Holocaust Program for Teachers Resumes After Hiatus

By E.B. Solomont

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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After being suspended for three years, a summer study program for Holocaust educators resumed last month with a revised itinerary.

The Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program, initiated by the Jewish Labor Committee in 1984, has been taking teachers to Shoah-related sites in Poland and Israel for two decades. But each summer since 2002, the program has been canceled due to security concerns following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and because of the intifada in Israel.

In resuming the program this year, program directors took 30 teachers instead of 45, and adapted the itinerary, shaving one week off the trip and leaving out a visit to Israel, but adding stops in the Czech Republic and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Program organizers said they would like to add Israel back into the itinerary, but no specific plans for future programs are in place.

“We were forced by circumstances to make certain changes to our Summer Seminar,” program director Vladka Meed wrote in “Together,” the publication of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

Geared toward public school teachers, the program is the brainchild of Meed, who is a survivor. It aims to advance education in U.S. schools about the Holocaust and Jewish resistance by deepening teachers’ knowledge. As survivors’ numbers dwindle, many prioritize passing their legacy on to teachers.

“We who survived are concerned: Will history do justice to our world that is no more?” Meed asked a crowd last year at a gathering of past participants, who number in the hundreds.

For teachers — many of whom said their students’ only exposure to the Holocaust is through “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “Schindler’s List” — the program provides new resources to draw upon in their classrooms, such as pictures, video and their own experiences.

“It gives you credibility when you talk to your students. You can say, ‘I’ve been to Auschwitz, Majdanek,’” said Seth Altman, a 2001 participant who teaches high school social studies at Yorktown High School in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “You become, in effect, a primary resource.”

Teachers participating this year expressed little concern for the safety concerns that has sidelined the trip since 2001. Jessica Bylo Cachon, a 10th grade teacher at American High School in Fresno, Calif., did acknowledge, however, that her family might have urged her not to go if the itinerary still included Israel: “While it would have been fascinating,” she said, “I don’t feel like I missed out on anything” by not visiting Israel.

David Schwartz, an educator in Randolph, N.J., was accepted to the 2002 program, and had been waiting three years for the program to resume. Having read accounts and seen photographs and tapes of the Holocaust era, he wanted to experience Poland and the Czech Republic viscerally: feeling the soil, smelling the air. “I want to see scraps of what they’re talking about,” he said at a pre-departure sendoff for participants, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

The predominant feeling among teachers on the program — the vast majority of whom are public school teachers — was to capture as much on film and in their minds as possible, to become sources of information for their students. Many public schools already integrate the Holocaust into their curriculum, whether or not large numbers of students are Jewish.

Jewish and non-Jewish teachers alike participate in the program, sometimes with differing personal reactions. Bob Potter, a teacher from New Hampshire, recalled feeling like he was violating a certain sacredness of the camps as a non-Jew. But Schwartz, who is Jewish, felt an eerie sense of solidarity with victims. “If I were born in a different generation, I would have been there,” he told the Forward.

Still, images of destruction and a visceral connection to the camps stayed with the group. Back in Washington at the Holocaust Museum, following the European leg of the trip, Schwartz recognized a familiar smell emanating from a cattle car on exhibit there. Having set out to grasp physical talismans of the Holocaust, he realized he had done so when he was able to identify the odor as the same one he had smelled a week earlier at the Polish concentration camp Majdanek. “It smelled like the Holocaust,” he said.

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