Teachers, students learn lessons of Auschwitz firsthand

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 12:00am

As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it falls to future generations to ensure their stories remain vibrant and strong.

With that in mind, USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education brought groups of students and teachers from around the world this week to Poland to not only participate in Tuesday’s 70th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp, but to give them the a deeper understanding of the horrors of World War II.

The group — teachers from 11 countries on four continents and students from Los Angeles, Philadelphia and England — is spending four days traveling from Warsaw to Krakow, meeting survivors, attending classes and touring museums.

They came as part of Auschwitz: The Past is Present, a global communications and education program from USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education in support of the official anniversary commemoration at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Where history happened

By visiting sites where Nazis murdered some of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, participants were able to see where history happened and speak to people who lived it so they can return home and share what they learned.

It is an experience none of us will forget any time soon.

—Kori Street

“It is a profound experience for all of us — students, educators and staff,” said Kori Street, USC Shoah Foundation director of education. “It is an experience none of us will forget any time soon.”

The days were long and filled with study, but there was also time to see some of the local sites — ones that helped illustrate the complexity of the war.

On Saturday,  students, teachers and staff from the institute and Discovery Education visited the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. There, teachers attended professional development programs, while the kids worked on classroom activities.

The day included a trip to a local chocolate factory, but there was a lesson there, too. As Street explained, the owner of the century-old confectioner resisted the Nazi invasion, even though he himself was of German descent.

On Sunday, the groups got together for a discussion on ways the teachers could best use the nearly 53,000 testimonies in the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive. The students, ranging in age from 10 to 16, critiqued the ideas and offered suggestions on how to improve them.

Famous faces

They were unfazed by the presence of two prominent people in the audience: USC Shoah founder Steven Spielberg and Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, who both smiled approvingly at the youngsters’ insights and the teachers’ commitment to Holocaust education.

The two men also attended a panel discussion where some of the students and teachers shared their thoughts with several hundred spectators. The pair are members of the Auschwitz: The Past is Present Committee, a group of leading American and international businesspeople and philanthropists who joined forces to support the anniversary commemoration.

I speak for the children who didn’t survive the Holocaust. And these kids are the ones will tell the stories after I’m gone.

—Paula Lebovics

For Soljane Quiles, a teacher from Highland Charter Middle/High School in Rhode Island, the trip was a chance to expand her knowledge of the Holocaust so she can make the topic more vibrant for her students back home.

“This is something I’ve always been passionate about, but seeing these things make it more immediate, she said. “When I get home, I’ll share what I’ve learned with my students and other teachers.”

Many students said their favorite part of the journey so far was meeting Auschwitz survivor Paula Lebovics. Although old enough to be their great-grandmother, the 81-year-old Lebovics built an instant rapport with the kids.

“I speak for the children who didn’t survive the Holocaust,” Lebovics said. “And these kids are the ones will tell the stories after I’m gone.”