June 13, 2024
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Wiesel and Imber Share Shoah Lessons

For the past 23 years, the American Society of Yad Vashem (ASYV) has sponsored a conference on Holocaust Education. Named in memory of Barbara Gutfreund Arfa, z”l, a child of Holocaust survivors and an advocate for teaching future generations about the lessons of hope, courage and resilience from the Holocaust, the conference has addressed thousands of educators and through them no fewer than 100,000 students to date. This year’s conference, entitled “History Repeats Itself: Making Sure Our Students Are Listening,” took place virtually on Sunday, March 7, and hosted nearly 200 educators from the tri-state area, 17 states and seven countries.

In opening the conference, Stanley Stone, Teaneck resident, who serves as the executive director of the ASYV, welcomed the participants and praised the educators for keeping the teachings of the Holocaust alive for future generations.

Marlene Warshawski Yahalom, PhD, is the director of education for ASYV. In her introductory remarks, Yahalom posited, “The Final Solution—the master plan to destroy the Jews of Europe—was devised not only to destroy Jewish victims, but to annihilate every trace of their memory. We therefore have a responsibility to create Holocaust memory and document the event for posterity. We are obligated to provide teachable moments for our students to meet the challenges imposed by Holocaust denial. In doing so, we safeguard the past to protect the future.”

Sheryl Ochayon, educator at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, presented a guided discussion of universally acclaimed Holocaust author and Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel’s “Night” for educators through multiple resources and lesson plans. Through interspersing excerpts from the memoir “Night” throughout the presentation, she incorporated the human experience into the teaching of the Holocaust so that students are engaged and “listening.”

Featured in dialogue at the conference were Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel, z”l, along with Shulamit Imber, director of pedagogy for the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. Wiesel, former Goldman Sachs chief of information, describes himself as a recovering Wall Street executive. He has taken up the voice of his late, acclaimed father, z”l in serving as a voice of the Holocaust. He has undertaken to promote, along with his mother, Marion, the many humanitarian organizations that his parents supported over many decades in the U.S. and around the world. He speaks widely about his father’s legacy and message in reaction to opportunities that arise to make a difference in this world.

In addition to her position at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, Imber serves as the Fred Hillman Chair in Memory of Dr. Janusz Korczak, heroic educator during the Holocaust. Imber has collaborated on numerous international conferences and prepared copious materials for Holocaust education. She is currently featured on a massive, open online course on teaching about the Holocaust (MOOC). Shulamit earned her masters from the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Imber began the dialogue by saying that over the course of her 30 years as a Holocaust educator at Yad Vashem, a mention or quote of Elie Wiesel has been offered daily by staff members or students. She believes that he was able to convey through his autobiography, “Night,” as well as through his subsequent 56 writings, the “human story.”

Elisha Wiesel corroborated this belief by conveying his personal exposure to “the story” of his father. He shared that his father never “sat him down” and shared his memories. Instead he took him back to the places where his story took place. On their first trip to Poland, when Elisha was 21, they visited Wiesel’s native Sighet before going on to Auschwitz. To the young Wiesel, the visit to Sighet was a more meaningful and indelible experience as he witnessed one of the rare emotional reactions of his father to the town of his youth even more than to the site of his torture.

“My father was actually seeing the ghosts of his past. He saw his parents working side by side in their grocery store, his father caring for the well-being of the community, his carefree sisters, his beloved rebbes and his prophet Moshe the Beadle. In order to know what was lost, we must first know what existed,” he said.

In response to Imber’s question as to why it took 10 years after liberation for his father to pen his memoir, which he began on a boat in South America and took only two to three weeks to complete, Wiesel responded that in 1960, parents were still trying to shield their children from the gruesome tales of the Holocaust. Wiesel knew that his words had to be “just right” and “perfect” to convey the “human story” so that it would be universally felt and elicit the proper empathy and compassion.

Imber posed a question that readers of “Night” always bring up. “Was Elie Wiesel a believer throughout? Did he ever lose his faith in God?” Wiesel responded that for a brief period after the Holocaust, his father rejected tradition, but he never fully abandoned his belief. He was always in conversation with God, wrestling with Him, but never rejecting Him. “In his daily life, he davened, put on tefillin, attended shul and kept the traditions. For over 40 years, he lectured at the 92nd Street Y about the Chasidic masters who burned with religious fervor. He believed it was these religious heroes who were advocating for us in heaven.”

In 2015, the American Society for Yad Vashem was awarded the President’s Award from the Association of Teachers of Social Studies of the United Federation of Teachers for implementing the best educational practices in using documents, inquiry, critical thinking and action for studying the Holocaust. The conference represents a collaborative effort among the American Society for Yad Vashem, the Association of Teachers of Social Studies/United Federation of Teachers, United Federation of Teachers Jewish Heritage Committee/Educators Chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee and the School of Education of Manhattanville College.

Support materials from the Arfa Professional Development Conference on Holocaust Education are available on www.yadvashemusa.org/arfa-conference-2021. For more information on the educational programs of the American Society for Yad Vashem, please contact [email protected].

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