Lehman Professor Leads Holocaust Educators on Visit to Historical Sites in Poland and Israel

BRONX, N.Y. — Lehman English Professor Sondra Perl recently led seventeen teachers from across the United States on an educational tour of historical sites in Poland and Israel that are related to the Holocaust and important to contemporary Jewish life. The teachers, who represent differing backgrounds and faith traditions, belong to the Holocaust Educators Network, a program at Lehman that is sponsored and supported by the Memorial Library in New York City.

As part of this network, all have become experts in teaching about the Holocaust, other genocides, and issues of social justice. They now will bring the experiences they acquired on this trip back to their classrooms and communities.

After visiting Majdanek in Poland, which had the highest death rate of all the concentration camps, Katie Elsener and Jane Connealy, who teach at a Catholic high school in Nebraska, wrote that “the somber events of the day spurred us to take action through education; reminding us of the importance to compel our students and fellow teachers to engage in discussions and actions which will prevent us from climbing the ladder of the pyramid of hate. As survivor Irving Roth often chides us: be mindful of the signposts on the road to Auschwitz.”

The Holocaust Educators Network is comprised of more than 100 middle school, high school, and college faculty who have taken part in the summer seminar offered by the Memorial Library. Begun in 2006, the seminar is led by Professor Perl and involves two weeks of study at the Library in July. The teachers then use the lessons they have learned as a lens to educate their students about social justice in today’s world, and to address current issues of intolerance and injustice. The Memorial Library was founded by Olga Lengyel, a Holocaust survivor and author of Five Chimneys: A Woman’s True Story of Auschwitz.

“At a time when teachers, in particular, are blamed for so much failure,” says Professor Perl, “their work offers a counter-story, one that provides a vision of teachers working for the common good across religious, national, and international borders.”

Sixteen of the teachers now lead Memorial Library Satellite Seminars in their home towns in California, Kentucky, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, and South Dakota. After returning from New York, they work with teachers from across their home states, helping them learn about the Holocaust, develop action plans, and implement a curriculum that addresses social injustice on both the local and global level. The Satellite Seminar program began in 2011, and plans are in place for the seminars to run again in 2012.

The recent trip included visits to Poland to visit the extermination camps and then to Israel to see what has grown from the ashes of Auschwitz. The teachers visited notable sites, including the Warsaw Ghetto and Oskar Schindler’s factory. Their experience was made more personal as together they walked where survivors they have met in New York have walked: they saw where Gisela Glaser labored in the Plashov concentration camp, where Irving Roth dug ditches near Birkenau, and where Olga Lengyel used her skills as a physician’s assistant in the infirmary at Auschwitz.

In Israel, the teachers traveled to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where they were toured Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, and visited Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of critical importance to Jewish history. In both countries, they were accompanied by both a Holocaust survivor and a historian, and met with local educators to exchange ideas about the rewards and challenges of teaching about the Holocaust. Throughout, they wrote about their experiences in a blog created for their students back home (http://www.thememoriallibrary.org/hen-in-the-news/journey-to-poland-and-israel), who had the opportunity to read and respond.

The teachers who participated in this trip, the first of its kind undertaken by the Memorial Library, were:

  • Dr. Gatsinzi Basaninyenzi, Associate Professor of English at Alabama A&M University, originally from Rwanda, who returned to teach there from 2006-2007 and is active in researching education reform in that country;
  • Gail Desler, instructional technology expert for Elk Grove Unified School District in California, and co-director of a Summer Satellite that includes a special focus on the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII;
  • Diane Williams, winner of the 2011 Idaho Human Rights Educator of the Year Award, and her fellow Idaho teachers and Summer Satellite leaders Angela Harvey and Kellie Hannum;
  • Susan Fletcher, Cassandra Owens, and Stephanie Smith, who in 2012 will lead a Satellite Seminar that reaches across state boundaries to educators in Kentucky and Ohio;
  • Corey Harbaugh, Heather Hollands, and Amy Laitinen, who in their Summer Satellite bring teachers together from across the state of Michigan;
  • Brenda Johnston, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, and her colleague Wendy Warren, who connect their Summer Satellite to Montana’s mandated Indian Education for All program;
  • Jane Connealy, Katie Elsener, and Tom Seib, teachers at St. Pius X, a Catholic high school in Nebraska, who focus their Summer Satellite on the Holocaust and questions of local and global issues of social justice; and
  • Dr. Janis Hausmann, Associate Professor at Mount Marty College, who since 2009 has helped to lead a Holocaust Institute in South Dakota that also builds connections between teaching about the Holocaust and American Indian history.

The trip was organized in cooperation with The March of the Living International and with consultation from the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

To learn more about the Memorial Library, the Holocaust Educators Network, the Summer Seminar, and the Satellite Seminar programs, visit www.thememoriallibrary.org.

Media Contact: Marge Rice / 718-960-4992