The Ukrainian high school students who were trained to lead the new IWalk on Babi Yar last month met with USC Shoah Foundation Director of Education Kori Street to talk about their experience and how they can help USC Shoah Foundation in its mission to change the world through testimony.
Anna Lenchovska, USC Shoah Foundation regional consultant in Ukraine, called on the teenagers and young educators who attend the Tolerspace educational center in Kiev, which has piloted testimony-based educational programs before, to serve as “peer guides” of the Babi Yar IWalk. She took a group of 10 teens and five educators on the IWalk for a practical training session on Sept. 24, preparing them to lead 10 IWalks from Sept. 26 to Oct. 7. The IWalks were attended by school groups and also local professionals and opinion makers.
On the Babi Yar IWalk, participants walk through the historic site of Babi Yar and the Babi Yar memorial while watching testimony clips from the Visual History Archive on tablet devices. The clips cover the history of Babi Yar, pre-war and occupied Kiev, the killings, stories of survival, commemoration and denial.
Street attended the official commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Babi Yar in Kiev on September 29. While she was in town, she met with six of the teens about their experiences leading the IWalk, the challenges they’ve faced and how they can be effective leaders on the IWalk.
Sveta said it was “scary” to lead an IWalk for the first time.
“It was very interesting for me, and I wanted other people to know as well. [But] I was concerned they would be cruel about the information they hear,” she said.
Unfortunately, her fears were not unfounded. Several of the teens described difficult interaction with students in their IWalk groups.
One student, Christina, said it was challenging to work with kids who “have no idea about tolerance.” Katya said some kids in her group laughed at the serious words and concepts of the Babi Yar massacre.
Asya said one boy began to draw a swastika. She was glad another teacher stepped in to talk to him, and it appeared that the swastika was the only thing he knew about World War II.
Nastya also recommended that younger kids be given other activities to complete while on the IWalk, such as finding something on the path or making a drawing, to hold their attention instead of just watching testimony clips.
Street cautioned the teens to be sensitive to the various ways people might react to testimony or learning about something as difficult as the Holocaust. They might want to think about potential psychological triggers before they lead an activity like an IWalk – in order to help their students process the information better and also for their own mental well-being.
The teens said they would love to make a bigger difference in their community. Asya admitted that sometimes the programs she participates in at Tolerspace feel too small to truly be able to make a difference.
“Sometimes it seems that we could change nothing. But it is just a first step,” she said.
Christina said she is now inspired to try to bring more interactive programs like IWalk to her own school, and Andrew said he is learning foreign languages and would like to become a volunteer and visit other countries.
Angelina wanted to invite more people to Tolerspace to help them be more open-minded.
“I would like to tell more to other people that these events should not happen again,” Sveta said. “The majority just does not know.”