Last July I, along with teachers, educators, researchers and professionals from across the country, embarked on a Holocaust Study Tour that took us to Austria and Poland. I can without a doubt say that the experience was literally a life changing and it has helped me grow as an educator.
Myself, along with my fellow teachers, educators, guides and professionals from the Holocaust Study Tour.
At the beginning of July, we left Toronto and set out for Vienna, where we began our journey by visiting local sites and museums, not just significant to the Holocaust but to Jewish history. This was one of the great themes of the tour and of what I brought home with me — when we teach Holocaust and Jewish education we should not simply focus on the death and loss but on the culture, for the Jewish people of Europe had a long and rich culture before the events of World War II and the Holocaust. This is something I have tried to remember, while it is very important to teach about the Holocaust, it must be remembered, and therefore taught, that Jewish people are not defined by the horrible loss of life that occurred. Leading from this I have it is also important to communicate that along with the Jewish people, the Nazis sought to eliminate Jewish culture, tradition and history. Through the destruction of culturally significant works and items, the Nazis believed they could erase the Jewish people. During our tour, and in many articles and stories I have read, it was repeatedly stated that despite this attempt to remove Jewish culture and traditions, people persevered and remembered. After the war ended, items and works were recovered and the Jewish people, of not just Europe but the world, remembered and built upon their rich history. This cultural heritage and perseverance is an important message that I feel is forgotten in Holocaust education at times and because of this tour, I am striving to include in my teaching.
A 19th Century Jewish Synagogue in Vienna, Austria
The Nameless Library memorial in Vienna, Austria
Accompanying us on the tour was a great and interesting man named Bill Glied, who is also a Holocaust survivor. When I applied to take part in the tour, I had no idea that Bill was to be part of the tour, but I can say now, having taken part in the tour, that he is literally one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. This is not simply because of what he went through, which was one of the most moving and incredible stories of strength and survival I could imagine, but also because of the life he has lived. Bill is not only strong but he also has a wonderful spirit that I truly cannot describe in words. Many people could live a life of anger, hate and resentment after going through an experience such as the one Bill did, but he did not, instead he has a successful life that has clearly been marked with his caring and fun spirit. In addition, he has spent much of his time on telling not only his story but also the story of Holocaust. He is a champion of Holocaust education and has helped teachers like me become better educators, so future generations will know and understand what occurred during the Holocaust, and the lives of those both lost and survived. Bill’s story, which is one I have shared with students, is both incredibly moving and inspiring but I will not share it here. Instead for those reading this that have never heard of Bill Glied, I ask you to take a little time to read about him. Bill still comes and speaks to schools and students directly, for those in Ontario, further helping the next generation of learners understand the events Holocaust but also the emotion, strength, perseverance and lives of those involved. As an educator and as a person I am truly lucky to have met Bill Glied and honored to have taken part in this tour with him!
Myself and Bill Glied
Bill Glied speaking to everyone from the Holocaust Study tour in Warsaw, Poland
During the Holocaust Study Tour, we visited a number of sites that were deeply significant to the Holocaust itself, including Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Mauthausen, and Castle Hartheim, among others. While it is not the purpose of this post to discuss everything I saw on the tour, but instead what I carry with me as an educator from the tour, I must spend some time discussing the actual sites. For those of you who know me on a personal level, you know that I am a serious person who rarely shows much for emotion. Given this, while I knew that the places I was to visit would be intense and moving, I was certain I would not become “emotional”. Having said this, I was moved beyond words and even to tears by sites. It is one thing to think of the loss of life that occurred during the Holocaust in terms of numbers, even in the staggering terms involved, but it is an entirely another to actually connect with those lives taken, through the places that they were taken in and the items those people left behind. Putting names, stories and everyday items in connection with the numbers and statistics placed an entirely different view on the Holocaust and while this may sound odd, it made it more real. I am choosing to talk about this hear because this has altered how I am going teach about the Holocaust. While teaching that 6 million Jewish people had their lives taken from them during the Holocaust is important, I also believe that this number is so large that it is difficult for students (and even adults) to conceptualize. Therefore, it is also important for me to teach about the people, both who they were and what they left behind. One piece that I have come to rely on, and I will address in the final section of this post, is the images I took on the trip. Additionally, I also feel that it is important to discuss the strength, resistance and survival of Jewish people, including stories such as Bill Glied or the resistance at Treblinka to help go deeper than the loss. The Holocaust is far more than text or numbers from a history book, which was my own personal educational experience with the Holocaust in high school, and as such, I want to draw upon my experiences and understandings from the Holocaust Study Tour to help my students truly understand this.
Memorial at the Treblinka Extermination Camp
A portion of the shoes that are piled up at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Castle Hartheim in Austria
As I mentioned, and you have seen included throughout this post, I took a significant number of pictures on the Holocaust Study Tour last year. I have used these images to teach about the Holocaust, not just in Social Studies but also in other courses such as Photography and Information Processing, which you would not normally think of when considering Holocaust education. The images have become a great entry point for discussion and I have found that both students and adults alike want to know much more after seeing a couple images. Additionally, as I noted, the images allow the stories to become more real. When you see the shoes at Auschwitz-Birkenau or the memorial at Majdanek, the events become more tangible than me simply discussing them. Moreover, I can add in my personal experience at the sites to help the students achieve a greater level of understanding. This is a great-unintended use of the images I captured during the tour. I initially set out to take the pictures because I comprehend things more deeply through reflection and the images were intended to capture the tour through my eyes, to aid in my own reflection. While this was indeed something I have used the images for, I have been able to help others, including students, connect with the places I visited through the images — making the education about the Holocaust all the more tangible!
The rail tracks leading into Auschwitz-Birkenau
Memorial at Majdanek concentration camp
Remnants of the wall from the Warsaw Ghetto
While in this post I have spent little time discussing what I actually saw on the tour, I am more than willing to add to this post to discuss a specific site or experience if anyone is interested. Instead, I want to reiterate that thanks to Holocaust Study Tour and the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Center I was allowed to take part and gain the knowledge and perspective on the Holocaust that I now possess. When I stated that this tour was life changing, I meant it, and I now have a deeper understanding of not just the Holocaust but of Jewish people, culture and history as a result, which I truly believe has made me into a better teacher. The guides, Carson Phillips, Andreas Schnitzer, Catherine Gitzel and Sharon Kangisser Cohen were absolutely amazing and their knowledge of the locations we visited, the events that occurred and the history, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were second to none and I am grateful to have been able to experience the tour with them. While a teacher can visit many of these sites on their own, it is with our guides that we reached the levels of understanding and appreciation of the events and sites that we did. I would, in a heartbeat, take part in another similar tour any time, if these individuals where in anyway involved as I have truly benefited from their great knowledge! For those of you that have stuck with me and read the whole post, I thank you for allowing me to publicly reflect on what I have learned and gained from the Holocaust Study Tour last year. Again, if you have any specifics you would like to know more about, just comment and I will be more than happy to add to this! Thank you!
Sharon Kangisser Cohen talking to us in Tykocin, Poland