An Open Letter to Educators

My mother used to enjoy telling everyone that when I came home from my first day of school, I told her I was going to be a teacher. That was 1959. I never changed my mind. I never wanted to be anything else. My journey began by teaching anyone who would humor me—siblings, cousins, kids in the neighborhood—anyone who let me practice my craft with a piece of chalk and a sidewalk, and in time, a real chalkboard. Funny that now, at the end of my career, those memories should come flooding back. It would make more sense to think back to 1975 when I did finally achieve my childhood dream and become a teacher, but clearly that was just one of the many milestones in my career; the journey began long before that and never ended.

That’s the way it is with most teachers; it is in our DNA. We plan, rehearse, and perform several shows a day, thriving on the energy of our audience, hopefully seeing questions form in invisible bubbles above our students’ heads as they ponder what they are hearing and seeing, always looking for an opportunity to go just a bit deeper, and convince those who would often prefer to be somewhere else, doing almost anything else, that this—whatever this is—is exciting and important. We adapt our material to meet a range of skill levels and look for any opportunity to infuse creativity and revise our lessons based on what is on students’ minds and what is happening around them. For me, nothing was more energizing and exciting than introducing young teens to the power of literature. To watch students explore the human condition through characters and conflicts and to respond in terms of their own experiences and growing understanding of the world around them with all of its complexity, mystery, and uncertainty was magical. I credit my junior high English teacher with lighting that fire under me as we read and discussed Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.

My story is not unique. Every teacher I’ve ever met has a story of how they came to the profession, how they accepted the responsibility and embraced the challenge to prepare the next generation to take their place in society, capable and confident. Teachers instinctively understand that for what amounts to but a few moments in time, we are a tremendous influence on young minds. What we do with those moments matters.

For the past 14 years, I have had the great fortune of serving as the ADL Project Director for Echoes & Reflections. In that role, I have had the honor of meeting and working with teachers across the country, hearing about the ways that they are helping students think about difficult topics and themes associated with the Holocaust. With every passing year, teachers have shared with me that the senseless acts of violence that have traumatized our communities—most recently the tragic loss of life at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha Synagogue—have made their jobs increasingly more difficult. They ask themselves how they can help their students make sense of events that they themselves are struggling to comprehend. But, they find a way. They understand and embrace the urgency. They put aside their confusion and sadness, and spring into action like all “first responders” do. They know intuitively that they must provide a safe environment where students can ask questions and engage in difficult conversations. They know how important it is that soon-to-be adults know how to separate fact from fiction and build their understanding of events based on sound evidence. They also know that they must encourage and model an optimistic attitude—one that sends a strong message that communities can heal and thrive despite overwhelming grief when good people act in positive ways. Teachers know that those first moments after tragic events matter, perhaps most of all.

These are difficult times. We have seen a rise in antisemitism and other forms of hate. We have watched as facts have been cast aside and loyalty to one group or another has become the lens with which we see the world. We have seen social media take the place of in-person relationships and institutions strain to inspire confidence in light of widespread cynicism and disillusionment. But, we must also remember that there have always been difficult times and there will always be challenges. The students we are teaching today need our guidance and attention as much as yesterday’s students did, as much as tomorrow’s will. We must remind ourselves that every year there are new students; we do not keep teaching the same ones over and over, and, in the end we have only a moment or two to add something to their story, something that we hope will last and have meaning.

It has been my honor and privilege to be an educator. I begin my retirement with a great sense of pride but also with unflinching confidence that our students will continue to learn and thrive because of the many dedicated teachers who make magic in classrooms across the country every day. It couldn’t be any other way…it’s in our DNA.

About the Author: Deborah A. Batiste has been the Echoes & Reflections Project Director at ADL for 14 years since the program’s founding in 2005. In addition to being one of the key content developers, she has conducted professional development programs to effectively use Echoes & Reflections in the classroom in 40 states and the District of Columbia, reaching thousands of educators and community leaders. In 2019 she will begin her journey into retirement. 

Every Child Makes a Difference

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. 

Breaking through the Silence

As the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht approaches, I am drawn to the words of Holocaust survivor Kurt Messerchmidt: “Silence is what did the harm.” I can’t help but consider the relevance of this statement and Kurt’s experiences during the Holocaust to the lives of my students. The anniversary of Kristallnacht, as well as my recent experiences in Holocaust education, provide a powerful teaching opportunity to examine the importance of recognizing personal narratives as well as the consequences of staying silent in the face of injustice.

This summer, through Echoes & Reflections—a partnership of ADL, USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem—I had the opportunity to travel to Poland with an incredible group of dedicated educators from across the United States and our guide, Sheryl Ochayon, the Program Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.  To say that it was an impactful experience doesn’t begin to encapsulate the enormity of what we learned and what we were able to bring back to our classrooms.

I am an educator at The Newcomer Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois and work with immigrant and refugee students that are newly arrived to the United States. My Newcomer students, many of whom have suffered trauma in their countries of origin, connect on a deep level with the study of the Holocaust.  The fear and constant threat of violence, hiding to survive, the sense of displacement, and the loss of “home” are some of the things my students have already experienced in their short lives.

The trip to Poland—standing on seemingly forgotten historic grounds where violent pogroms occurred, walking through the deafening silence of concentration camps, and touring museums full of exhibits of what used to be Jewish life—provided me with a fresh perspective on an otherwise familiar topic.  It was a reminder to find the individual stories in the lives of the more than six million victims of the Holocaust, and to remember that every single person, one-by-one, added up to six million. It was a reminder to teach my students that the six million are not a singular collective story of loss and by recognizing individual lives, cut short by cruelty and hate, is how we restore their humanity and work to ensure that future acts of hate cease to occur.

Every Newcomer student is a single story.  Each student carries his or her own hurt, loss, and suffering.  At times, unintentionally, and under the weight of the monumental task of preparing my students for new lives in the United States, I’ve exercised a version of “silence” by failing to recognize their pain.  Without knowing it, I stopped hearing their voices.

I hope to always acknowledge my students and their plights as individual stories of resilience and hope.  This is what I brought back with me from Poland.  A fresh way of being an advocate for my students and a reminder to find the one in the six million. As educators, it is as important today as it ever was, to take every student into account and to help them find their voice.  In the end, it is the silence that continues to do the most harm.

 

About the author: Mario Perez is the Coordinator and Social Science/Human Geography Teacher at the Newcomer Center in Arlington Heights, IL, a lifelong Chicagoan, and proud educator for over 18 years working with immigrants and refugees as they start their new lives in the United States.

Technology Is the Road, Not the Destination

One of the most powerful exhibits I’ve ever experienced about the Holocaust is at the site of what was once the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland.

Here, in the installation by Yad Vashem at Block 27, the deeply human story is told through flickering film footage of Jews living ordinary lives in Europe before World War II: a young girl ice skating, children singing and dancing.

The story is also told through video testimony of Jews who survived, through giant pages listing the millions of names of those who didn’t, and through drawings on the walls.

Viewers are left with the gut-wrenching reality that the Shoah destroyed real people with real names and real lives.

That some aspects of the exhibit were technologically sophisticated and others were devoid of technology is entirely incidental to the experience.

In the sphere of remembrance, technology should never be a “thing” in its own right. Stories, really, are the thing. They are at the heart of how we talk to each other, share memories, transmit understanding. Technology has always been in service of that human function. It is a utility to help tell our stories and deliver our content.  Within Echoes & Reflections, for example, visual history testimonies from survivors and other witnesses to the Holocaust, were carefully curated from USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, and embedded within each classroom lesson and theme to bring the history to life with real people who lived through this event.

This month and next, as students return to school, I ask educators to bear this message in mind. Students from toddlers to twentysomethings exist in a virtual matrix of gadgets, video games and social media accounts.

This is natural. Media, like fashion, is ever changing. The trick is to use the latest technology to meet the students where they are, and to deliver to them stories that illuminate.

It was with this intention that USC Shoah Foundation has embarked on several technological innovations.

Our 2016 documentary, “The Last Goodbye,” is the first virtual-reality film to take audiences through a concentration camp. The power of it lies not in the capability to capture a scene in 360 degrees, but in the immersive experience of being in the Majdanek death camp with the narrator, Pinchas Gutter, the only member of his family of four to survive the camp in Poland. Adding to the authenticity of the experience is the fact that Gutter was filmed not on a green screen in some studio, but on site. When he is standing at the door of the gas chamber where his sister was murdered, there is no escaping the terrible truth of what that place means in his memory.

In this same spirit, we have recorded more than a dozen testimonies using a technology we developed that allows users to interact with the survivors on a screen. (The interviewees were filmed volumetrically, meaning it will one day be possible to reconstruct their images into holograms.) Called Dimensions in Testimony, these interactive biographies enable viewers to be guided by their own curiosity; to take an inquisitive approach to learning a survivor’s story, in the same way we do when we see a Holocaust survivor speak to a classroom.

Technology is not the message. It is what our audiences experience that really counts.

About the author: Stephen D. Smith, PhD, is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation.

“No Jews”

My grandfather was an illegal immigrant who worked his way from being a dishwasher to becoming a hotel clerk in New Hampshire. He and his family left Eastern Europe a few years after the First World War, escaping the anti-Jewish pogroms in his region. Born in 1901, he was a young dreamer who smuggled himself across the Canadian border seeking to build a better life. He eventually became a proud citizen of the United States of America who raised his two children to be “good Americans” who only spoke English.

I recently came across some of his private papers that he apparently saved, dated July 1948, a mere three years after the Holocaust ended. As the desk clerk in this rather touristic spot in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, he received the following inquiry from Cleveland, Ohio:

“My wife and I may want twin beds with private bath (or shower), or at least hot and cold running water and a private (inside) toilet, for one week approximately from August 8-15. We prefer European plan, no Jews, a free leak less rowboat, comfort without ‘swank’, with good restaurants nearby. A central meeting place where we could play on occasional game of no-too-expert bridge would be an asset. Please send descriptive literature and quote rates by return mail, dealing with the points mentioned above. Are you on the shore of a lake?”

The same person sent another letter four days later, requesting “a folder” about the amenities available, underscoring their wish for a “gentile atmosphere.”

I am sure that my grandfather, who ironically was a competitive bridge player, kept these letters due to their antisemitic content. Unfortunately, he died a year before I was born and therefore I never had an opportunity to ask him about this incident.

Nowadays it is no longer acceptable to contact a hotel and unabashedly request “no Jews” – not only in the United States, but rather in many places across the globe. Overtly racist language of this kind is shunned, and anti-discrimination guidelines require hotel staff to provide goods and services to guests regardless of race, gender, marital status, disability, age and more. Nevertheless, blatant prejudice in general and antisemitism in particular, has clearly not vanished from the US and beyond. Addressing and combatting antisemitism remains relevant.

Substantiating this grim reality, ADL commissioned an audit of antisemitic incidents in 2017. The findings were disturbing: in the US alone, the number of antisemitic incidents surged to 1,986, a 57% increase from the total in 2016. Although we can feel some relief at the finding that a majority of Americans acknowledge the problem — eight out of ten of polled respondents think that the government must play a role in countering antisemitism — the sheer number of incidents provides a chilling reminder of the urgent need for educational programming to counter antisemitism.

The letter-writer from Ohio had no inhibition against signing his name to shamelessly antisemitic requests. Sixty-nine years later in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists showed no inhibition about showing their faces to the cameras as they chanted “Jews will not replace us.” The data is incontrovertible: the purveyors of antisemitism have grown bolder in our time, and education will be key to stemming the rising tide of hatred. It is incumbent upon us to stand up to this hatred, then and now, and it starts in the classroom.

Seventy years after my grandfather received these letters, educators across the country are incorporating Echoes & Reflections units on antisemitism – both contemporary and historical – into their classrooms.  Teachers have provided positive feedback about the quality and relevance of the materials and feel they are helping to increase students’ knowledge about antisemitism in the world today; and perhaps most importantly, inspiring students to want to do something about it.

Although I never knew my grandfather, he apparently believed in the pursuit of justice. While I may not agree with all of his advice below, I deeply admire his strength of character to speak out. He decided to answer these letters as follows:

“…I could not help but noticing your letter asking for reservations, with ‘reservations’ namely NO JEWS. Well, you also want a leak less rowboat, you might get your delicate feet wet. You want comfort, of course, with good restaurants, or else you might get indigestion. You want a place to play bridge, although not an expert. I’ll bet you are a lousy player, gossiping and criticizing other people at the bridge table. Well, my reaction and suggestion to you is this: Our city is known for being on lakes, four of them. When you do get here, drive down Gale Avenue to Pleasant Street, and there at the end of the street, is a lake: Jump in and do not come up. Disrespectively yours, a good American.”

Ultimately, I would like to hope that my grandfather, wherever he may be, enjoys watching his granddaughter promote professional development programming to combat antisemitism.

About the author: Richelle Budd Caplan has served as the Director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem since 2009, and has been working at Yad Vashem since 1993.

 

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.

Where Do We Find the Inspiration?

This month we asked members of our educator community to share the stories that have inspired them to teach about the Holocaust. The common thread that binds their reflections is the power of the individual story. Although often born from tragic events, such stories can contribute to building empathy and a strong sense of human connection across generations, countries, faiths, and experiences. What stories have moved you to examine the events of this past?  What lessons can be learned from these narratives?

George Bevington is a 9th & 11th Grade English teacher at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta, Georgia.

One of my favorite accounts of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust is the memoir of Hermann Wygoda, In the Shadow of the Swastika. This story appeals to me because of the coolness and poise Wygoda displayed under the extreme threat of getting caught.  Because he could speak both Polish and German, Wygoda was able to pass as a Volksdeutscher[1] and circumvent the suspicion of the Nazis. He also never gave up and continued to fight on in the face of terrible odds.

I have felt compelled to delve deeper into Wygoda’s story because of his resilience to continue fighting, but also to fulfilling his duty as a parent after the war when he started a family. Although he settled down to a quiet life in Chattanooga, TN, he carried this bloody, horrific, but ultimately triumphant story around with him for the rest of his life, while living in the midst of his neighbors who had no knowledge of his experiences.

I was inspired by Wygoda’s story and other partisan’s accounts to create a lesson that details his experiences as well as the experiences of the Bielski brothers during World War II. My students are quite astonished that the literature about these partisans comes from eyewitness accounts and personal diaries.  In particular, Wygoda’s interactions with other partisan groups inspires a lot of discussion with my students. They often reflect on how although many of these groups may not have been on good terms, or even outright enemies, during peace time, the common enemy in the German Army pulled them together. My students are surprised that resistance was not only possible, but in some cases, led to freedom despite terrible odds and the might of the German Army.

What hooks the students’ attention the most is the bravery of these fighters, and the irony of the decision they made to fight back, given the alternative. Throughout the unit and especially near the end, as the outcome of the war becomes inevitable, the students’ enthusiasm grows daily for Wygoda and the Bielskis’ triumphs over the Nazi Army. Fascinating stories with a lot of suspense!   

[1] Nazi term, literally meaning “German-folk,” used to refer to ethnic Germans living outside of Germany.

 

Rachel Herman is the Content Specialist for Education at USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education and is the Institute’s Echoes & Reflections partner lead. Rachel was the Holocaust Educator at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh from 2013 – 2017.

In the United States, Clara Barton is remembered for her work as a nurse during the Civil War and for establishing the American Red Cross. In Armenia, Clara is remembered for a relief effort that saved over 50,000 Armenians. Clara Barton Our Angel, Too, tells her story in a clear, concise narrative—with text in Armenian and in English—and through colorful illustrations. My favorite quote from the book is, “Even though the Armenian people lived far from the United States, Americans understood that all people share a common humanity.” This idea of common humanity is woven throughout the story, and this book is a great way to get students to focus on the importance of empathy, acceptance, and altruism.  I would have loved this book as a child!

Reading this book, I was reminded of a quote by Pastor Andre Trocme, a rescuer during the Holocaust, who said, “I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.”  Clara didn’t know Armenians, she knew human beings. She heard about people in need and did what she could to help them. Having empathy and seeing people as human beings, full stop, is what I aspire to do. As the Echoes & Reflections Partner lead for USC Shoah Foundation, the testimony I work with on a daily basis helps me empathize with and learn from people of all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. I am grateful for this opportunity and for the resources we have available that constantly expand my worldview.

 

Dunreith Kelly Lowenstein is an Echoes & Reflections facilitator, a former English/History teacher, and a Fulbright Specialist with the U.S Department of State.

In July 2003, I was invited to attend a presentation by Ava Kadishson Schieber, a Holocaust survivor from the former Yugoslavia. I had no idea when I accepted the invitation that it would lead to an ongoing relationship with the speaker. Ava spent four long years hiding in an unheated shed between the chickens and the pigs on a farm outside of Belgrade. Her experiences during the years prior to, during, and immediately after World War II were harrowing and challenging. But growing up in a loving, multi-generational family greatly contributed to her positive outlook on life and subsequent ability to survive, and even thrive, in the face of the odds she frequently encountered. Her resilience and physical and mental strength were obvious as she spoke. Completely mesmerized, I introduced myself after the talk to express my gratitude to her for sharing her story. She gave me her calling card with one of her line drawings and address and invited me to visit her home.

I immediately read her book Soundless Roar; Stories, Poems and Drawings, a work which includes stories about her life before the war, and could see how wonderful it would have been to use during my twelve years of teaching English/History to middle and high school students. (I had recently left the classroom and begun a career in professional development).

I have since had the pleasure of accompanying Ava dozens of times as she speaks to middle and high school students, in university classrooms, and at the professional development seminars I facilitate. (I have made it a practice to provide teachers with a copy of her book).

We have developed an enduring friendship, and I learn from her every time we meet. Ava has regaled me with many tales ranging from light and whimsical memories of growing up in Novi Sad; desperate times looking for her father, grandmother, sister and mother after the war; leaving for Israel with her mother in 1949 and building a life there; her decision to begin again in Chicago over thirty years ago after falling in love a second time in her 50s. Now 92, Ava has decided to permanently return to Israel this fall to be with her family. I am relieved to know her voice will continue to inspire others through the availability of her testimony that is part of the USC Shoah Foundation archive.

 

Patrick Nolan is a Holocaust educator at Sandalwood High School/Florida and State College at Jacksonville, South Campus, Jacksonville, Florida.

I have been studying the history of the Holocaust for more than thirty years; in that time I am sure I have read hundreds of books, articles, journal entries, or other pieces of writing related to the Holocaust. Several stand out and have served as inspiration for the lessons I teach. One in particular has always haunted me, and I use excerpts from this text to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust in general—particularly in the ghettos—and the impact the Holocaust had on a single human being to whom my students can relate.

The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, while certainly not as well known or widely-read as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, is a stunning exploration into how human depravity impacted the lives of so many young, vibrant, innocent people in places like Lodz, Warsaw, Lublin, and other ghettos. When the attack on Poland commenced on September 1, 1939, the young Dawid Sierakowiak writes about it with what can only be described as a sense of exhilaration. He seems to mock the older women who scream and cry at the sound of bombs exploding and airplanes flying overhead, largely because to him this is an exciting moment in his life—he has no memory of war, and therefore, like other teenagers, there is no sense of the reality of what is happening to his country and to his fellow Poles. It doesn’t take long in the narrative for Sierakowiak’s demeanor to change, and when his mother is taken away—to the east for resettlement?—he cannot muster tears to cry for her and for his own loss. Sierakowiak’s diary ends abruptly, as did the lives of millions of people during the Holocaust. We have Sierakowiak’s words as testimony to what he endured, but we do not have Sierakowiak himself to embrace and to reassure. Such a young life, snuffed out in its prime, should serve as a reminder of the tenuous connection all humanity has to the whims of those who would conquer and control us. My students are moved by Sierakowiak’s story, as am I. I will continue to tell his story in his own words so that my students, who are his age now, will better understand and appreciate both what they have and what was taken away from so many others.

 

“Those who knew what this was all about must make way for those who know little…”

I first traveled to Poland in the summer of 2005. I had never left the United States and had no idea I’d return years later as a researcher and Fulbright scholar. The country had just joined the European Union. Cranes hung from the sky like praying mantises, new tarmac was laid in the airport, highways were expanding, and people seemed cautiously optimistic, if not hopeful. Just over a decade prior, Poland had still been under martial law implemented by the communist ruling government. Now it was the World Cup, Poland was in the semi-finals, and all over the city restaurants spilled into the streets as people gathered around giant outdoor screens. In the midst of this, our student tour walked through the winding cobblestone alleys of Krakòw, learning the history of the Kazimierz neighborhood, the former Jewish quarter of the city. Krakòw was a central city for the Nazi Party, and as such had not been razed to the ground with as much malice as its sister city, Warsaw, where over 80% of the city’s buildings sustained structural damage. Warsaw has a feeling of artifice, of new plaster and paint over old wounds. Krakòw has ghosts.

As I walked, our guide, a scholar from the Jaegallonian University read us “The End and the Beginning”, by Wislawa Symborska, Nobel prize-winning Polish poet,

“Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

 Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.”

This poem hung above my desk for years, a grounding force for me in understanding and contextualizing Holocaust education and the role of conflict and memory. In it, Symborska speaks of violence and the paradox of post-conflict societies, “all the cameras have left for another war” she states. This idea of remembering and forgetting recently came up in a New York Times article, Holocaust is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds, which posits that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.

As educators, what role do we play in acting as stewards of Holocaust memory? With the many constraints of time, materials, mandated testing, even language and cultural barriers, how can we bridge gaps of understanding when we teach the Holocaust? What role does memory play in understanding the events of the Holocaust?

In “Meeting a Moral Imperative, a Rationale for Teaching the Holocaust”, scholar David Lindquist writes that the primary rationale for studying the Holocaust involves the opportunity to consider the moral implications that can be drawn from examining the event. Studying the Holocaust, he argues, forces students to consider what it means to be human and humane by examining the full continuum of individual behavior, from ultimate evil to ultimate good. He argues that a moral imperative exists for the presence of Holocaust education in contemporary classrooms. Should that moral imperative extend to understanding the ability of time and distance to obscure the past?

The moral imperative for studying the Holocaust in the US and understanding the events of history is more important now than ever. America is facing its own role in triangulating the difficult geometry of past atrocities, making the vital calculus of truth and reconciliation, demarcated with the recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice , in Montgomery, Alabama. Bryan Stevenson, the head of Equal Justice Initiative which is spearheading the project, told The Jerusalem Post in 2016 that his design was inspired by what the ‘memory work’ monuments throughout Europe do in commemorating the victims of the Holocaust.  “Auschwitz is a place you visit. It sobers you with the horrors of the Holocaust. When you leave these places, you want to say, ‘Never again should we commit this kind of suffering and abuse.’” Stevenson aims to evoke the same feelings in Americans in the design of the first physical space dedicated to the victims of slavery, lynching, segregation and mass incarceration. The physical manifestation of suffering is educative in itself.

Echoes & Reflections structure of primary source documents becomes increasingly important in the work of bridging gaps in memory and understanding. The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts and connects them directly with people in the past whose existence was impacted or extinguished by the Holocaust. Through primary resources, victims and rescuers ‘speak’ across time, using their diaries, letters, maps, and articles, to construct a view of the past not distorted, but intensified by the passage of time.

As teachers, questions of how time, distance, and desensitization impact our understanding of history are as important as the events of the past themselves. Only in exploring how we see the Holocaust, refracted through the lens of memory, can we come to understand and establish how the arc of human history changes us, calibrates our vision of the world, and weights even our most trivial and minute decisions each day.

About the Author: Melissa Mott is the Deputy Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at ADL.

“April is the Cruelest Month…,”

Wrote T.S. Eliot in “The Burial of the Dead,” the first section of The Waste Land. That line could not have been about April 19, 1943, when Jews in the Warsaw ghetto took up arms to resist Nazi soldiers who had come to deport them to concentration and extermination camps. Nor could it have been about April 7, 1994, when the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda began. The Waste Land was published in 1922. But, by some sort of irony, Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, is often in April, as is the case this year. Also, the commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi begins on April 7.

On April 7, 1994, all of my wife’s relatives who lived on a hill called Kunanga, a total of 118 of four generations, were killed. Among the victims were my two aunts, Nyirabagenera and Kamamure, who were married to my wife’s cousins. What happened on that hill on that fateful day was also happening on several other hills and in several valleys across the mountainous country, and would continue to happen in the following 99 days. By July 4, when soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of the entire country, ending the genocide, over a million Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers had been killed. As a kid in 1959, I had seen houses go up in flames; unbeknown to me then was that the houses were torched because they belonged to Tutsis. Thirty-five years later when the genocide was carried out, I was living and teaching in Zimbabwe. Although I knew then of the many anti-Tutsi pogroms, I was not prepared for the incessant news of indiscriminate killings of Tutsis —the old, the young, the infant, and even the unborn. The news, though numbing, gave rise to a hatred for Hutus who had killed innocent beings just for who they were. They must have been monsters, I erroneously thought. You see, I had no historical references whatsoever for what was happening in Rwanda. I had not read Karl’s confession to Simon Wiesenthal, author of The Sunflower, to understand how ordinary people become perpetrators. Karl, a dying Nazi soldier, had been raised Catholic and had joined Hitler’s Youth and the SS, institutions in which he had been taught that doing what he was commissioned to do was a patriotic duty. Granted, I knew that approximately six million Jews had been killed during the Second World War, but I did not know why or how they had been killed. The Holocaust had never been part of my curriculum.

That was to change 14 years later when I had opportunities to learn about the Holocaust, which to me was an entry into learning about the genocide against the Tutsi. These opportunities included a seminar on Holocaust education at The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI) in 2008; an Echoes & Reflections seminar at Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Centerin 2011; a TOLI educational tour of Poland’s Holocaust sites and Israel’s historical sites in 2012. From these educational opportunities, I learned two fundamental lessons: one, that all genocides have histories; two, that genocide is preventable. Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor who spoke at the 2008 TOLI Summer Seminar I attended, used the term “signposts” along the road to the Holocaust to underscore the fact that the Holocaust was not a spontaneous event: there had been the Nuremberg race laws, which codified policies of discrimination against Jews; the Kristallnacht Pogrom, when several synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed; the letter “J” on Jewish identity cards, which made it possible for Nazis to single out Jews for any nefarious purposes.

The road to the genocide against the Tutsi too, like all roads leading to genocides, had signposts. Using criteria of scientific racism, the Belgian colonial administration had noses of individuals in Rwanda measured to determine who was Hutu and who was Tutsi. Gerard Prunier in The Rwanda Crisis quotes a colonial administration document which described Tutsis as having “features [that] are very fine: a high brow, thin nose and fine lips” and as being “gifted with a vivacious intelligence”; Hutus as being “short and thick-set with a big head” and “less intelligent”; and Twas as having “a monkey-like face.” The administration also issued identity cards with Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa labels, and enacted policies that favored Tutsis and discriminated against Hutus and Twas. For example, it removed Hutu chiefs and replaced them with Tutsis. In the late 1950s, when the Tutsi elite demanded political independence from Belgium, the colonial administration switched its allegiance to the Hutu. In 1959, rumors of an attack of a prominent Hutu leader by a group of Tutsi young men sparked the first anti-Tutsi pogrom. In 1962, following Rwanda’s independence, the exclusively Hutu government continued the policy of issuing identity cards with Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa labels in order to enforce discriminatory policies against Tutsis. For example, teachers were mandated to regularly do a headcount of Tutsi students in their classes so as not to exceed the allowed quota. In her memoir, Chosen to Die, Destined to Live, Frida Gashumba wrote, “The head count of Hutus and Tutsis came to be a three-month occurrence, as the headmaster complied with the government’s directive…. Each time the Hutu children would laugh at us and goad us, and neither the headmaster nor our teacher would make any attempt to shut them up.” The Hutu government also oversaw anti-Tutsi pogroms in 1963, 1967, 1973 when all Tutsi students were expelled from the only university in the country then, and 1990.  Perhaps worst of all signposts on the road to the genocide was the dehumanization of Tutsis; they were called cockroaches, rats, and snakes, which justified their extermination.

In On Austrian Soil, one of the texts we used at the 2008 TOLI Summer Seminar, Sondra Perl wrote: “You are not responsible for the past. But I think you do have, that we all have, a responsibility to the future…. Not to turn our backs. Not to be silent [in the face of any form of social injustice].” Perl’s primary audience was educators, who have the responsibility to teach against prejudice, discrimination, and persecution—beliefs and practices that potentially lead to genocide. That ordinary people in Germany and in Rwanda became genocide perpetrators indeed speaks to the failures of institutions, such as schools, which taught or tolerated prejudice and hatred. This April month we remember the Holocaust, the genocide against the Tutsi, and other genocides to recall mistakes of the past so that they are not repeated.

About the Author: Gatsinzi Basaninyenzi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at Alabama A&M University.

 

 

The Couriers in the Resistance: Fierce, Young, and Female

If there is a single story of female resistance that amazes and intrigues me to no end, it would have to be the story of the intrepid women who served as “couriers” during the Holocaust. These Jewish women and girls traveled between isolated ghettos with nothing but forged documents and incredible moxie to protect them. They brought information and inspiration, as well as ammunition, to the Jewish underground movements trapped in the ghettos. It is safe to say that without these bold and fearless women, resistance in the ghettos might not have occurred.

The pronouncement made on New Year’s Eve 1942 gives context to this story. The pronouncement, one of the most powerful primary sources contained in Echoes & Reflections, can be found in the unit on Jewish Resistance. Abba Kovner, its author, was a young activist in the Vilna ghetto who became aware that tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered in the forest at Ponary in the fall of 1941. On New Year’s Eve 1942 Kovner stood before about 150 youth group members and called for armed resistance:

“… Hitler is plotting to annihilate all the Jews of Europe. […] [T]he only response to the enemy is resistance! Brothers! It is better to die as free fighters than to live at the mercy of murderers.”

Kovner’s proclamation represented a turning point: it was the first time anyone had posited in writing that the murder of the Jews was more than just haphazard localized incidents; that there was a plan to murder all the Jews of Europe. It was also a turning point in the response it demanded: armed resistance against the Germans.

But how could this call for resistance be spread? Jews were trapped behind the walls and fences of isolated ghettos. They were not allowed to travel by train. They were marked by the Star of David so they could be easily hunted. Their mail was censored and they were forbidden to have radios. These German policies intentionally cut off contact among Jewish communities, and they were very effective. And even if the call for resistance could somehow be disseminated, how exactly were the Jews to resist? They had no arms, no ammunition, nothing but their bare hands.

In this seemingly impossible situation, there were those who stepped into the breach. We call them the “couriers”. The couriers were generally young women and girls who belonged to youth movements and were dedicated to the cause of resisting the Germans. They braved danger and death in order to serve as the lifeline between Jewish communities throughout war-torn Eastern Europe. Disguised as non-Jews, with braided hair, peasant kerchiefs on their heads and false names, they transported information, newspapers, money, and ultimately also ammunition and weapons across borders and into ghettos. They relied on forged travel permits and sheer chutzpah to bluff their way through multiple police inspections, document checks, and border controls. They were always at risk of being unmasked, and always under the threat of death. Their task required great courage, quick wits, and nerves of steel. It was said of these women by Emmanuel Ringelblum, Jewish historian and founder of the Oneg Shabbat archives in the Warsaw ghetto,“Nothing stands in their way. Nothing deters them. […] How many times have they looked death in the eyes? How many times have they been arrested and searched? […] The story of the Jewish woman will be a glorious page in the history of Jewry during the present war.”

Why were the couriers predominantly women? The Germans imposed the death penalty on any Jew found outside the ghettos. Jewish men on the streets generated suspicion – why weren’t they at work? In addition, men could easily be identified because they were circumcised. It was much easier for women: they had no physical sign of their Jewishness.  They could stroll the streets, seemingly carefree. They were also more likely to speak the local language; many had been educated in secular schools in Polish, while their male counterparts had undergone religious instruction in Yiddish.

Vladka Meed, who appears in the Echoes & Reflections unit on The Children and Legacies Beyond the Holocaust, worked as a courier on the Aryan side of Warsaw. She smuggled weapons into the Warsaw ghetto that were later used to resist the Germans in the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which occurred 75 years ago this April. In her book, On Both Sides of the Wall, Vladka tells of having to quickly repack a carton of dynamite into smaller packages in order to pass it into the ghetto through the grate of a factory window. As she and the Polish watchman, who had been bribed, worked frantically in the dark, the watchman trembled like a leaf. When they finally finished, the watchman “stood there flushed, drenched in perspiration and unnerved. […] ‘I’ll never risk it again,’ the watchman mumbled. ‘I was scared to death.’” In addition to smuggling weapons into the ghetto, Vladka smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto, finding hiding places for them in the hopes of saving their lives.

The word “courier” does not do justice to Vladka and others like her. They were much more than messengers. They were the first to smuggle weapons into many of the Eastern European ghettos, risking their lives to do so. They brought hope, along with information, to Jews who would otherwise have been cut off from the entire world. They were incredibly brave and many died trying to fulfill their missions. They are icons of heroism, and they shatter many common stereotypes: that the Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter, and that women are less capable than men of resistance.

About the Author:  Sheryl Ochayon is the Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.

For more information, please see the following resources:

For a more in-depth discussion about Abba Kovner and resistance, view the Video Toolbox film on Jewish Resistance.

The full text of Abba Kovner’s Pronouncement is contained in Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman, Abraham Margaliot, eds., Documents on the Holocaust, Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981), p. 433.

For short films about the Oneg Shabbat archive, see The Oneg Shabbat Underground Archive In The Warsaw Ghetto and Emanuel Ringelblum.

Emmanuel Ringelblum’s full diary entry can be found in Emmanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, Jacob Sloan, ed. and transl., (New York: Schocken Paperback, 1974), pp. 273-274.

Vladka Meed describes her travails in Warsaw during the Holocaust in her book, On Both Sides of the Wall (Israel: The Ghetto Fighters’ House, 1973), p. 129. Her testimony can be seen on the IWitness website.