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Virginia Journal of Education


A Story that MUST Be Told


Teaching young people the lessons of the Holocaust is our best chance to confront genocide in today’s world.

 

By Nicole Korsen

My father, who is not a teacher, has received hundreds of thank-you notes from students. He’s not a very good public speaker either, never staying on topic and rarely answering the questions he’s asked. Yet, after he speaks, he is always inundated with gratitude. Some of the notes are perfunctory, but many are filled with promises never to give up and to speak out against injustice.

Jack Wagschal, my dad, is a Holocaust survivor, and very few young people today have ever met one. Some haven’t even met a Jewish person. Since I began my second career as a teacher eight years ago, he’s made the journey across the Potomac from Maryland many times to meet and talk with my students.

He has no set presentation and no two talks are ever the same. He doesn’t focus on the dark and shadowy details of his story, but instead on the values he has come to live by because of the events that shaped his life as a child. He urges students to adopt similar values and always stresses the importance of education, because he was never able to finish high school, something he had to compensate for as a refugee after WWII. He tells my freshman English students repeatedly to stay in school, and, much to my delight as a teacher and mom to two teenage boys, to listen to their teachers and parents. He stresses other core beliefs, too, mostly centered on hard work, respect for oneself and others, and the importance of family. He talks about the need to look out for one another and to speak up if witnessing injustice, no matter how small.

What he doesn’t tell them is the importance of sharing his personal story. That’s where I come in, and it’s where I hope you’ll come in, too.

Growing up, my two older brothers and I were very independent latch-key kids; my rides to the dentist were more likely to be with one of them than with one of our working parents. I learned responsibility early, but when I was in third grade and heard the word “Holocaust” for the first time, and then about our personal connection to it, the idea of responsibility took on a whole new meaning. The moment I heard what my dad, his parents, and his brother and sister had survived, my life’s responsibility was unknowingly thrust upon me. It is an odd thing to be the child of a survivor, to have a story that you feel must be told, to figure out who you should be telling it to and when, and then to realize that the act of sharing it may not be enough.

Their story is a simple, yet remarkable, one of loyalty, wits, and hope. The details differ depending on which sibling you hear it from as they were all very young, but we have several items that document it for us, thanks to a book we came across by the organization that saved their lives, l’Association de Juifs de Belgique (AJB). What is certain is that sometime in 1943, my grandfather was awakened in the night at his Belgium home and sent to a work camp, along with the other men in his apartment building. He managed to escape from the camp and hid on a farm in France, pretending to be deaf and mute so he wouldn’t give himself away by speaking his native Flemish. He survived because of his cleverness and incredible determination to return to his family.

After he left, my grandmother fell ill and was hospitalized. She was taken from her hospital bed and placed on the last transport to Auschwitz. I really don’t understand how, but like my grandfather, she survived because of her strength and determination to get back to her family. When she first stepped off the train upon arrival and faced “selection,” her face was flushed with illness. It was mistaken for a healthy glow and she was sent to work instead of death. She never talked much about her time there, but at liberation she weighed just 65 pounds.

My father and his two siblings, a brother and a sister, now considered orphans, were placed in a home run by a group of non-Jewish women and were “protected.” The Nazis would occasionally come looking for children to take so they could fill their quotas, but at those times the Wagschal children were sent to alternate hiding places or just into a nearby forest. My dad, only four years old when he arrived at the house, once survived for weeks living on berries in those woods. They were among the fortunate, fed and cared for until the end of the war by women who risked their lives to help them. Even more miraculous was that they found their parents at a displaced persons camp after liberation.

I never felt capable of understanding what I should do with my family’s story. It felt so much bigger than me, but I knew it couldn’t go unheard. I shared it every chance I got, starting when I wrote his story on five index cards and presented it to my third-grade Hebrew School class. From then on, I worked it into as many school projects as I could, embracing my role as storyteller.

As powerful as the Wagschal story is, its limited audience was preventing it from making a real difference. I was working in the communications field, getting paid a lot of money to communicate about things I didn’t feel passionate about. Meanwhile, in Rwanda and then Bosnia, something very similar to the Holocaust was happening. Six million Jews and five million others were wiped out and it seemed to be happening again. People were not learning from those mistakes and my storytelling was doing nothing to help.

I quit my job to stay home with my second-born son and became a volunteer tour guide for inner-city school groups at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. During one tour, I watched a group of students transform from disrespectful, disengaged teenagers into slack-jawed, questioning, active learners as they moved through the timeline of events. They were seeing themselves in those photos and artifacts. In the purposeful way the museum tells the story, these students saw firsthand how this was not something that happened overnight, that every choice of every person mattered and contributed to what was to come. The tour was just the vehicle to help them understand a little about the plight of marginalized minorities and current violations of human rights here and around the world. They connected because most of them were part of a minority group; those who weren’t had still witnessed acts of discrimination and prejudice. This group lived near the museum, but I wondered about those with little access to these types of resources. It was then I knew I needed to teach.

Once in the classroom, I was frustrated by how little time there was after covering the vast ninth-grade English curriculum, and, that as meaningful as my father’s visits were, there wasn’t time to take that understanding to the next level. Of course, there was the seventh-grade history unit, the eighth-grade reading of The Diary of Anne Frank and the 10-grade reading of Night, but that was about it. I didn’t feel that another Rwanda and certainly another Holocaust will be prevented by a cursory pass through a few pieces of Holocaust literature and a basic knowledge of its historical timeline.

Finally, last summer, came TOLI: I found myself in New York with 25 educators in the home of a deceased Holocaust survivor. The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI, www.toli.us) is an annual two-week, intensive program led by a board of directors named by Olga herself. I knew it would be the game-changer I’d been looking for.

As we went around the table in Olga’s dining room introducing ourselves, I found that only three of us were Jewish. There were people from all over the country and even Greece and Poland, and they were Christians, Mormons, atheists, LGBTs, blacks, whites, and Asians. We were all so different, yet we came together to preserve the very right to be exactly who we are. One thing tied us all together: a passion to “prevent the past from becoming the future.” Everyone in that room believed that education was the way to do that. And it clearly was so much more than a “Jewish” thing.

One of the unique aspects of the program is that because participants are from so many places, satellite programs are developed and run by TOLI participants. Currently, there are over a dozen satellites across the U.S., reaching an estimated 2,000 educators since 2006. These educators have taken the lessons of the Holocaust to their classrooms and used them to help young people understand and act against social injustice, bigotry, and hatred. In the summer of 2020, along with a government teacher colleague, I will open such a satellite for Northern Virginia educators. Each satellite has a specific focus; ours will likely include the work being done to memorialize lynchings and to mark slave cemeteries here in Loudoun County with the NAACP and an influential leader in these efforts, Pastor Michelle.

When I hear about the success some of my fellow TOLI participants are having in their classrooms with this difficult dialogue, I feel empowered and supported. They’re working with their students to promote acceptance and understanding, and I know we’re moving forward in the best way possible.

TOLI is clear that lessons from the Holocaust should be used as a springboard to impart lessons of human rights, dangers of complicity and understandings of ourselves and the choices we make. When done right, teaching about the Holocaust does not lessen or undermine any other atrocity or genocide, but because of its size, scope, and unprecedented destruction of the world as we knew it, it holds a unique spot in history that must be taught.

In April, we hosted the first Adopt-a-Survivor program at my school. This time, in addition to my dad, we invited five other Holocaust survivors to join us in a commemoration and “adoption” event. The premise was simple: after remembering the worst genocides around the world, each survivor met with a group of 30-40 students, told their stories, and engaged them in conversation. The students could then choose to officially “adopt” them by pledging to tell their stories back in their home countries and to light a personalized candle for them and those lost every year on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Over 60 official adoptions were made and as the relationships take shape, the conversations are continuing.

There’s an inspirational song in the film “Freedom Writers” as Ms. Gruel finds her way in leading her students to acceptance, understanding, and change. The lyrics say, “This is how you do it” and after a lot of small steps, I think I have finally learned how to do it. You take it beyond the living room, the classroom, and the walls of the school. You take it beyond the capacity of one teacher or even one survivor. You put it directly in the hands of the next generation. You implore them to share the story, share the message, and most importantly, to never forget.

Korsen, a member of the Loudoun Education Association, is an English teacher at Dominion High School.


 

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Holocaust Teaching Resources


A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust. Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, this guide offers an overview of Holocaust events and people. You can learn more and link to it at the NEA website: http://www.nea.org/tools/lessons/73753.htm.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum’s website offers ways to learn about what happened, remember survivors and victims, and confront genocide: www.ushmm.org.

Virginia Holocaust Museum. Located in Richmond, this museum’s website offers sections of resources for both teachers and students: www.vaholocaust.org.

The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights. This organization’s website proclaims “Never again begins in the classroom” and offers historical and education information: www.toli.us.


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