Visiting Auschwitz: How it changed my teaching

Wed, 01/27/2016 - 3:18pm

As the first anniversary of my life-changing trip to Poland is upon me, I take time to reflect on the impact that trip has made on me both personally and professionally.  I have learned so much from my experiences as a teacher in USC Shoah Foundation’s and Discovery Education’s Auschwitz: The Past is Present program.

People are interested.  In all the stages of this journey, so many people have asked about my experiences. They are genuinely interested in learning more about this dark time in human history.  I have had amazing opportunities to speak about my experience and my classroom use of IWitness. Whether my audience is a classroom full of teachers or a small room full of our “greatest generation,” the attentiveness of those in attendance and the challenging questions they ask demonstrate their sincere concern and regard to know more about the Holocaust. I don’t think a week has gone by when I haven’t had an opportunity to share my experiences from Auschwitz: The Past is Present.

My worldview has changed.  My trip to Poland for the Auschwitz: The Past is Present program was my first trip to Europe.  I had waited for a long time to “cross the pond,” and I am so thankful I was able to make the trip for such a significant event. Importantly, I came to realize exactly how “young” the United States is. As we toured the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews (POLIN), I was captivated by the long and rich history of the Jewish people in Poland. Our tour took us through hundreds and hundreds of years of Jewish life - through larger-than-life recreations, timelines, and state-of-the-art interactive exhibits.

Two days later, when we toured the city of Oswiecim, located near the Nazi death camp Auschwitz  - quiet and snowy - a stark contrast to the modern POLIN, I was struck by how a once thriving Jewish community was, quite literally, annihilated.  As we stood at the site Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis decades ago, I could visualize a community full of life. That community was destroyed, and its long and abundant history faded into the snow. It saddened me to think that the name Oswiecim, is no longer synonymous with a thriving Jewish community; instead it is synonymous with atrocity. I think touring POLIN and then, almost immediately, touring Oswiecim really showed me an impact of the Holocaust that I had not strongly considered. Oswiecim is a little town much like my own.  What would happen to our town if an entire group of people - maybe the Baptists or the Methodists or the Catholics - just vanished?  

Sitting next to jr. intern Gabe before our panel at POLIN on the benefits of teaching and learning from testimony.
My teaching is more informed.  Through my experience with Auschwitz: The Past is Present, I have become more informed about the Holocaust, and, as importantly, how I teach it. Much of that learning came from conversations with other educators - some of whom were part of the program with me, and others with whom I have connected through other USC Shoah Foundation activities. I have a group of trusted educators with whom I can discuss how to incorporate testimony and other resources so that students benefit from their Holocaust study as fully as possible. Now, I am able to pair a survivor’s testimony with a fictional account of a similar situation in the Holocaust. I have a wealth of resources to share with my students and colleagues, and that is wonderful!

Students like learning through testimony. In this day-and-age where life moves quickly and “reality TV” is an ever-present part of life, the art of “storytelling” seems to have taken a back seat. Through IWitness, the age-old art of storytelling masterfully blends with the digital age. Students are captivated by listening to Holocaust survivors tell their own life stories. One of my favorite things about teaching with testimony is that students can learn more about a person than just their Holocaust experience; they learn about their childhood, their family, their fears, their dreams, their trials, their victories.  Students learn about their humanity. I think that is a critical element for students to understand when they study genocide. Those affected are real people with real lives, and real stories to tell.

It’s not just about the numbers. As I worked my way through the testimonies and activities in IWitness, I realized something I hadn’t really considered before.  It’s not just about the numbers.  It’s about the individuals. Yes, saying “six million Jews died during the Holocaust” sounds shocking, but I don’t really know what six million is.  I’ve never consciously had six million of anything.  However, learning about Roman Kent’s dog Lala, or Paula Lebovics’s narrow escape from a guard, or Erna Anolik’s story of hiding after an escape have shown me the reality of the Holocaust. Yes, the numbers are astounding, but the effect on the lives of individual human beings is harrowing. Through testimony, students come to realize that learning about the Holocaust isn’t just about an intangible number; it’s about the stories of those who lived to tell.

One of my students engaging with testimony in IWitness.
I view memory and commemoration in a whole new way.  One year ago, as I walked the corridor between barracks at Auschwitz, I saw an elderly gentleman standing in the doorway of one of the barracks.  He was surrounded by what I presume to be his family - multiple generations - and they had gathered to take a photograph in what appeared to be the barrack where he had lived.  The family smiled; I was shocked. One aspect of the Holocaust I never considered before this experience was how we remember the past and how we commemorate significant events. In Poland, much of our learning centered on those ideas. We were there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. People from all over the world gathered to remember that event. In our professional development workshops, I gained perspective about how memories change over time and vary among individuals. I thought about how we commemorate events - both tragic and joyful.  On that cold day at Auschwitz, I realized that what may be appropriate for one person may not be appropriate for another. When I saw the family posing for a photograph in the doorway of a barrack, I had to take pause.  For that family, they were celebrating victory.  That man survived, and was surrounded by a large family.  That photograph represented a life that was probably not supposed to have happened.  They had every right and reason to smile.  Their presence and actions in the camp were so different from mine.  And that’s the way it should be.

I am so very grateful to have been part of the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  This increidble experience in Poland of meeting survivors and then listening to testimony, has changed me not only as an educator, but as a person. I know I will be using the resources from Discovery Education and IWitness for years to come!

Jeannie Woods