Monday, August 20, 2012

JFR European Study Trip

Every summer I look to participate in some enrichment activity/course related to what I teach. This past July I had the opportunity to be part of a group of educators traveling to Germany and Poland for two weeks thanks to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR). Our arrival in Munich launched us into an almost non-stop tour of the Holocaust that took us to Nuremberg, Weimar, Berlin, Warsaw, Tykocin, Krakow, and Oswiecim. Along the way some of the stops we made included Dachau, Buchenwald, Grunewald Station (Berlin), the House of the Wannsee Conference, Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Birkenau. In addition we had the opportunity to meet some of the Righteous Gentiles living in Warsaw at a luncheon sponsored by the JFR.

There were several aspects of this trip, in no particular order, that make it one the best enrichment opportunities I have participated in. First, Robert Jan Van Pelt traveled with us. Having an expert, not just a tour guide (no offense to tour guides of the world), meant we got a more thorough and thought-provoking insight into the history of the various places we visited. Second, meeting the Righteous Gentiles at the luncheon was a humbling and inspiring experience. These are people who risked everything, including their lives, to help Jews under the most difficult of circumstances. It made me wonder about how I would have reacted and what can/should I do today for those facing persecution throughout the world.

The first two aspects alone make this trip incredible but there are two others that contributed most to making this trip extraordinary. While I have taught the Holocaust in some form for 18 years there is always more I want to know. This trip afforded me the opportunity to expand on what I know. Most importantly I got to see some of the places themselves. Visiting the various camps and other locations helped provide an understanding that cannot be found in a book. For example, spending 8-9 hours walking the grounds at Birkenau enabled me to better comprehend the layout of the camp. Now when I teach about Birkenau I can provide a better sense of the space it occupies within the camp itself and externally within the surrounding area.

Finally, traveling with other dedicated Holocaust educators proved invaluable in many ways. Practically speaking we had two weeks to share ideas on lessons we teach as well as to offer recommendations on books and other resources. I came back with extensive lists of recommended resources that will keep me busy learning about the Holocaust for quite sometime. I also found it useful while visiting the various locations to have a group of people with whom I could discuss what we just saw. While other people may not understand why I spend so much time and effort on studying the Holocaust it was nice to be part of a group that understood.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Summer professional development seminar

I have just returned from New York City and the Holocaust Memorial Library’s Summer Seminar for teachers.  The library was established by Auschwitz survivor Olga Lengyel whose dream it was to never forget the victims of the Holocaust.  The Holocaust Educators Network or HEN works out of Olga’s home to give teachers from all over the nation an opportunity to learn and collaborate about teaching the Holocaust.  

This summer teachers shared experiences like attending a Shabbat service and dinner, visits to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Jewish Museum, a whole day session with Holocaust survivor Irving Roth, sessions with Stuart Liebman, Professor Emeritus of Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY and a renown historian of media studies, several second generation speakers, and face to face dialogue with authors, artists and musicians.  Participants spent time presenting and listening to each other’s Holocaust lessons as well as the writings and reflections that came out of our 9:00am – 9:00pm days.  

I have attended many conferences and seminars on the Holocaust and the Civil War in the past decade.  Never have I been treated with such dignity, respect and admiration as the Memorial Library treated me with during these intense two weeks of study.  I had lots of questions as I started this seminar and many got answered.  I left with new questions that only work and study and reading for a lifetime will answer.  All I know is that I have a renewed passion to teach this important and difficult topic.  Making the Holocaust relevant to my students so that together we can strive for social justice in our troubled world has always been and will remain my goal.  Olga would truly be proud of the library and teachers’ efforts.

Note: Olga Lengyel's memoir, Five Chimneys, is available for free loan from the MCHE Resource Center.