Preparation for the school’s trip to Holocaust sites in Poland involves methods to make the experience personal and reflective, removing layers of protective callouses that students acquired toward the subject.
Can we prepare for Poland or should we simply be open to the experience? That was the question I posed to my 12th grade Jewish philosophy students three months before our departure for a class trip to Poland and Israel.
As was quickly confirmed by their responses, Holocaust education in a Jewish high school presents certain challenges. For starters, the students felt that they had been overexposed to the subject and were “tired” of being reminded about their responsibility to carry on the memory and otherwise “never forget.” Preparing the students emotionally and educationally for this journey provided me with an opportunity to design a multi-disciplinary Holocaust education program that seriously addressed the students’ concerns and provided them with a renewed sense of engagement with this chapter of our history. The curriculum that resulted incorporated classroom learning, field study and intensive experiential education.
I set four education objectives for our program. The first was to expose the students to the diversity and vitality of pre-war Jewish life. Secondly, I wanted my learners to gain a personal appreciation for how victims attempted to sustain their humanity and Jewish identity under difficult circumstances. Additionally, I wanted them to appreciate the long and arduous process many survivors went through to rebuild Jewish life after the war. Lastly, I wanted them to continue to process how the Holocaust and its aftermath have influenced their own Jewish identity as they move toward graduation and adulthood.
The program began eight weeks before our journey and continued with reflection and student presentations for two weeks after our return to the United States. In total, the curriculum lasted twelve weeks. In Poland, the class spent five days of intensive touring in and around Cracow, Lodz and Warsaw led by a professional tour guide.
Joining me as teacher chaperones were two other faculty members who were selected for the journey because of their well established relationships with the students. The level of trust and comfort that students have with their faculty chaperones proved to be an essential element for the educational success of the program. Each student reacted to the trip in his or her own way, and it was important for students to be able to talk freely with the faculty. Such intimate conversations, both planned and spontaneously held, helped students process their emotional and spiritual reactions to what they were experiencing. Additionally, because the trip was so powerful for the educators as well, there was a sense of emotional vulnerability and trust that was built between students and educators.
On the first day of the unit, each student was issued a facsimile of an identification card with the personal information of an actual victim (an educational strategy used at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington). The personalities were carefully chosen to represent a broad cross section of Jewish life before the war. Some of the victims survived, however most did not. (An example appears on pp. 27-28.)
While students knew nothing about the person on their ID card, each was carefully paired for maximum resonance and personal identification. For example, the editor-in-chief of our school newspaper received an ID of a teenager who published the only known Hebrew-language publication known to have appeared consistently throughout the Nazi occupation anywhere in Europe. Over the course of the program students not only learned both the general history and the personal journey of an individual victim of the Holocaust, they came to personally identify and emotionally connect with their stories.
To support our study of the basic history leading up to the war, the class went on two visits to the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. The first visit was a guided research exercise. The program was designed by me with the assistance of the educational department of the museum. Students engaged with the museum artifacts and began piecing together background on their IDs. Following the visit and throughout the unit, students were encouraged to share with the rest of the class new information about the person in their ID. A second visit to the museum just before the trip enabled students to walk freely and view the exhibits on their own.
A few weeks before the trip, I had each student begin journaling. At first, students were skeptical. “That’s not how I express myself, don’t force me” was a popular refrain. I began by having each student write a short “dedication” on the first page. Because the exercise was short, was not going to be graded and was personal, students participated with some measure of buy-in. Prior to the trip I had two more journaling exercises. Like the first, each exercise was modest in scope and ungraded. The objective was simply to increase the odds that students would write in their journal during the trip.
One of the greatest challenges in Poland was balancing our need to cover a lot of ground in a short period, with the need to carve out time for the students to reflect and process. Because each student (and each class) processed the experience differently, program flexibility was essential. In all, I held two formal group sessions in the late evenings after a long day of traveling. The meetings were mandatory but students were not required to speak. I began with a short personal reflection and then students took a few minutes to share their feelings. The “formal” meeting lasted no more than thirty minutes but many students continued the conversation independently long into the night.
In addition to these formal debriefing sessions, I made a point of spending some time each day with every student. These informal meetings gave students yet another opportunity to process, ask questions or just joke around and decompress from the intensity of the experience. It is just such a balance between “planning the unplanned” that helped unite the students together and feel comfortable sharing the intensity of the experience with others.
At two remote gravesites we gathered as a group for a brief memorial service. The service included traditional liturgy such as Psalms and Kaddish as well as personal contributions from students. On one occasion, a student shared a poem that she had written in her journal, and on another the students spontaneously broke out into a spirited rendition of “Am Yisrael Chai.” The balance between tradition and spontaneity provided students with yet another opportunity to take some measure of ownership over the experience while benefiting from the foundational structures of a shared tradition.
Educational trips to Poland often entail hours of time on the bus traveling from one destination to another. Early on, I resisted the temptation to convert the travel into classroom time. The hours on the road provide students with much needed opportunities to catch up on sleep, visit with friends and be “normal teenagers.” However, given proper planning and the right attitude, travel time can also be a wonderful opportunity for group discussions and debates.
On one particularly long bus ride I decided to involve the entire group in a moral dilemma. Most of the students were quite bothered by what they called the Poles “profiting off of the Holocaust.” The bookshops and refreshment stands at many of the historical sites understandably rubbed them the wrong way and were a frequent subject of group discussion. On the bus, we posed the following challenge to the group: In what way would you distinguish the bookshop in Auschwitz with the Poland-Israel class sweatshirts the students created in advance of the trip? The discussion then turned to the role, responsibility and costs involved in preserving and maintaining Holocaust sites.
On two specific occasions in Poland, students had very emotional reactions of identification between what they were experiencing and their connection with their docent personality from the ID card exercises: at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Warsaw Ghetto. It is hard to quantify the impact of this very personal connection between student, historical figure and site visitation. However, the emotions were both genuine and profound. Additionally, in both the cases, classmates spontaneously encouraged the students to summarize what they knew from their prior research to give context and meaning to the experience.
When we were at the site of Crematoria IV, Auschwitz-Berkenau, the guide was explaining the history behind a plot by some of the prisoners to blow up the crematoria. A student turned toward me with tears in her eyes, and overcome by emotion she said, “Oh my G-d, that’s Anna, that’s me.” During the weeks prior to the trip, this student had held a facsimile identification card of Anna Heilman and discovered that part of Anna’s life story was her brave attempt to blow up Crematoria IV.
Such bonds created spontaneous “teaching moments” that were genuine and impactful. In a written reflection two weeks after the trip one student wrote in his journal:
During the bus ride, Mr. Feld handed me a book full of resources and he showed me a page he thought would interest me. It was a poem from Primo Levi, who was an Italian survivor I had established a connection with during class. I found in Primo Levi’s poem “If This Is a Man” an expression of the unreal duality which my experience in the dormitory (at Auchwitz-Birkenau) revealed.
The student then went on at some length to describe the ideas developed in the poem, and he concluded:
Depending on the context (be it today or during the Holocaust), the same silence can be interpreted as peaceful or dreadful, and the same birds singing may be felt as joyful or cruel. Nevertheless, as Primo Levi asks of us, “You who live safe” shall “never forget that this has happened.” Since no physical connection can serve to remind us of the sub-human treatment of our ancestors, only our remembrances will transmit from generation to generation what happened during the Holocaust.
This student who had never heard of Primo Levi prior to receiving his ID card in class made a very deep connection between himself, Levi, the actual experience of walking through the dormitory at Auschwitz-Birkenau and a personal commitment to transmit the memory of the Holocaust to the next generation.
Both during and after the trip, students thanked me for “forcing them to write” (I did no such thing) and other students shared with me journal entries and poems that they had written at various points on the trip. One student who was often seen as aloof and disengaged in school shared the following he had written after visiting the mass grave at Chelmno:
Abandoned spirits surround me
As I wonder through the beautiful forest of death and brutality
Walking among the ashes of which they possess
Grasping on my very footsteps screaming in distress
Pleading in agony for an escape to the world of sanity
The sorrow of the ones left behind continually stand before me
Their silent shrieks of atrocity
This is one of any number of examples of spontaneous, personal student expression. I did not plan “journal time” nor did I ever require students to show me their journal. However, establishing in advance the practice of journaling enabled students to take ownership of the experience in a way that taking a picture or relying on memory could never capture. While it took some encouragement prior to the trip to get students regularly to write in their journal, in final interviews many students said it is something they will always treasure.
Addressing the student body just prior to graduation, many of the seniors spoke of their deepened sense of connection with their heritage and with each other while others spoke of the emotional pain they experienced in Poland. I was struck by how the way each student approached the subject had changed so drastically from earlier in the year. What I heard from each student represented sincere expressions that something special was experienced on that trip and that their Jewish education would not be quite as complete without it.
There are no hard and fast rules for an effective Poland experience. However, I believe that using some of the guides outlined above can increase the meaning and impact of what is arguably the most dramatic teaching moment the students can experience in a high school setting.♦
Jason Feld is Department Chair of Jewish History and Thought at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, as well as the program director for the annual Poland-Israel experience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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