also forms a mirror in which we can see ourselves, not to admire our beauty like in a fairytale: Not “mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”, but to be confronted with who we are, what we as human beings are capable of, what the values are that make us human. The fate of Anne and Margot Frank was the work of human hands. It was not the result of a natural disaster, not the work of creatures from another planet, not even the work of one particular type of person. Visitors to the Anne Frank House are invited to reflect on this, and challenged to ask themselves questions, often uncomfortable questions concerning our moral compass. Questions about the choices we make and the consequences they have for ourselves and for others, about the need to protect ourselves against ourselves.
Otto Frank remarked, shortly before the Anne Frank House opened in 1960, that “we should stop teaching history lessons and should start teaching lessons from history.” I don’t assert that we should stop teaching history lessons, but his intrinsic message was clear: history lessons are of little use if they don’t also serve as a mirror for our own actions.
What is the relevance of the Holocaust in the 21st century for generations whose grandparents and great-grandparents were born after WWII? Aren’t the circumstances and events of the past too distant from us? Can they still have a guiding significance in 2019? Or do we soon lose ourselves in slogans, in banal comparisons, in platitudes that sound good but can no longer serve as a moral compass.
History gives us food for thought, not so much because it repeats itself, but because it offers a view of what lies behind human thinking and actions. What motivated people to think and act the way they did? What considerations did they weigh, how do they explain their own time and how do we perceive it in retrospect?
Anyone who has thought about WWII and the Shoah inevitably comes up with the question of how things could have gone so far; at what moment might history have taken a different turn. Historians have already written libraries full about this and undoubtedly there will be much more written. But in 2019 that question also raises an urgent contemporary dilemma related to democratic vigilance: what do we see and hear around us, how do we “read” our own time, how do we interpret the risks? Is our open, democratic society and the rule of law, which we rebuilt with so much care in the shadow of the Holocaust, in danger? Has the world lost its way and are we en route to new tragedies?
Surely it will not happen to us again in a relatively short span of time that we miss the moment to turn the tide of history? That we let the “window to act” pass us by, while the warning lights of the past flash brighter and brighter? Are we going to make the same mistake twice?
“I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support,” Anne Frank wrote in the first sentence of her diary, still unaware of how important this support would prove to be in the more than two years that followed. We can only speculate about her thoughts during the last months of her young life in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Was she able to hold on to her dreams and ideals in a situation of increasing hopelessness? Did she still believe that “. . . people are truly good at heart”, as she had written in her diary a short time before the arrest? Did she gaze at the sky, like she had earlier through the attic window of the hiding place, and think everything is going to turn out alright?
The dreams expressed by Anne Frank implore us to think about who we are and who we want to be, about the world in which we now live and the one we want to live in, about the things that make us human. Her life story serves as a warning and as a source of inspiration, as a guide to achieving a better world, a better future. It is important to realize that Anne Frank’s short life began in 1929 in a free and democratic Germany and ended a mere fifteen years later in a world of total barbarism. This malevolence did not begin with the outbreak of WWII, but in the years 1932-1933 with the rapid demise of German democracy and the Nazi takeover of power.
I don’t believe we are facing that same inconceivable question at this moment. But I do believe there is every reason to more vigorously defend our open, democratic society and the rule of law. The question I ask is whether we maintain enough of a connection with this contemporary, everyday context. Wouldn’t it be better if we took that context as the starting point for a Shoah-related educational experience instead of a history lesson? Speaking in management terms, shouldn’t we have remembering the Shoah “pulling” from the present instead of “pushing” from the past?
Youth help us fulfil our missions and accordingly build the world of their dreams. They offer us new perspectives, which are accompanied by new connotations. Let us therefore consider how we can actively engage young people, listen to them and welcome them with open arms. It is my experience that there are many very talented and committed young people, sometimes incredibly young, from whom we can learn a lot.
Since the first publication of the Diary of Anne Frank in 1947, it has been read by millions of young people around the world. In the words she penned, they hear the voice of someone their own age, a peer. Her dreams are their dreams.
I want to take you back to April 11, 1944. It’s a lovely spring day in Amsterdam, with a clear blue sky, almost 70 degrees outside, a mild breeze is blowing. A long, bitter cold winter is finally giving way to the first warmth of the year. The trees are budding; it will not be long now before they’re in full bloom. It is a day full of yearning, yearning for everything that has been missing for so long: the warm rays of the sun on your skin, fresh air, the smell of nature awakening. Anne Frank is at her desk in the musty annex writing one of the longest and most moving entries in her diary.
A break-in downstairs in the building makes her once again realize that she’s in hiding, makes her think about being Jewish and what that means to her. She’s scared but determined to be brave and strong. She’s ready for death but wants to live, wants to make her mark on the world. She reflects on who she is and who she wants to be: a Jew; Dutch; a woman with inner strength, a goal, opinions, religion and love.
“If only I can be myself, I’ll be satisfied.”
With these simple words Anne Frank reveals something very personal to us. On that beautiful spring day, she doesn’t share an identity claim with us, but the desire for space and the freedom to discover and develop herself. Her diary is the consequence of that search. She has been locked up in a small space with seven others for more than two years, continually discovering herself but always realizing that she is part of a group of people who are dependent on one another. She wants to make her voice heard, she has strong opinions, but is also vulnerable and prepared to change her point-of-view, even if this is easier said than done. Each time she asks herself questions and presents herself with dilemmas. And she realizes if she must get along with the seven other inhabitants of the Secret Annex, that she sometimes has to comply with their wishes.
The very last sentence of her diary speaks volumes: “. . . [I] keep on trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be, if . . . if only there were no other people in the world.” But other people live there as well. “If only I can be myself” Just like in the diary, not as an identity claim, but as an individual desire and a democratic endeavor to ensure that everyone has the opportunity and freedom to discover and develop themselves, while keeping in mind that other people live in the world. Whoever reads Anne Frank’s diary cannot help but think about the dilemmas this presents, about what kind of attitudes and abilities are required of us. This isn’t going to give us the best of all possible worlds, but hopefully it will spare us the Hell that Anne Frank, Margot Frank, and millions of others were forced to endure. They were not only prohibited from being their true selves, but from being at all.
About the Author: Ronald Leopold has been the executive director of the Anne Frank House since 2011. Leopold held various posts at the Dutch General Pension Fund for Public Employees and was involved in the implementation of the legislation regarding war victims. Leopold lives in Amsterdam with his wife and daughter.
As a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Florida, who survived the tragedy on February 14, 2018, I have spent the past year grappling with this question. By definition, a survivor is a person who continues to function or prosper, in spite of opposition, hardships or setbacks. I have always been in awe of Holocaust Survivors. I tried, but for much of my life I could not fathom what they had been through. Every Holocaust Survivor has a unique experience, but all have suffered loss and terror beyond imagination. They are my true heroes and I think about them daily – the ones I’ve met in person, and through books and movies. Their will to live, attitude of perseverance, hope for future generations, and willingness to share their personal heart-wrenching stories, so we can learn from them and keep their lessons alive, is inspiring.
And yet, following the shooting, I felt guilty listening to others who called my fellow MSD teachers, my students and me “survivors.” The survivors I’ve always associated with that word had nothing left after the war – no family, no possessions, no therapy, no service dogs, no support. Many were often told to “shake it off, move on, try to forget it, make a NEW life!” But, like them, we did survive a tragedy that needs to be told.
The value of sharing Holocaust Survivors’ stories and our own is very much motivated by my experience teaching a Holocaust course that was started at our school 5 years ago, to help students understand that the study of genocide is imperative to upholding world democracy. It is a yearlong course, divided into a History of the Holocaust semester and Literature of the Holocaust semester. There was no precedent for this class at our school, so the language arts teacher and I reached out for recommended resources from Echoes & Reflections. We based our curriculum on the comprehensive material in their original Teacher’s Guide and on their website, which provides educators and students access to Holocaust Survivor video history testimony to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. Motivated by these lessons, over the past 5 years MSD High School has had numerous speakers, such as Holocaust Survivors, liberators, and WWII veterans come talk with our students about the impact of this important historical event. We make an annual spring luncheon for area Survivors where the students are hosts, servers, entertainers, and most importantly – listeners. We also hosted a Kristallnacht commemoration event in 2017 with a Holocaust Survivor Band and invited the entire community. In essence, we are continuously trying to expose the students and our community to the lessons of the Holocaust through a personal lens in the hopes that others understand that hate is NEVER okay, being a bystander is NOT okay, and that we must all learn to be upstanders. In many respects, these lessons are no different in the aftermath of the shooting at MSD.
I was teaching a Holocaust Studies course at MSD on February 14, 2018 in room 1214 on the first floor of the 1200 building, when a former MSD student began to shoot up our school. I have been teaching at MSD for 18 years and 10 of those years were spent in room 1214 – a Happy Learning Place for me and my students. The walls were adorned with posters of photos of Holocaust victims and there was a large yellow banner in the back of the room that stated: “We Will Never Forget”. That banner was given to me by a Holocaust Survivor. Although this room was dedicated to honoring the atrocities of the past, it was also a room full of promise and hope.
That day, we began the 90-minute class with student presentations on how to combat hate and hate group tactics that may be present on their soon-to-be college campuses. We then moved on to an IWitness activity from the USC Shoah Foundation about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and we watched testimony from German Jewish Athletes who were banned from participating. During the activity we started a discussion on important players during those Olympics and I asked if they knew Adi Dassler. Nicholas Dworet, a senior who just earned a swimming scholarship at the University of Indianapolis, knew it was the German shoemaker who started Adidas! We were all so impressed and he was smiling ear to ear, just as we heard loud shots in the hallway outside our classroom door.
The students immediately flew from their desks to find cover, in a classroom that had no Safe Space. Within seconds, the shooter was blasting his AR 15 into the glass window that runs vertically down the center of the door. The sound was deafening as the bullets flew through the glass randomly aiming at anything that moved. It was complete chaos. Students screamed while they watched their classmates, their friends, get hit with a barrage of bullets. The shooter wounded four of my students and murdered two beautiful souls, Nicholas Dworet, the star athlete, and Helena Ramsay, a beautiful young lady who stated at the beginning of the year that hate would someday be eradicated. They will never fulfill their dreams for the future, as those dreams died in the very class where they were learning how to combat hate. The lessons of the Holocaust came into room 1214.
Following the tragedy, the #NeverAgain movement was not a coincidence. The students over the years who took the Holocaust Studies course knew this slogan, studied this slogan and realized after this shooting, that it was up to them to make changes. Most of the March For Our Lives students learned the term “upstanders” in Room 1214. In part, this learning experience sparked a youth movement that is unstoppable, and my students have set an example for youth around the world. What they do matters! Following the tragedy, not taking action was NOT an option. Speaking out and speaking up on causes such as gun control, school safety, voter registration, and mental health reform has become a key focus in our community and many others have taken their leads from the students in Parkland.
So, like the Holocaust Survivors that we treasure, we too, have a story to tell and it becomes everyone’s responsibility to pass it on. As you walk out the door of my new classroom – a portable among many temporarily placed on the outdoor basketball courts, you can’t miss a very large Echoes & Reflections poster with a quote from the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel: “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.”
We now live by these words: “If we don’t do it, who will? The world is watching.”
About the Author: Ivy Schamis is a Social Studies teacher from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
I do not remember my Mom ever sitting me down and telling me the whole story of how she came to America from Austria, rather the details seemed to unfold over my lifetime, but the primary points were there from as far back as I can remember. She was six, her brother was four… Kristallnacht had happened, and her parents felt the only way they could secure the safety of their children was to send them to America with a family friend who would shelter them across the ocean.
The year was 1939 and once in NYC they moved into an orphanage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Meanwhile, my grandmother stayed in Vienna to care for her elderly parents and my grandfather boarded the MS St. Louis – often called the “Voyage of the Damned” – planning to settle in Cuba and then send for his family to join him. Unfortunately, upon arrival into Cuba’s harbor, my grandfather learned (along with all the other St. Louis passengers) that the documents he had paid so dearly for would not gain him entry into Cuba, which admitted only about 30 of the 937 passengers (those who were not Jews or had special visas). The passengers not admitted sat in Cuba’s harbor for 40 days while the world debated their fate, ultimately returning the ship to Europe where many perished at the hands of the Nazis. But my grandfather survived the war in a UK POW Camp, ultimately joining his children in the USA (via Canada with less than $2 in his pocket), while it would be ten years before my grandmother was reunited with all of them. And then, she would die within a year of her arrival here.
A few details came early – my mother does not remember being scared during the journey to the USA but clearly remembers feeling very cared for at the orphanage. Although the orphanage cut the hair of the children there very short in an effort to make it easier to care for them, understanding all that my Mom had lost already, they left her long golden curls intact. She worried about her brother more, shifting even at that young age from sibling to caretaker. They wrote letters to a cousin in neutral Switzerland who in turn wrote to their Mom in Vienna, relaying messages back and forth.
My grandmother kept diaries the entire time (they formed the basis for a book my uncle published in Austria with help from my mom and a professional historian/writer a few years ago) and in reading their translations, the war, the Holocaust, and all that happened in her world made the facts of history very real and personal for me. I felt her pain – shared her sorrows – so wished I had known her.
So much of my mom’s story shaped who I am and what I have done with my life. The lessons I took away from it – the family friend whose name I do not know but who brought my mom and her brother to the USA, taught me that one person can truly make a difference – one person made it possible for their lives to be saved. The fate of the MS St. Louis passengers showed me what happens when the world turns its back – when no one cares. The kindness shown to my mom at the orphanage taught me how important even small acts can be. And, as I became a mom myself, I have come to understand the extent to which we as parents will put the well-being of our children above the pain our decisions to help them might cause us.
These lessons stay with me. When I walk the refugee camps – from Darfur to Jordan to Kenya to most recently, Bangladesh, I see my mom’s face on every child I encounter. I hear my grandfather’s voice when talking with those who feel the world has forgotten them. I shudder as I see history repeating itself and hear parents and families share the pain of separation and the horrors that brought them to this point.
But, equally, I try to remember how much even one small act can mean and to push myself to take on that challenge. I relish every smile I can help bring out and every song I sing with kids in languages that leave us all unsure of what it is we are actually singing. I push myself to play soccer in the camp’s 100+ degree heat because it is a way of connecting and of forgetting where the soccer game happens to be. I offer my hand when a lack of a common language prevents any other form of communication and try to make eye contact whenever it is culturally appropriate. And as I do so, I am reminded to be thankful for all that I have, for every experience I have been blessed to be part of, and for the many good people with whom I have been privileged to share my life.
And, I understand that just as my mother was an innocent caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust, so too are the many kids I encounter at every stop that I make I understand how important it is to not focus on the numbers but to remember that each number represents people – real people. I long for the day that the world sees ALL children for what they are – CHILDREN… not refugees, migrants, aliens, or defined by the borders they happen to be born between or the color of their skin or the faith they practice or the heritage that makes them who they are – just CHILDREN first and foremost. Children do not get to pick where they will be born, whom they will be born to, or under what circumstances. If they did, they surely would not choose poverty, conflict zones, or abusive situations. After all, they are children. And, we are the grown-ups.
Teachers especially are the grown-ups who work every day to empower students with the knowledge, empathy, and awareness they need to be the next generation of global citizens. So whether it is by bringing in classroom resources like UNICEF Kid Power that build students’ skills and connections as global citizens, teaching with lessons from Echoes & Reflections, or connecting with community organizations locally, I encourage all teachers to continue to lead the way by helping students believe that they have the power to make a difference in this world. Let us learn from the past and take whatever action – large or small – that is within our individual power and create a world in which we put CHILDREN FIRST.
About the author: Caryl M. Stern is the President and CEO of UNICEF USA. A dynamic change-maker, Stern has dedicated her career to helping others through education, compassion, advocacy and rolling up her sleeves.
This past summer I traveled to Poland as part of Echoes & Reflections Advanced Program with Yad Vashem with a group of educators, where we were surrounded by hate from the ghetto in Warsaw to the ghetto fields in Lodz. We stood at Birkenau together to bear witness to the greatest atrocity in the human world, fueled by hate — and by a particular strain of hate: antisemitism. As I landed back in the United States my heart was overwhelmed with the idea that hate can cause so much harm. While I understood this, to witness it gave me a whole new perspective.
Today, it has become clear that you do not have to travel far to find hate. My heart was riddled with overwhelming sadness and defeat as I entered my classroom the day after the shooting in Pittsburgh, PA. My heart once again sat in disbelief and shock as I thought about how to talk to my students about hatred and how it had reared its ugly head in a beautiful city with a thriving Jewish community. Now antisemitism was not thousands of miles away in Europe and did not occur decades prior. It was here, now, in Pennsylvania, our own backyard. I wondered how my students would respond. Would they want to talk about gun control or the president? How would I steer the conversation back to where it needs to go? How would I answer questions that my students will pose? They will ask “why the Jews?” and while I know the textbook answer, I will have to say to them “I don’t know.”
As I look back on my trip to Poland, it is not hate that I am reminded of, but love. While it would be easy to say antisemitism and hate were the common themes, I challenged myself to see that love is the common thread that is woven throughout. Stories of people doing right in the face of terrible wrong, both active and passive resistance, and the undying will to survive. The question becomes “What do I do with that?” As an educator, how do I take the horrible suffering of a generation born decades before me and give it meaning? Then I remember the faces. The beautiful faces that were snuffed from this world too soon — mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, husbands and wives. I tell their stories and as a classroom and community, we learn their stories. I allow my students to feel through them the will to overcome hate.
I believe we can combat hate with truth, education, and unwavering love. Be a voice for the voiceless and let your love shine brighter than the hate in the world. When teaching the Holocaust I make every effort to focus on the rescuers and those engaged in resistance. Who are they? What were they doing to help? I ask my students “How could you help?”
Our small community is banding together and collecting donations to send to the synagogue in Pittsburgh. The message is clear: when hate shows itself, we must make our voices of love and humanity louder. Never again! Hate is sometimes just around the corner, but if we come together as a community, a state, a nation, a world, we can combat antisemitism and all forms of hate – one story at a time.
About the author: Deborah Hamilton is a middle school social studies learning facilitator at Northern Potter School District located in Ulysses, PA. Deborah encourages her students to stand against social injustice and to be a voice for the voiceless.
In the aftermath of last year’s events in Charlottesville, VA, Jennifer Goss, an Echoes & Reflections facilitator and classroom teacher from Staunton, VA, reflects on how “hate in our backyard” impacted her classroom and community. A year later she reflects on how her students’ study of the Holocaust has contributed to their healing process and gives them the skills to engage in respectful dialogue on complex issues.
Charlottesville. It has been one year since the city just a short trip over the mountain from mine became a word uttered in nearly every American household. A beautiful, quaint city, larger than my home of Staunton, but still just as lovely, was forever changed by the events of August 11-12, 2017. In the time that has elapsed since moments of hate touched Central Virginia, not a week has passed when it has not somehow come up in conversation. Whether it’s the description of where in Virginia that I live or the airport that I have flown out of to the location where I am speaking to an individual, the response is always similar, “Charlottesville…yes, I know exactly where that is.”
I’d like to say that in this year, I’ve discovered the answers to solve issues related to hatred and discrimination. I wish I felt like our nation and our world has made great strides. I’d like to be able to comment that incidents of hate have drastically diminished (Note: according to ADL reported incidents increased by 57% in 2017). Of course, those of you who have taken the time to read a column such as this know that sadly, this is still not our reality.
What I have discovered in this past year, however, is that there is power in community and conversation. The ripples of Charlottesville have made uncomfortable conversations rise to the surface and in doing so; have brought in new voices and opinions that may not have been ready or felt safe to speak out in the past. Not all of these voices are ones of agreement but there is power in that as well—learning to have effective discourse on issues that divide us is a critical issue in building stronger communities.
One of the places I have been privileged to witness this is within my own classroom and school. As a small Southern town, the issues of Southern history and heritage are part of our community just as they are part of the community of Charlottesville and many others throughout the South. Not all of my students approach this history from the same cultural and historical background but day after day, I repeatedly witnessed respectful and effective discourse on topics that had previously lay dormant. In our region, many schools and segments of our public infrastructure such as roadways bear the names of Confederate leaders. Some students believe that these names should be retained for the sake of marking the importance of local history while others wish to see the names altered because of their direct links to issues such as slavery and oppression. Many of my students were able to vote in our local elections this past spring and some made choices based on this very issue.
Despite differing opinions, most students are able to discuss their beliefs in a respectful and appropriate manner. I have been personally fortunate to witness this repeatedly in my classroom and believe that some of these very skills were facilitated by discussion of tough topics such as the Holocaust within the confines of our classroom walls. In the wake of the incidents in Charlottesville, I utilized the USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness mini-lesson Promoting Effective Conversation Skills, and I plan to make this a staple in my classroom, regardless of the subject I am teaching. The testimony of Holocaust survivor Henry Oertelt and the strategies employed in this mini-lesson helped my students consider ways to disagree but still respect one another. To me, the importance of skills like these goes beyond the content and I am grateful for tools such as this to help me in this process.
It is my hope that as these students go out into the larger nation and world, they will carry their effective conversational tools with them. These students can show the world that you can disagree and still shake hands and walk away from a conversation a bit more educated on what and why the other side holds their beliefs and opinions. These students can also educate others on the lessons they learned from studying the Holocaust—that every human being matters and how the path of hatred doesn’t always have to have the same conclusion. They will take the lessons of Holocaust survivors like Henry Oertelt, Kurt Messerschmidt, and Itka Zygmuntowicz and show the world that there is hope for a brighter future even in the complicated and seemingly uncompromising world that we are all trying to navigate today. It is our task as educators not to shrink away from complicated topics and histories but instead, to provide our students with the tools to navigate them respectfully.
About the author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012.