Institute News

"Past is Present" in Action: Johanna Söderholm

This year-long series will catch up with teachers and staff who participated in the Auschwitz: The Past is Present professional development program led by USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The program brought 25 teachers from around the world to Warsaw and Krakow from Jan. 23-28, 2015, where they toured museums and historical sites, learned how to incorporate testimony into their teaching, and attended the official commemoration at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. In “Past is Present” in Action, the participants reflect on the program and share how it has influenced their work.

Johanna Söderholm has been in high demand since she returned from Auschwitz: The Past is Present.

The only teacher from Finland chosen to participate in the program, Söderholm has been busy juggling dozens of requests – for interviews, articles, and speaking engagements – in the nearly two and a half months since the program concluded. It’s been overwhelming at times, she admits.

“It has been surprising how much positive feedback I have received on the articles and after speaking engagements. Then again, I am not [surprised],” Söderholm said. “I always knew that there are people here in Finland who are interested in the relevance of the Holocaust and Auschwitz today and teachers who are interested in teaching it.”

Söderholm first wrote a column about the relevance of Auschwitz today for the magazine of Abo Akademi University. She hesitated at first because the deadline was just a few days after she returned from Poland and she worried it was too soon for her to reflect, but the finished article was well received, perhaps because it was so genuine and personal, she said.

The regional newspaper and morning radio news show also did stories about her, and she was the subject of a longer feature in the Lutheran State Church of Finland’s magazine.

With her students, who are MBA candidates at Open University taking a required English reading comprehension course, Söderholm led a fascinating class discussion about their experiences learning about the Holocaust in school decades ago and what their own children are being taught today.

Söderholm has also spoken to local high school students, in Swedish, social studies and English classes, about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. During these visits, she has shown photos from her trip to Poland, led the class in USC Shoah Foundation’s Pyramid of Hate lesson, and discussed Holocaust literature that the class was reading. She has also shown Auschwitz, the 15-minute documentary produced by USC Shoah Foundation for the 70th anniversary commemoration ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Söderholm said the documentary’s clear, easy-to-follow narration is perfect for English classes.

In addition, Söderholm has translated some IWitness activities into Swedish and Finnish and piloted them with 10th graders.

Söderholm said that The Past is Present has had a huge impact on her, on a personal and professional level. Sharing what she has learned with others has actually been an even bigger challenge than the trip to Poland, she said, but having a network of Past is Present colleagues all over the world with whom she can share ideas and receive support is extremely valuable.

“The chance to meet inspiring teachers from all over the world is a blessing,” she said. “There are so many things I can learn from them!”