Teaching the teachers: Holocaust education from the ground up

When Kelly Webeck visited the Chelmno extermination camp in Poland as part of a recent tour for educators, she entered the small museum that stood amid the camp’s ruins and came across a sewing machine displayed in a case.

Renowned Dutch Holocaust historian Robert Jan van Pelt, who guided the group of schoolteachers, described the sewing machine as an object that concentration camp prisoners chose to bring with them because they still had hope.

“You bring a sewing machine because you actually believe you’re going to sew again someday,” said Webeck, a community art educator in Houston who participated in this summer’s Alfred Lerner Fellowship for Holocaust Educators. After seeing the machine, she recounted, “I had to leave [the exhibit]. It was too much for me.”

Dutch Holocaust historian Robert Jan van Pelt addresses teachers at Buchenwald. photos/kelly webeck

“We’re not talking statistics here, 6 million, X number of Jews, X number of POWs,” said Amy McDonald, another fellowship participant who teaches history and an elective course on the Holocaust at Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, Alabama. “What it boils down to is the tragedy of each individual life and each family.”

The annual fellowship is organized by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which in 2014 awarded $1.7 million to support “righteous gentiles,” non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and also works on Holocaust education. The group selects approximately 30 middle and high school English or social studies teachers from the United States and other countries who teach about the Holocaust in their classrooms. As part of the program, the educators first participate in an intensive summer institute at Columbia University in New York City.

At the institute, which was held in June this year, the teachers attend lectures by noted Holocaust scholars and then break into small groups in which they share their concepts and develop new approaches to teaching the Holocaust. The fellows also have the opportunity to participate in a subsequent advanced seminar and to join a two-week tour of European sites related to the Holocaust.

Since Holocaust education is not mandated in most U.S. states, the Lerner fellowship gives teachers more of “the grounding and the history, so that they can go back and present the subject to their students in the appropriate manner,” said JFR’s executive vice president, Stanlee Stahl.

Although JFR officials say they do not ask the religion of the applicants, most of the fellows have not been Jewish.

McDonald, who is Christian, said she has always been interested in the Holocaust and World War II, but that her experience in the summer institute left her “in awe” of the “rich and complex” content presented and the opportunity to learn directly from renowned historians.

“It helped me uncover what I felt my passion was when it comes to education,” she said.

During the trip to Europe, McDonald said, she was particularly moved by a visit to Tykocin, Poland, which had been a typical Eastern European town in the late 1930s, inhabited by Christians and Jews, until it was occupied by Germany in 1941.

The crematoria at Dachau, photographed by a participant on this summer’s Alfred Lerner Fellowship for Holocaust educators

“We walk out and we stand on this square where on that particular day at the end of August in 1941, the Jews of this small town, approximately 1,400, were suddenly told to assemble in the market square,” McDonald said. “We are told how they are marched a mile or two down the road to an old school building where they spend the night. As a group, we get back on our bus and drive the mile or two down the road to this forest, and we walk in silence down into the depth of the forest, where we turn to these three mass graves.”

McDonald teaches in Birmingham, where the Jewish community is fairly small and her students, mostly in the low-to-middle income bracket, have little background about Judaism and Jewish history.

Yet the students are “incredibly touched” when they hear testimony from the six or seven Holocaust survivors who live in the Birmingham area and visit the school, said McDonald. They “see these Holocaust survivors as true heroes,” she said, at a time when “I don’t know that students really have heroes anymore.”

Webeck said that from her perspective, the Holocaust is primarily “a human history and not a Jewish history.” She has written a Holocaust education curriculum based on a collection of photos she compiled for the Holocaust Museum Houston. The photos are portraits of Houston-area Holocaust survivors and still-life images of their residences. Webeck created a lesson plan based on the story of each survivor.

When students look at the photos, they think about how the survivors “choose to keep that particular part of their lives, that aspect of their history, present in their homes,” Webeck said.

Webeck regularly gives these lessons at her high school, and she has used the photos in various seminars for other teachers. Her experience at this year’s summer institute gave her some new material and new ideas to incorporate into her curriculum, she said, citing as an example Alexandra Zapruder’s “Salvaged Pages,” a collection of teenagers’ diaries from the Holocaust.

Another Lerner fellow who recently returned from the European trip said her personal experience would enhance her teaching. Having seen “what I’m actually teaching about, I’ll be able to personalize it,” said Frances Kennedy, a history teacher at William T. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

Kennedy, who is Christian, launched an elective course on the Holocaust that, when it began 13 years ago, drew 30 students. Today, she teaches five classes with a total of approximately 170 students.

 “I wasn’t born long after the war,” said Kennedy, who has been teaching for 33 years. “This was my parents’ generation’s war, so I grew up just very aware of it, and it was always a passion of mine.” As she delved further into history, she said, teaching about the Holocaust “became more and more of a specialty.”

The Holocaust course Kennedy offers in Palm Beach Gardens also touches on more contemporary genocides, such as the ongoing atrocities in Darfur.

“This is one of the genocides I’m teaching that’s still going on, and you can actually do something about,” she said, noting that her students last year wrote to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who is largely credited with sparking the Obama administration’s interest in the Sudan conflict.

Webeck, too, wants her lessons to translate to real-life actions.

Despite the Holocaust and other genocides that show the evil side of humanity, “I want so badly to believe that people are good,” she said. “I want to teach and encourage the younger generations that it is possible to be good and to rebuild from horrible events, and teach in small ways to make kind choices and to be good to other humans.”