Textbooks only accomplish so much in conveying the gravity of the Holocaust.
But when students and their teachers meet people with a tangible connection to it, they gain a deeper understanding of one of the darkest chapters in human history.
That's been the longtime goal of the annual Teen Symposium on the Holocaust, sponsored by the Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Jewish Federation of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The symposium celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this week at Marywood University. Over its two days, about 1,450 students and teachers from more than 20 schools will spent a full day in classroom workshops geared to different aspects of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany's systematic murder of six million European Jews during World War II.
This year's symposium keynote speaker was Sonia Goldstein, a survivor of the Stutthof concentration camp. She made her second symposium appearance.
Also at the symposium were: World War II veteran Alan Moskin, one of the liberators of the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp; Ela Weissberger, a member of the children's cast of the opera ``Brundibár'' at the Theresienstadt concentration camp; Sol Lurie, a survivor of the Buchenwald camp; and local survivor Sam Rosen, a regular visitor to the symposium.
“This gives students the chance to meet the people who experienced (the Holocaust) in different ways. It allows the history to come alive for them, and allows for interchange,” said Tova Weiss, director of HERC. ``The point is to have them here, to sensitize them, to bring history to life.''
Through the sessions, students not only gain better insight into the intolerance and bigotry that led to the Holocaust, but they also learn how many good people put themselves in harm's way and tried to help, Weiss said.
In addition, parallels are drawn between the Holocaust and more recent genocides, like the ones in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, leading to many interesting discussions. Each classroom includes a trained facilitator to help initiate conversations between students, teachers and speakers.
Mary Jo Walsh, principal of Fell Charter School in Carbondale, has sent the school's eighth-graders to the symposium for the past six years. She's been so impressed with the symposium that the school is now getting ready to implement its own Holocaust curriculum for grades four and higher.
“I think the biggest thing they get out of it is empathy. It is amazing to watch,” Ms. Walsh said. “They come back from this, and they are completely changed. It's almost as if someone has lifted a shade and they can see the whole world now. ... It's had an impact on my teachers, too.”
Holocaust education didn't figure all that prominently in schools back when HERC formed in the 1980s, nor were there many survivors speaking publicly about their experiences, Weiss said.
HERC started by donating books to school libraries, but eventually the organization came to the realization that it should bring students and teachers together for an immersive, all-day experience.
The first symposium drew about 250 people. Each year, it grew a little more, to the point where HERC needed to add a second day to give more schools the chance to participate.
Over the years, the symposium has featured survivors of Auschwitz and the Kindertransport, as well as the African-American World War II vet Leon Bass, who witnessed the liberation of Buchenwald while himself being subjected to racism and segregation. The late local vet and concentration camp liberator Abe Plotkin was a regular, and the keynote address is named in his honor.
“The students have been exposed to a very broad variety of speakers,” Weiss said.
Weiss said some students get so much out of the experience that they ask to come back the next year. As she sees it, if a kid goes back to his or her school and refuses to take part in a racist joke in the lunch room, then the symposium has made a difference for the better.
“We've heard from so many teachers who've said it's changed kids' behavior,” she said. “A lot of them feel that in some ways it's life changing.”
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