Inside Spring & Summer 2012 : Page 34

Teaching the New technologies transmit the lessons of the Shoah to the next generation. 32 INSIDE S PRING & S UMMER 2012

Teaching The Unimaginable

Melissa Jacobs

New technologies transmit the lessons of the Shoah to the next generation.<br /> <br /> April 19 is Yom HaShoah. In congregations and classrooms around the world, Jews and non-Jews will gather to honor and learn about the lives lost. Time has not lessened the crimes committed during the Holocaust. But time has thinned the ranks of survivors who can give first-hand accounts of witnessing those crimes.<br /> <br /> “We know that the most effective way of teaching students about the Holocaust is for them to meet survivors and hear their stories, but there is an inevitability for which we must prepare,” says Josey Fisher, director of the Holocaust Oral History Archive of Gratz College and one of the leaders of The Consortium of Holocaust Educators of Greater Philadelphia. “The question that educators have been grappling with for years is, ‘How will the lessons of the Holocaust be taught after the passing of the survivor generation?’ ” <br /> <br /> Technology is providing new answers. Many survivors have recorded their stories on video or audiotape. Sharing those testimonies with students and teachers is the goal of Iwitness ( and Centropa (, two new websites that have recently debuted in the Philadelphia area. Both programs are available to educators around the world. And, they are free.<br /> <br /> Low Cost, High Return <br /> <br /> Free matters in Pennsylvania. That is because funding for Holocaust education was eliminated by the state of Pennsylvania in the 2009-2010 budget, and it has not yet been restored.<br /> <br /> “The beauty of Iwitness and Centropa is that they are providing curriculums and support materials created by some of the best Holocaust scholars in the world to every classroom that has a computer and an Internet connection,” Fisher says. “The information has been created in places where there is funding for it and now it’s being shared with students and teachers who want it. We know computers and technology capture the attention and imagination of this generation of students. So, teachers are chomping at the bit to start using these programs.” <br /> <br /> Iwitness is a program created, funded and distributed by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, established in 1994 by Steven Spielberg to collect and preserve testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. The Shoah Foundation has nearly 52,000 video testimonies from 56 countries. Through the Iwitness website, 1,000 of those testimonies are available to secondary school teachers to use in their Holocaust education curriculums and class projects.<br /> <br /> Iwitness officially debuted this past January at the United Nations. Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation, says that Iwitness was almost three years in the making. “We had to test both the technology and the content,” he explains. “The selection of the testimonies was driven by teachers and students who experienced them.” <br /> <br /> Some of Iwitness’s beta testing happened in the Philadelphia area. “Last spring, we worked with Comcast and piloted Iwitness at the Honickman Learning Center, an after-school program run by Project H.O.M.E., and it was a fantastic experience,” says Jayne Perilstein, the Philadelphia representative for the Shoah Foundation. “The students spent the weekend with us to test the program. The whole point was to find out what lasting impact those lessons taught via technology had on the kids.” <br /> <br /> “We wanted to provide testimonies that give teachers what they need to teach the Holocaust,” Smith says. “It’s them telling us what they need, not the other way around.” <br /> <br /> Iwitness can be used with Echoes and Reflections, the multimedia educational curriculum created by Yad Vashem, the Shoah Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League that is currently used in many Philadelphiaarea schools.<br /> <br /> “But this is not the same as playing a DVD on the subject,” Smith says. “This is not a watching exercise. It’s meant to empower the students to search, edit and share video, photographs, documents and other content on whatever part of Holocaust history they are learning. Iwitness allows them to connect with the material in a meaningful and deep way, and build their Internet skills while building their experience with doing historical research.” <br /> <br /> The 1,000 testimonies selected for Iwitness represent a range of countries, ages, sexes, religions, political backgrounds and wartime experiences. “Students can watch videos from people who lived in the ghettos, camp survivors, hidden children, partisans, etc.,” <br /> <br /> Smith says. “We also made sure that, although all of the videos are in English, we have testimonies given from people who live in different geographical areas. We have 100 videos from Australia, 100 from England, 100 from Israel and the rest from the States.” Smith says that 800 teachers around the country are already registered and using Iwitness; his goal is to boost that number into the thousands as quickly as possible. The usage capacity for Iwitness is unlimited, so there is no limit to the number of people who can access the database.<br /> <br /> Bringing 3G and 4G up to Speed <br /> <br /> While Iwitness chronicles lives lost, Centropa chronicles the culture that was destroyed during the Holocaust. Based in Vienna and Budapest, Centropa is a nonprofit organization founded by Edward Serotta, an American photojournalist and filmmaker. Serotta and his staff interviewed and documented the stories of European Jews who survived World War II in 15 countries. Their pictures, music, recipes, stories and short films are on Centropa’s website. In 2010, Serotta added educational curriculums for teachers to use in classrooms around the world.<br /> <br /> Training sessions for Philadelphia teachers began in 2010 and continue to be held with the support of the Consortium of Holocaust Educators of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. In 2011, the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom awarded a $200,000 grant to Centropa to implement innovative Holocaust education programs in Hungary, Lithuania and Poland. In a statement, the State Department said, “Using technology, including web-based personal stories and traveling exhibitions, and teacher seminars, Centropa will prepare educators to teach and engage students with 20th-century Jewish history and the Holocaust.” <br /> <br /> What do students think about all of this technology? Which media — websites, films, photos, music, literature — best teach them the lessons of the Holocaust?<br /> <br /> Answers were on display this past February at the grand opening of the Museum of Jewish Life in Poland, a project of the ninth-grade class at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.<br /> <br /> Created in partnership with Centropa, the temporary exhibit featured short films and 6-foot tall, museum-like informational panels created by the students. With the assistance of Ivy Kaplan and Lilach Taichman, Barrack’s ninth-grade history teachers, students used books, interviews with their family members and online resources like Centropa, Jewish Virtual Library and My Jewish Learning to find photos, music, maps and facts to illustrate Jewish life in Poland before, during and after the Holocaust.<br /> <br /> While it’s not surprising that a Jewish day school would have a curriculum that emphasizes Holocaust education, students at Barrack have a special reason to learn about it. Many of them are 3Gs and 4Gs, thirdand fourth-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors.<br /> <br /> One of them is Hadar Re’em, a ninth-grader from Allentown who commutes daily to Barrack. Re’em’s grandmother, Rachel Friedman, is a Holocaust survivor. Friedman now lives in Jerusalem and had spoken about the Holocaust only in broad strokes. “She wanted us to know about the Holocaust,” Re’em says, “but she didn’t want us to know what happened directly to her.” <br /> <br /> Did Re’em really want to know? “Absolutely,” she says, all 4 feet 6 inches of her looking suddenly resolute. “I wanted to know what happened, who did it, and why.” <br /> <br /> Armed with her school assignment, Re’em called Friedman. They spoke about the extended family, then Friedman mailed the photos she had. When Re’em decided to make a video for the Centropa project, she took a non-verbal approach to getting more information from her grandmother. “It was so hard for her to talk about it,” <br /> <br /> Re’em says, “that I thought it might be easier for her to write than speak.” Re’em emailed 10 specific questions to Friedman. After decades of silence on the subject, Friedman gave her granddaughter answers — extensive ones — within a week.<br /> <br /> “I think that my grandmother might feel a little bit of relief of finally having told the story to me and my siblings and cousins,” Re’em says. “Because now we know, and we can make sure that other people know.” <br /> <br /> Bringing the Past to Light <br /> <br /> Other 3G students at Barrack are just beginning to understand the Holocaust and the pivotal roles their grandparents played during it. Michael Zlotnick and Joel Belfer are ninth-graders at Barrack, and first cousins. Their grandfather is Israel Dubner, who survived Poland’s Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz. After being liberated, Dubner went to Israel, where he founded a kibbutz. Eventually, he immigrated to America, where he became a cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom synagogue in Scranton.<br /> <br /> Zlotnick, who lives in Elkins Park, and Belfer, who lives in Cherry Hill, knew all of that about their grandfather. But when Belfer asked his mother for specifics about Dubner’s experiences in Auschwitz and the Lodz Ghetto, “she didn’t have answers,” he says. “My mom said that she didn’t want to ask her father about things that were hard for him to discuss.” <br /> <br /> Belfer and Zlotnick turned to the Internet to find information, some of it specifically about their grandfather. “I didn’t know that other people looked up to my grandfather as, like, kind of a hero,” Zlotnick says quietly. “When I went online and found stuff about him and other survivors, it was, you know, impressive. I didn’t really get how other people in the world view Holocaust survivors. And I’m his grandson. That’s pretty awesome.” <br /> <br /> “I didn’t know that he had a Zionist connection, even when he was growing up in the ghetto,” Belfer says. “I didn’t know that Israel was something that Polish Jews thought about then, as a place of refuge. Knowing that Israel and Judaism were so important to my grandfather makes them more important to me, too.” <br /> <br /> Despite all of the technology available, and their prowess at using it, Re’em, Zlotnick, Belfer and their classmates say that having survivors speak to them in person is best. Sarah Graub has heard many survivors speak at Barrack and her synagogue, Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim. “In-person is better than a video for one reason,” she says. “You can’t ask a video questions.” <br /> <br /> Gaining Perspective <br /> <br /> The students also say that having Holocaust experts speak to them is a great learning experience. One of them is Dr. Norman Taichman, although he is neither a professional Holocaust educator nor the descendant of survivors. Taichman is a retired professor of dentistry, a father of five and grandfather of seven, who believes that it is his generation’s responsibility to inform future generations about Jewish history.<br /> <br /> To that end, he founded the Ivansk Project, which commemorates the Jewish lives lost in the Polish shtetl from which his family came. Selfresearched and self-funded, Taichman’s project has attracted an international following. His newsletter began with 15 subscribers and now numbers 500.<br /> <br /> Taichman has spoken at Barrack, at schools in Poland, and to his own children and grandchildren. “What I talk about is what life was like in Poland — the politics, the culture, the music, art, everything — before the wars and after,” he says. “Centropa is a great tool and I enjoy using the site, but nothing replaces the conversations that we have with our children in classrooms and in our homes.” <br /> <br /> “I don’t think those conversations should start at the end of the story, with the 6 million who were murdered,” Taichman says. “I start those conversations by talking about the life and culture of European Jews before the Holocaust. The kids have to know what was lost. That makes the Holocaust even more real to them and more scary, because if it happened in Europe, it could happen anywhere — again.” <br /> <br /> For Hadar Re’em, “All of this technology helps us learn about the Holocaust. I believe that, just in the few months that we’ve been doing this Centropa project, I have a better understanding of what happened during the Holocaust and my responsibility, as the descendant of a survivor, to pass on the lessons to future generations,” At the same time, she cautions, “all of that technology can also be used for evil purposes. And it’s our job to stop that, too.”

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