Elie Wiesel wrote in Night, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” After his recent death at age 87, it’s jarring to note that there are only about 100,000 survivors alive today, the youngest of whom are about 71 years old. Even fewer are the number of survivors who are still able to share their stories.
Therefore, keeping alive the memory of the six million who perished in the Holocaust is both more difficult and more important as the number of survivors continues to dwindle with each passing day. Gone are the days when children personally knew those who made it through the war, when the stories could be heard firsthand. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center on Mount Herzl, which was established in Israel in 1953, is working to develop tools to prevent the disappearance of the Holocaust’s victims and survivors from the world’s psyche.
Rachel Schwartz, the middle school English department chair at The Moriah School, teaches Holocaust literature as part of her curriculum. In sixth grade the students read The Island on Bird Street; in seventh, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; and in eighth grade, Maus and Night. Last year, Schwartz got involved in Moriah’s “Names Not Numbers” program, which was initiated at Moriah in September of 2012 by Abigail Herschmann. The eighth-grade students are given the opportunity to learn an in-depth history of the Holocaust, interview survivors and compile everything into a documentary, which is then shown to the community.
The granddaughter of survivors, Schwartz grew up hearing the stories of how her grandmother was hidden in Poland and her grandfather was a member of the Polish underground. This summer, she was invited to attend Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies “Seminar for Educators in Jewish Education: Teaching About the Shoah and anti-Semitism,” from July 19 to July 28.
The schedule was intense. “In terms of history, I am studying early 19th and 20th century anti-Semitism, Nazi Ideology, the creation of the Final Solution as well as Jewish resistance and Jewish life during that time, just to highlight a few of the classes,” she said. “In terms of pedagogy we are discussing how to bring the children into the study of the Holocaust safely and take them out safely as well.”
Yad Vashem’s educational philosophy focuses on understanding the emotional ability of students to handle certain aspects and details of the war. In addition to teaching and explaining the deaths, it is important to open with the stories of people who were liberated, she added.
Yad Vashem created a new video toolbox, the implementation of which is aimed to help teachers in the classroom, providing them with practical materials and discussion points. Several times the participants broke up into sessions based on how old their students are, so that everyone received age-appropriate material to teach.
Together, they discussed the use of literature, art and films to further the understanding of the students. The lectures were also about the modern problems of anti-Semitism and dealing with Holocaust denial. Schwartz said that she already knew a lot of the material, but gained from hearing about the complexities of how to teach the subject. It was validating for her to learn that other educators and other schools are struggling with forming an appropriate Holocaust curriculum as well.
Survivors from all across Europe came to speak over the course of the program. To name just a few, one person was saved by Schindler in Poland, one hidden in a monastery in Italy, and one was a partisan (a fighter in irregular military groups in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis). Others came from Lithuania and Slovakia. One sentence that stayed with Schwartz is, “The Holocaust is not really just about six million, it’s about the story of a Jew who gets murdered, but this story happened six million times.” Every single person’s story is different, a fact that Schwartz tries to emphasize to her students at Moriah.
She indicated that she tells her class, “Resistance wasn’t just picking up a gun or fighting. It meant when there was a whole group of men in a barrack who would share one set of tefillin to daven even for a minute, or to barter soup for a match to feel as though you’re lighting Shabbat candles.” Any tiny act reminiscent of “normalcy” was a form of resistance, a way for people to rehumanize themselves, and continue fighting for survival even just one more day.
One of the biggest takeaways for Schwartz was the impossibility of studying the death of the Jews and the persecution of the Jews without first understanding the lifestyles and cultures of these communities. “Moriah is actually a bit ahead of the game,” she says, teaching about life before the war, during the war and then after the war, showing what was lost and also what was maintained, how the victims did not give up.
Although she has not yet visited the concentration camps in Poland, it is a goal of hers. It is very valuable for everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, to go and see the standing testaments to the Holocaust, in order to better comprehend the horrors and tragedies brought about by the Nazis during World War II, Schwartz said.
Reflecting on her experience at Yad Vashem, she said, “Getting the opportunity to hear from world-renowned professors and simultaneously meeting survivors, all in Jerusalem, is the pinnacle of Holocaust education for an educator. To do that all in Jerusalem under a Jewish state is the ideal.”
Sara Linder is a JLNJ summer intern. She is a Teaneck resident and a student at the University of Maryland-College Park.