Hands-on Holocaust lesson: Investigative work by Oakland students leads to a memorial in Czech town

Sarah Firestone, 17, had long been fascinated by the Holocaust. History was her favorite subject in school and, as the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother — and as a student at a Catholic high school — she always sought out opportunities to learn more about that horrific period.

Bolstered by glowing reviews of the class from other students, she signed up in January for history teacher Bonnie Sussman’s Holocaust course, a semester-long elective open to sophomores, juniors and seniors at Bishop O’Dowd High School, a private Catholic school in Oakland.

She knew she’d be reading journals and articles, watching  documentaries and hearing from speakers that would give her a deeper understanding of what actually happened during those dark years, and why.

What she wasn’t expecting: To find herself overcome with emotion, standing in the damp woods outside Trsice, a town in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, participating in the dedication of a memorial to the Wolfs, a family of Jews who spent three years hiding in that very spot during World War II.

At her side were her teacher, Sussman, and the two other students from her class who went on the trip. They joined a dozen other students from around the country and their teachers.

Among the roughly 100 people who showed up for the dedication were Czech government officials, Holocaust survivors, a descendant of the Wolf family and a member of the family that helped hide the Wolfs.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Firestone, a junior at O’Dowd, said of the April 2 ceremony. “The excitement of being at this actual place after reading about it, and then the fact that people who knew them were there, that family members were there … it was absolutely something that will stick me with forever.”

For the past three years, out of the 50 to 60 students who enroll in Sussman’s class — it has become so popular there are now two sections — a small handful get to go on the Holocaust Study Tour (HST), a two-week trip to Europe that takes the idea of “hands-on” education to a new level.

The students who are accepted — after an application process, and after coming up with around $6,000 for airfare and accommodations — visit Auschwitz and other historic landmarks, meet with survivors and see the real places that served as backdrops in the reading they’ve been doing for three months.

This year, the dedication ceremony was the culmination of more than a decade of research, planning and discovery by Sussman and the two other teachers who led the HST program: Colleen Tambuscio of New Milford High School in New Jersey and Lisa Bauyman of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Kansas.

In 1997, Sussman was one of 20 teachers selected from around the country for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Mandel Teacher Fellowship program, receiving training and access to a far-flung network of educational resources, historians and experts. Sussman, who is Jewish, had been an advocate of Holocaust education since the ’70s, she said, in part for personal reasons.

“When I got married, I learned that many members of my husband’s extended family were Holocaust victims,” said the teacher, who has been at Bishop O’Dowd since 1990; previously she taught at middle schools in San Francisco. “The research became that much more important when it was about wanting to explain things to our daughter.”

Over the course of the Mandel program, Sussman and the other fellows met Alexandra Zapruder, a young author who was translating and compiling a book of diaries written by Jewish teenagers during the Holocaust.

A Czech scout troop joins students on the Holocaust Study Tour at the dedication of their memorial to the Wolf family, who hid out in Trsice.

Sussman also struck up a strong friendship with Tambuscio and Bauyman, and in 2004, when Zapruder’s book “Salvaged Pages” was published, all three began using it as a teaching tool in their respective Holocaust courses.

“Before [‘Salvaged Pages’], Anne Frank’s was pretty much the only diary that was ever used, and really it told a very sheltered viewpoint,” Sussman explained. “Alexandra’s book has kids who were in hiding and some who were more in public; some who survived and some who didn’t, who were located all over the place geographically … and  a whole range of authors. It has boys and girls of different ages, some who love school and some who hate it.”

Zapruder’s book would prove important in other ways, as well.

In 2000, Tambuscio launched the HST, taking students from her school to Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic as an optional part of her course. Shalmi Barmore, the former director of education at Yad Vashem, the center for Holocaust research in Jerusalem, accompanied the group, providing historical context to the places they visited.

After seeing the connections her students made each year, the teacher suggested that Sussman and Bauman join her, bringing students of their own. (In 2005, all three teachers were selected as U.S. Holocaust museum Regional Education Corps members, tasked with conducting local workshops for other teachers on behalf of the museum.)

Twelve years after Tambuscio’s first trips,  the two-week adventure has become a hotly anticipated tradition in each school’s community.

Bonnie Sussman

At Bishop O’Dowd, students who want to go are encouraged to raise funds to cover their own costs (Sussman helps raise funds for them, too). This year, leadership from Temple Sinai and Beth Jacob Congregation, both in Oakland, contributed generous amounts toward the trip, as well.

Students who make the trip contribute to a blog about the journey and their experiences, and others hear about what a meaningful experience it was from those who went the previous year, Sussman said.

“Both the class and the trip, it’s a lot of word of mouth,” she said. But the teacher knew this year’s voyage would be especially memorable.

On Sussman’s first trip in 2007, in order to break up the journey from Krakow to Prague, the group spent the night in a Czech town called Olomouc. There, they connected with a Holocaust survivor named Milos Dobry, and his grandson, Petr Papousek, who is leading a small but growing (52-person) Jewish community in the town.

Upon returning to Oakland, Sussman’s class was reading “Salvaged Pages” when they realized that one of the diarists, a teenaged boy named Otto Wolf, had lived in Olomouc.

Now the researching juices were flowing. The students in Sussman’s, Tambuscio’s and Bauman’s classes began working together and they discovered that Otto and his sister, Lici, and their mother and father were hidden by the town of Trsice, near Olomouc, for three years. During the spring and summer, they hid in caves in the forest, and in the winter, non-Jews housed them in private homes.

Over the next few years, the HST group learned more with each returning visit.

In 2010, they visited the town of Trsice and met several important people: the mayor, a local resident who knew the location of the caves, and Zdenka Oherova, whose family helped house the Wolfs. The group also hiked into the woods to see the exact spot where the Wolfs hid — and the idea of a memorial was born.

For the past three years, all three teachers have worked with locals and the city government in Trsice, raising $3,000  (each school raised $1,000) for a memorial stone and plaque. In 2011, the HST group was invited to join in Olomouc’s community Passover seder. They were also invited to view a new section of the museum in the city’s town hall, which is devoted to the Wolf family.

Moreover, their research soon revealed that a descendant of the Wolf family, Eva — Otto’s nephew, and Lici’s daughter — was alive and living in Prague. The 2011 group met with her to hear what her mother had passed on about her years in hiding.

The memorial to the Wolf family that Bishop O’Dowd students helped create in Trsice

So “a lot had been building up” toward this year’s trip, Sussman said.

In addition, Zapruder flew to the Czech Republic to meet the HST group, having followed their work for the past few years.

The morning of the dedication, the students and teachers met at the mayor’s office in Trsice — where Eva, whose mom was hidden in Trsice, met Zdenka, whose family helped do the hiding.

“There was such an mix of emotions at that [meeting],” Firestone said . “It was incredible to be there.”

Then the group, including Czech government officials, representatives of the Jewish community and local media, took a bus ride together into the woods for the dedication.

There, they found that a scout troop had camped overnight, 100 yards from the Wolfs’ hideout, to try to understand what it was like for the family.

During the dedication ceremony, two of the scouts read from Otto Wolf’s diary in Czech, followed by Bishop O’Dowd junior Aidan Merris reading an entry from “Salvaged Pages” in English.

“It was an incredible honor,” said Merris, 16. “I just felt so privileged to be involved in honoring this family. Looking at the memorial and seeing the name of my school on it … it felt like I was a part of something real in terms of making sure this never happens again. It felt like, ‘This is what raising awareness actually looks like.’ ”

The ceremony also included the signing of a memorandum of cooperation between the Olomouc Jewish community and an organization working on behalf of old Czech villages and towns destroyed in World War II. This document includes the promise of a new museum about Holocaust history to be built in Trsice; the pen used to sign the memorandum will be among the first artifacts included.

The next day, before returning home, the group visited Auschwitz, where Firestone said what she saw will stay with her forever.

“I wasn’t expecting it to hit me as hard as it did,” she said. “But just seeing these real objects like [Holocaust victims’] shoes — you wind up really being forced to put yourself in their place. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it.”

A memorial in nearby Zakrov to Holocaust victims includes Otto Wolf

Merris, whose mother is Jewish, said the trip was at times so intense he had difficulty explaining it to friends and classmates in the month that followed. He felt, however, that sharing what he learned — which was, in his words “far more than I can ever imagine learning from a book or in a classroom” — was crucial.

To that end, he presented his photos and stories from the journey to his religion class last month. As a Catholic school — though one with a modestly-sized Jewish population, Sussman noted — Bishop O’Dowd requires students to take one religious studies course each semester of their four years.

Merris was relieved to find that his classmates were engaged and that they asked questions. “There are so many big questions that are just impossible to gloss over,” he said. “Even though we can’t really ever explain why this happened, going on the trip brought me a lot closer to understanding.”

Sussman, who has been teaching for 41 years, is already working with Tambuscio (whom Sussman says deserves “enormous credit” for facilitating these trips) to plan next spring’s journey and activities at Trsice.

“It’s been an adventure, and it’s still unraveling,” she said.

In the meantime, knowing she’s effecting change in her students’ lives is the ultimate reward, she said. She often receives emails from former students who are still thinking about the lessons they learned in her Holocaust class many years later.

“Teaching is a demanding job … and, you know, the Holocaust can get you down some days,” she said. “But when I have a bad day, I go to my accordion file and pull of one of those letters and I see, you know, that I’m actually making a difference.”

Adding to the inherent complexity of the subject is the fact that Sussman is teaching it at a Catholic school. The teacher said she doesn’t hold back.

“We start with theological and historical anti-Semitism back in the Middle Ages, and [students] have to understand that these beliefs about the Jewish community were deep-seated and very often taught in the church,” she said. “But when it comes to the Holocaust, I make a distinction between [the church’s teachings] and the Pope, and then there were the many nuns in convents who were very active in rescue.

“I try to teach the complexity of the situation,” she added. “One of the Holocaust museum’s rules is that there’s no simple answer to a complex question.”

And while they’re not necessarily simple, some lessons from the Holocaust are universal and timeless, she said. For instance, the one summed up in the message printed on an Elie Wiesel poster that hangs in her classroom: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

“The kids are reminded of that on a regular basis,” she said. “Even if it’s a question of, you see somebody being bullied, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know them — you intervene.”

“If I can get them to do that,” she said, “On some really small level, I’ve succeeded.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.