N.J. Holocaust educators tour Europe’s perilous places
Holocaust educator Liz White was most moved by the least maintained sites in Europe that saw some of the most heinous acts of World War II.
The teacher from Ocean Township High School in Oakhurst traveled to Europe on a state-sponsored educational tour that brought Holocaust history off the pages and out of the classroom.
There are no remains of the notorious Treblinka death camp in Poland, only 17,000 quarry stones symbolizing grave markers for the 900,000 Jews murdered there.
“The emptiness of the place is so impactful,” White said, “especially when I think about people who might come across it and not understand its significance. Treblinka reduced people to nothing.”
Treblinka was the second deadliest extermination camp to be built and operated by Nazi Germany. First was Auschwitz.
White, 29, of Toms River was one of 28 educators who took the annual summer trip to Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Lublin, Warsaw and Amsterdam sponsored by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.
Another educator, Lisa Hanna, 56, who teaches the Holocaust and English at Ocean Township, also attended. She said the trip was made especially poignant by the group leader, 87-year-old Maud Peper Dahme. She is a Dutch child survivor who was hidden from the Nazis.
Dahme of Flemington is a member of the New Jersey Holocaust Education Commission and guide for the group’s annual trips. Also a published memoirist, Dahme visits schools all over the state to tell her story. The group who traveled with her to Europe saw the house where she was hidden.
“I am amazed at her strength, her appreciation for life,” Hanna said, “her understanding yet still disbelief that people do the things they do and they are still antisemitic. It’s going to become more and more important that we continue their legacy and tell their story.”
“For everything she’s endured and survived,” White said, “Maud is so full of empathy and kindness and life and joy. It just reminded me of what the human spirit can endure.”
One of the biggest takeaways from the trip, White said, was “the importance of reaching out and helping others and not being a bystander to evil. It was because people were willing to stand up and help that Maud survived.”
The group also visited Track 17 at Grunewald, Berlin’s main deportation station. About 55,000 of the city’s Jews were sent to Theresienstadt, a way station, or directly to the extermination camps.
Hanna snapped a picture of a phone booth that contained a sharing library for Holocaust history books. After their visit, arsonists destroyed the phone booth. “Antisemitism is still a reality in a place as highly educated as Germany,” Hanna said.
Hanna expects her approach to teaching the Holocaust and genocide will change with an infusion of humanities studies and a renewed recognition of the power of storytelling.
“We can really talk about the psychology behind what might have made people make these decisions,” Hanna said. “You see a lot of prejudice, bias and complicity.”
White, who also teaches English as a Second Language, plans to enrich her Holocaust lessons with more firsthand accounts. “We often talk about the aspect of denial in our modern world and the idea of how you determine real news from fake news.”
“I took away just how important it is that everybody all over the country should be engaging in and learning the history of our past so we can have a voice that could change the future and hopefully prevent anything like this from ever happening again,” said Hanna. She lives in Ocean Township and belongs to the Conservative Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst.
“We are losing our survivors to age and soon we’ll be relying on the second generation, the children of survivors, to tell the story and we just can’t stop telling the story,” said Hanna, whose grandfather lost 21 family members in the Holocaust. They were executed Oct. 12, 1941, in the Stanislawow ghetto in what is today Ukraine.
The educators visited Tarnow in eastern Poland where 800 orphans were massacred by the Nazis on June 11, 1942.
“They were thrown in a pit and killed with hand grenades because they didn’t want to waste bullets,” Hanna said. “As a mom and a teacher, it hit me so hard that orphans already struggle, and I cannot even fathom that the Nazis thought of taking 800 children and doing that because of who they are.
“Every time I left somewhere, it was so sad to me. I don’t understand that absolute disregard for life,” Hanna said.
“I thought I knew a lot, but the layers that come with it,” Hanna continued. “And the concept that I’ve taught my students is that it wasn’t just Jewish people. It was the LGBT community, the disabled, the Roma and the elderly. There are still deniers when there is so much evidence left behind.”
The trip has made Hanna more of a voice, an advocate for teaching the Holocaust and genocide, she said. It should be taught across the curriculum such as history, “how we were so complicit in our country.”
“The younger we teach them in a way that is age appropriate, they will not be shocked to learn more when they’re adults,” Hanna said.
“I want my students to understand that beyond the places we’ve always heard about, like Auschwitz, there were so many other ways that people were executed or perished during the Holocaust,” said Hanna, a teacher for 20 years.
She has ideas for projects that her creative writing students can do, like writing children’s books about the Holocaust which can be brought to the elementary school classroom. Art students at the high school can illustrate them, she said.
“I want to pose to my students; how would they tell the story?” Hanna said. “How would you educate the kids about the Holocaust?”
For more information about the trip sponsor, visit the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education at www.nj.gov/education/holocaust.
ELLEN BRAUNSTEIN is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.