The following is a reflection from Leah Warshawski, producer and co-director of the award-winning film about Holocaust Survivor Sonia Warshawski, Big Sonia. Leah will be joining an Echoes & Reflections Connecting Communities webinar in July to introduce the film to educators for their use in the classroom.
At this time when we are struggling through a global pandemic impacting our lives in the most profound and difficult ways, people are looking for models of resilience, unity, empathy, and hope. Sonia Warshawski, a 94-year old Holocaust survivor and my grandmother, is that kind of model.
In my film, Big Sonia, I sought to capture all of these emotions as Sonia shares her experiences with students, inmates, and her community - all from a small tailor shop in the bottom of a dead Kansas City mall. While the film is a poignant story of generational trauma and healing, it also offers a funny portrait of the power of love to triumph over bigotry and the power of truth-telling.
As I believe all teachers hope to achieve when they teach young people about the Holocaust or other atrocities in history, we wanted this film to inspire positive change in the world. That is why we ask viewers to spread the #SoniaEffect – to share what happens after people see the film and are fueled to action. Big Sonia has inspired people in ways we never imagined. Deeply moved by the film’s message, the Mayor of Kansas City declared an annual “Big Sonia Day” on December 21 to remind everyone of the power of kindness.
Making and distributing films is not for the faint of heart, but what keeps me motivated is the profound reactions from students. One example was from 14-year-old Luke, who shared,
“My favorite part was seeing how she brought vulnerability to the students. It is hard to be vulnerable as teenagers. She showed them that they should stand up for each other and value differences in their self and their classmates.”
Big Sonia has become our way to open important and difficult conversations, and the project has become our beacon of hope when the world around us doesn’t seem to make sense. With antisemitism and hatred on the rise in so many communities and across the globe, there has never been a more important time for this film, its themes, Holocaust education, and for Sonia herself.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonia was forced to close her tailor shop and stay at home. Her attitude towards her enforced confinement is a model for all of us when she says in a recent voicemail,
“I am still a free bird. I am not in the camps. I am not in the gas chamber. So, I am not scared…we will make it.”
Sonia’s powerful words bring comfort and perspective during this time of social distancing and give us the opportunity to re-examine connection, prioritize relationships, and ask: who do you want to spend time with and how do you want to spend your days? Sonia reminds us that we’re all connected just by being human and that we should always choose love over hate, no matter our circumstances.
Learn more about Big Sonia and how the film can support Holocaust education:
- Educators are invited to join Leah on July 16 at 4 PM EST for a webinar. Registered educators will receive a link to watch the 45-minute educational version of the film in advance and will receive a 50% discount to purchase the film and educational resources after participation.
- After watching the film, students can engage in this Big Sonia IWitness activity from USC Shoah Foundation to reflect on the power of personal testimonies.
- Kansas City area educators can register for a Big Sonia virtual program on June 10th hosted by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education here.
About the author: Leah Warshawski is an Impact Producer / Director with over 20 years of experience in the film/video industry. Learn more about her work here: www.inflatablefilm.com
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.
"In two years of combat you can imagine I have seen a lot of death […] but nothing has ever stirred me as much as this […] how could people do things like that? I never believed they could, until now."
- US Staff Sergeant Horace Evers, among the liberators of Dachau, from a letter home featured in Echoes & Reflections
The liberators of the Nazi camps were young soldiers — many no older than 18 or 19 years old. They were the first outside witnesses to come face to face with the evidence of the monstrous crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators against civilians.
Their testimony is qualitatively different from that of survivors of the Holocaust. They had seen their buddies killed in war – they were all too familiar with death and destruction. But the scenes they saw as they liberated the camps were unlike their military experiences. They were suddenly and unexpectedly forced to become witnesses to horrific atrocities. This was a different kind of trauma. Their reactions ranged from shock to disgust to rage. Their “why remember?” comes from this place and this witnessing.
In November, I had the privilege of hearing Alan Moskin speak. Mr. Moskin was part of General George Patton’s Third Army. He fought in the Rhineland campaign through France, Germany and Austria. When the Nazis surrendered he was not yet 19. When I heard him speak he was 92 years old, yet the memories were still fresh. He liberated Gunskirchen, a subcamp of Mauthausen, on May 4, 1945.
Mr. Moskin spoke quietly of the overpowering stench and the thousands of corpses and the barbed wire, as though he could still see them. He spoke with great compassion for the skeletal survivors (the “poor souls”, as he called them) who were so hungry that they ate the tobacco from the cigarettes the soldiers gave them; who were so thankful that they tried to kiss his boots though they were caked with blood and feces; who were so covered with lice and filth and open sores that they literally reeked. He remembered his captain screaming into a walkie-talkie, “Get help up here, GET HELP!” He remembered feeling weak in the knees and, overcome with emotion, crying.
Mr. Moskin spoke in memory of the 6 million murdered Jews and the others who were persecuted. He also paid tribute to “his own band of brothers” who, as he said, made the ultimate sacrifice. He purposely, purposefully recited each of their names, rapping on a table for emphasis with every name he pronounced: Tex, Jimbo, Muzzy, RJ, Bulldog, Schoolboy, LZ, Rebel, Gonzo, Tony C., Tommy, who was blown to pieces by a mortar shell right before his eyes, and Captain B., the captain he loved, who jumped on a live grenade to protect his squad.
Alan Moskin’s was a different kind of testimony than those I’ve heard from Holocaust survivors. But even if his “why remember?” comes from a different place and a different experience, its goal is the same: not to let any of this be forgotten, “for the sake of humanity and everything decent and just in the world.”
I repeat his words here because they made a profound impression on me. They came from his heart.
“I speak here today for each one of those poor souls who was slaughtered by the Nazis, and each one of my buddies and all the other GIs who made the ultimate sacrifice. They can’t speak anymore but dammit I can and I will. I’ll speak out as long as God gives me the strength to do so. I feel that I’m their messenger. The message is that there was a Holocaust. I bear witness. It occurred. I saw it. I want these young people that I speak to, to be my witness. I don’t want them to forget. There are deniers out there now and when we’re gone who knows what they’re gonna say. That the Jews made it up? That it didn’t happen? Well it did happen. And I want these young people to bear witness for me. It’s been said many times that those who forget the events of the past are doomed to repeat them.”
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated on January 27th, the date in 1945 on which Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, was liberated. The UN tied commemoration of the Holocaust to this important milestone of liberation. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated in 2008 that the essence of this Remembrance Day is a twofold approach: one that deals with the memory and remembrance of those who were massacred during the Holocaust, and the other that goes beyond remembrance to educate future generations of its horrors.
This is exactly the “why remember?” message of Alan Moskin’s testimony and that of other liberators like the ones featured in the Echoes & Reflections toolbox film, “Liberators and Survivors: The First Moments.” There are still liberators among us. We must listen to their stories and share them with our classrooms and communities while we still have the chance to hear them.
About the Author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.
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.
I felt such a sense of loss on Saturday when I heard the news of Elie Wiesel’s death. It felt so personal and profound. I never met Elie Wiesel, but I felt as if had lost someone I knew, someone I cared for, someone who, perhaps on some ridiculous level, I thought would always be here.
I have been so moved reading the tributes to him from those who knew him – as a friend, a teacher, or a speaker who forever changed their lives. I have enjoyed seeing friends and colleague post photos of their proud moments shaking his hand, looking at him so intently, listening for a word of wisdom or insight, which was no doubt plentiful.
For me, who has spent many years working in anti-bias education and now in Holocaust education, his presence was ubiquitous. I think how often he is quoted in my circle – about the dangers of indifference, the precious gift of a life saved, about being a witness. I recall first reading Night in college: actually not wanting to read it, but feeling a duty to not look away, not to ignore the world that was lost and the cruelty of humanity. Now, at Echoes and Reflections, we offer a program and resources to support teachers in their teaching of Night, and we hear continuously how profound this reading is for students and what it means to teachers to teach his memoir, which can be difficult to grasp. However, they feel a sense of duty to get it right – to do him justice, to use his voice to give voice for the millions who lost theirs.
In some ways, I suppose it is all of these moments that make this loss feel so personal. Elie Wiesel somehow managed to share the worst possible moments of his ruptured childhood with us. He brought us with him on this tortured path of trauma and loss, and the absolute worst of man’s inhumanity to man. Yet in his survival – in his dedication to being a witness to the history, to challenging our continued indifference to hatred, racism, bigotry, and his commitment to the world – to life – he carried with him, and perhaps for all of us, a suggestion of hope for a better future. Right now, the world feels more fractured than ever, but I say this without having lived through the Holocaust, so I know this is just one moment in time, my moment in time, to try to make a bit of difference. What will I do with it? What will we all do?
Lindsay Friedman is the Partnership Director for Echoes and Reflections. She resides in Chicago, IL.
“It's not like I had a natural talent for athletics… It was just plain fun.” – Margaret Lambert
Born Gretel Bergmann on April 12, 1914, Lambert achieved the German high jump record in 1931 and, as a young athlete, was committed to pursuing a career in athletics. In her 1995 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Lambert shared that with the Nazi rise to power, “Everything changed. People that you knew wouldn’t talk to you anymore,” and Lambert was excluded from organized sports because she was Jewish.
“Teaching with Margaret’s testimony, and sharing her story with students, adds a unique dimension and depth to learning about the Holocaust,” shares Robert Adler, a history, special education, and English teacher at Berks County Intermediate Unit in Pennsylvania. “Here is somebody who actually lived the experience,” he says, emphasizing that her unprecedented athletic career and discussion about life under the Nazi dictatorship is a powerful introduction for students to the study of the Holocaust, and the complexity of persecution, bias, and antisemitism.
“In my classroom, we talk about Margaret’s life, how affected she was by the prejudice she faced, and the injustice of what she experienced. Margaret’s testimony brings light to the fear and trepidation people felt when the Nazis took over, people’s responses, and the way they changed their behavior. Suddenly her friends were not her friends. It is an experience that is relatable for today’s kids…”
In her testimony, Lambert explains that in an effort to continue her career she moved to the United Kingdom where, in 1934 she won the British high jump Championship with a height of 1.55 meters. However, under the pressure of an international boycott of the 1936 Olympics in protest of Germany’s treatment of Jewish athletes, the Nazi dictatorship exerted pressure on Lambert’s family and she was forced to return to Germany. In what Lambert describes as a “charade,” she was placed on the German Olympic team.
“The reason why I was put on the German Olympic team was that the Americans, the French, the English, they all wanted to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. I was the only Jewish athlete with world-class capabilities… If you can imagine what it feels like to compete in the Adolf Hitler stadium in front of only non-Jewish people who… didn’t have very nice thoughts about me. What is this Jew doing there?”
One month prior to the opening of the 1936 Olympics, Lambert tied the German high jump record of 1.6 meters when she won the Württembergian Championship. However, with the boycott movement subdued and international teams enroute to participate in the Olympic games, the Nazi regime officially struck Lambert’s accomplishment from the record books, and the German sports authorities removed her from the national team for under-performance.
Adler’s students examine the challenges Lambert faced and are able to draw connections to behavior they have witnessed in their own lives. “The Holocaust is devastating, but Lambert’s story encourages students to think critically about the way we behave toward one another and to take a hard look at what people can do, the strength of the human spirit, and to see the lessons we can learn from today.”
“We talk about how Margaret fought as best she could not to give into the pressures she experienced and I emphasize that history is ongoing and active. My students are moved by her courage and they are inspired to act on what they see happening today.”
Adler also highlights that a number of other historical themes are brought to the forefront when students learn about Lambert. “Born in 1914,” Adler explains, “Her story is one about women’s roles too. She broke the norm with her independent spirit and the way she preferred to dress in pants. She asked tough questions about why she should be relegated to a particular role. In the 1920’s and 30’s it couldn’t have been easy. She wasn’t about to let herself be typecast and that is powerful for my students.”
Margaret Lambert’s life story is one of perseverance, persistence, and strength. As a talented athlete she faced extraordinary challenges and did everything that she could to follow her dreams.
In 1937, Lambert immigrated to the United States where, determined to leave her German past behind, she Americanized her name to Margaret. That year, she won the US women's high jump and shot put championships, and in 1938, she again won the US high jump. She resigned from her career in sports after the outbreak of World War II.
Lambert married Bruno Lambert in 1937 and had two sons, Glen and Gary. She published a book about her experiences in 2004 entitled, By Leaps and Bounds and was featured in a 2004 HBO documentary Hitler’s Pawn about her athletic career in Germany. Following her career in sports she became a physical therapist and, at the age of 102, Lambert currently lives in New York.
In recent years the German track and field association has worked to make amends. In 1995, a sports complex in Berlin was named in Lambert’s honor. She and her husband were Germany’s guests of honor at the 1995 torch lighting at the Olympics in Atlanta. And, in 1999, the Laupheim stadium that Lambert had been banned from in the 1930s was officially named after her. Lambert's 1936 German national record was officially restored in 2009.
Robert Adler has worked as an Alternative Education teacher at Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, PA since 2001.
All of the Holocaust survivors featured in Echoes and Reflections become near and dear to the hearts of facilitators. For me, Ellis Lewin’s testimony worked its way into my heart and never left. I’m not sure if it is because he was such a young child when he was imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto and subsequently sent to Auschwitz, or if it is the way he tells his story, but, when Ellis speaks, he is transported right back to his childhood and he takes us with him. I have spent a lot of time analyzing his testimony and seeking to understand what was going on in his head at the time.
In Echoes and Reflections professional development programs, we use Ellis’s testimony to show what it was like for children when their world was turned upside down, when they were closed off from the world as they knew it, and everything changed. As Ellis says, “It was the beginning of the end.”
When I introduce Ellis to educators, the room always becomes completely silent as he begins to speak, and it often remains silent for a few minutes afterwards. In fact, it is always me who breaks the silence.
In Lesson 5: The “Final Solution,” Ellis describes in detail what it was like when he arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. His retelling is horrifying and painfully detailed. And, it does another very important thing; it allows us to compare and contrast his account with the account of Elie Weisel, in the excerpt from Night, which is also in Lesson 5. Comparing and contrasting is essential when examining primary sources. It allows students to piece together the experience without having been there.
I live in Ohio, and although I knew that Ellis lives in Cleveland, I had no idea that he lives around the corner from me. For years, I kept saying that one day I was going to find a way to track him down and meet him. When I finally asked a friend of mine, who is also a Holocaust survivor, if he knew Ellis he said, “Sure, he is my best friend!” He gave me Ellis’s phone number.
The first time I called and got Ellis’s voicemail, I cried. All he said was something like, “This is Ellis Lewin. I am not here. Please leave a message.” But that voice. There it was, the same voice I had been listening to for years. I will never forget the moment Ellis called me back and his name popped up on my caller ID. For a minute I was paralyzed, star struck, even. I answered and we spoke for a while. We made arrangements for him to come speak to a group of teachers.
Though Ellis knows what Echoes and Reflection is, I was never sure that he realized what an important part he plays for educators and their students as they study the Holocaust. Ellis is very proud of the testimony he gave to USC Shoah Foundation, and also of his ability to speak to students about his experience. I knew he would be so happy to see that he is helping students understand what happened and helping them think about their own responsibilities and choices in the world.
It has been such a pleasure getting to know Ellis. He is smart, funny, and incredibly charming. He understands Holocaust education on a very deep level and grasps the pedagogy in an incredible way, particularly for a non-educator.
Family is an important part of Ellis’ life and they are invested in having his story told. They often join him when he speaks about his experiences and his daughter made a short video that they use before his talks at schools. In 2016, Ellis and his wife celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
As we move farther and farther away from the actual events of the Shoah, it becomes increasingly difficult and yet even more important to remember that the Holocaust happened in modern times, in one of the most enlightened countries in all of Europe, and to a group of people who were targets, not because of something they did or didn’t do, but because of their religion. Taking time to remember the victims of the Holocaust and to think about what the world lost is important because we need to honor their memory.
Having Ellis in my life has been such a privilege. I want him to know that the victims will never be forgotten and the survivors are not alone.
Jill Rembrandt is the Deputy Project Director for Echoes and Reflections. She resides in Cleveland, Ohio.
As I prepare to retire from my role as the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) this month, I have spent considerable time reflecting on my past and the experiences that shaped me over the last half century. I came to the ADL exactly 50 years ago, fresh out of law school, and fueled with a passion to fight for the safety and security of the Jewish people. This passion, no doubt, is always and forever informed by being a child survivor of the Holocaust, hidden by my Polish-Catholic nanny, and then miraculously reunited with my parents. Surely, I am a product of the worst in humankind and the best in humankind.
Many know that I survived World War II and the Holocaust thanks to my nanny, but some don’t realize that after being reunited with my parents at the age of 5, I had to learn how to be Jewish. One thing I remember is making the sign of the cross in the home of my parents, who were observant Jews. Even once I was reunited with my parents, I did not know who or what I was. As a child, with my nanny, I had been a good practicing Catholic. I grappled with this terrible burden for years and those feelings and memories left a lasting impression. The Holocaust changed the trajectory of my life—and millions of others—simply because we were Jewish.
The transformation that followed, and the rediscovery and reengagement with my Jewish faith and culture, was not easy; but the experiences of my childhood coupled with the lessons my parents taught me inspired my lifelong commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and ensuring the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten.
The devastation of the Holocaust has ripple effects beyond what is often taught in textbooks or as a passing reference in a history class. Every single survivor has a story—stories often replete with horror, desperation, and a one in a million chance of survival. I realized early on that it is very important to provide a human voice to the Holocaust so that others understand that each life lost or saved was a person with feelings, experiences, family, and a future. It’s easy for people to repeat “six million” and “never forget” without actually understanding what that means for both the Jewish people and the human race.
So it may come as no surprise that as I retire, I do so with the greatest pride in the role the ADL has had in building Echoes and Reflections, our Holocaust education program developed in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem, and the ongoing leadership and support of Dana and Yossie Hollander. This innovative program lends that human voice to the experiences of the Holocaust and prepares teachers to help students understand the ongoing relevance of this history to our contemporary society.
This work has never been so critical. Can you imagine my disgust as I read articles about Eric Hunt (a Holocaust denier known for attacking Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel) who is creating a virtual "Holocaust Hoax Museum” that will dispute the Holocaust happened? It seems inconceivable that in 2015 Holocaust imagery and phrases like, “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job” are being used on college campuses and to desecrate synagogues nationwide.
How is it possible that seventy years after the Shoah, we are questioning whether or not Jews can live peacefully in pluralistic countries like France, Belgium, Sweden, or Denmark? And just last month in Spain, three visibly identifiable Muslim women reportedly chanted, “Catch and kill all the Jews…. Exterminate them, exterminate them, the world will be better off,” while one of the women stabbed a doll of an Orthodox Jew with a knife.
This rise of anti-Semitism here and abroad disturbs me deeply and is heartbreaking for the thousands of Holocaust survivors who remain, who fear that humankind has really not learned from the horrors of its past. For me, I want my grandchildren to understand that evil exists in this world, and that Jews and other groups of people are being persecuted even today, but just as importantly, I want them to know that there are far more people out there who will stand for others, who challenge misinformation, stereotypes, and who do not and will not sit idly by in the face of hate.
I have often said that until we develop an antidote to hate, education is our best response. I firmly believe this to be true. This is why I have such a deep respect and gratitude for the more than 25,000 educators who have worked with Echoes and Reflections these past ten years.
For those of you reading this who are a part of our Echoes and Reflections educator community, I know that teaching about Holocaust history can be daunting and challenging, with limited time, competing priorities, and the need to respond to the many diverse needs of the young people in your classrooms. I fear sometimes that we are giving you too heavy a burden; the history is too horrible, too complex, too removed for many students in 2015.
Yet, you do not shy away from the challenge. Every day, we see more and more of you come to our programs, you help your students understand the seemingly incomprehensible level of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, you ask them the tough questions and help them make meaningful connections, and you find enough grace and hope in this dark past to give belief in a brighter future. It is your actions that give me hope in a brighter future.
For this, as a Holocaust survivor, as a Jew, as a father and grandfather, I say thank you.
Abraham H. Foxman, is the former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Currently, he is the head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
Q & A.: Jill Rembrandt and Kim Klett on Teaching Liberation and Using Echoes and Reflections Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators
How does one talk about liberation and the end of the Holocaust with students? Jill Rembrandt, Associate Project Director for Echoes and Reflections at the Anti-Defamation League, facilitates trainings for teachers. Kim Klett, a 12th grade English teacher in Mesa, Arizona, teaches an English elective called Holocaust Literature. They have been using Echoes and Reflections for nearly 10 years and, Kim uses Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators in her classroom.
In this Q. and A., Jill and Kim discuss their approach to the topic of liberation and the way they utilize resources in the Teacher’s Resource Guide to facilitate meaningful and engaging conversation with students.
Q. Jill, how do you introduce the topic of liberation to educators?
A. In my trainings, I model teaching with testimony. I open up our conversation for discussion and we explore liberation and all its complexity together as if we were in a classroom. We ask tough questions, put ourselves in the survivors’ shoes, and think about this time from many angles.
When I teach educators about Lesson 8, I like to highlight the testimony from Anton Mason. He was in the same barrack as Elie Wiesel, and when Anton described the experience of being liberated he said, “We were free, but how will we live our lives without our family?”
This is a poignant moment that makes the complexity and mixed emotions of survivors apparent. Exploring this with students helps them understand the lasting impact and what it really meant to have survived.
Q. Kim, how do you prepare to teach students about liberation and survival? Can you share some best practices for getting comfortable with the material?
A. Echoes and Reflections is great because it condenses a lot of material for you and makes it accessible in one place. I recommend finding out what you don’t know, thinking about what you need to know, and then finding additional resources to fill in details and guide you. Look for the background and timeframe for the particular resources you’re teaching. Start small and then branch out from there.
Q. Kim, how do you talk about liberation and the end of the Holocaust with your students?
A. When students come in at the beginning we actually start with Darfur. I bring in present day examples so that students are aware that genocide is still happening. We learn the history of antisemitism and build a timeline on the wall to visualize the history.
In my class, we go from one book to another and I provide context along the way. “The Sunflower,” for example, deals with people’s feelings after liberation and the question of forgiveness. Should I forgive, can I forgive? I help students think about that. I share photos from Echoes and Reflections that guide our discussions.
Liberation is a really good time to talk about the role of the US in the Holocaust. I show my students Paul Parks’ testimony and we talk about the effect that liberating camps had on the young men in the armed forces. My students in ROTC are humbled to learn that for survivors, the soldiers were heroes. It is important for the kids in my class who will be enlisting to see the positive role that the military can play and has played historically.
The testimonies in Lesson 8 also highlight survivors talking about the pride they feel in being American. Gerda Klein, a local survivor in Arizona that I invite to my class, runs a group called Citizenship Counts that is inspired by her own immigrant experience. My immigrant students relate to these stories and feel connected to the sense of pride in being an American.
Q. Jill, what is important for educators to remember in helping students to think through the complexity that marked the end of the war?
A. Teachers have a chance to encourage students to dig into the psychological questions that come up for all the people involved in liberation. What was it that allowed people to move on and find a way to be happy again? Remembering that we facilitate the questioning and encourage the exploration is important in talking about the end of the war. It is always interesting to encourage both educators and students to think about the mental place survivors would have been in at this stage.
Q. Kim, what kinds of responses do you get from your students after they engage with this material? What kind of impact does it have on them?
A. I would say that for a lot of them our unit on liberation makes them proud of their country. For others, it motivates them to emulate the soldiers, to do the right thing, and try to help people in need. It is inspirational for sure, and for the kids it’s an eye opener. I want them to realize that genocide and the Holocaust is much more complex than people remember or think.
Jill Rembrandt is the Deputy Project Director for Echoes and Reflections. She resides in Cleveland, Ohio. Kim Klett has taught English at Dobson High School in Mesa, AZ since 1991. She teaches A.P. English Literature and Holocaust Literature.
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