Teaching About the Holocaust
October 31, 2008
In this segment, Lehman English Professor Sondra Perl talks about her work helping other classroom teachers convey the difficult, yet important, history of the Holocaust.
6 Minutes 9 Seconds
In "Agents of Change," hear from students, faculty, and distinguished guests as they talk about their work in helping to educate and transform the global community.
This is Elias Alcantara of the Lehman class of 2008. In this segment, Lehman English Professor Sondra Perl talks about her work helping other classroom teachers convey the difficult, yet important, history of the Holocaust.
Professor Perl is the author of On Austrian Soil: Teaching Those I Was Taught to Hate. In that memoir, she recounts her experiences working with Austrian teachers who were descendants of Nazis. Through writing and dialogue, Professor Perl encourages the Austrians to break lifelong silences and to explore the idea of the classroom as a place where prejudice can wither and empathy can be nourished.
The lessons learned in Austria helped Professor Perl fashion a pedagogy that brings the Holocaust into the present moment. Students, no matter where they live, she says, can begin to see the implications for their own lives when they learn about the dangerous potential of intolerance and racism.
Professor Perl directs the Holocaust Educators Network, located at Lehman and funded in part by the Memorial Library and Art Collection of the Second World War.
The Holocaust Educator's Network is the name that we invented, my colleagues and I at CUNY, to represent our work. We're actually funded through the legacy of a Holocaust survivor, named Olga Lengyel. Olga's legacy is to support education on the Holocaust. And her foundation is called "The Memorial Library and Art Collection for the Second World War." And it's that group that funds our project at Lehman.
I think that Lehman is the only school, and it's by virtue of having the funds through the foundation, that allows us to being teachers from all over the country to New York. Allows us to provide them with a stipend. Works with them. We create DVDs of our work.
And I think this is a unique project. In that-- the foundation really is excited that it found faculty at Lehman, particularly my work that interested them, to do this work for them. So we really collaborate with this foundation. And they are thrilled that we're here at Lehman. But there are very few places in the country that offer this kind of intensive work. We bring in survivors. We look at films. We go down to the Lower East Side. We do a walking tour, a sort of historical tour of how immigration worked in New York. And the differences in immigration over 200, 300 years.
The foundation was charged with Holocaust education. And they came looking. They came to CUNY looking for people who were interested in doing this work. And they came at the same time I had published my book about working with teachers in Austria. And so it was really one of those serendipitous moments when my work as a professional teacher/educator, and a teacher of writing [who] had been in Austria, working with Austrians came to their attention. And they came looking, wanting to find a project. And together, we created this endeavor.
So they found me at the same time that I was also interested in bringing my knowledge of post-Holocaust dialogue, which I engaged in Austria with the descendants of perpetrators. Back to this country to work with teachers here to bring this work to their students.
Beginning of July, actually, usually, after the 4th of July, 21 teachers descend on New York City. We meet them. We house them at Columbia University, where we have dorm space for them. And what's interesting is the foundation owns and has renovated a townhouse on the upper east side. So we hold our seminar at the townhouse. Which is, in many ways, very exciting. Because it's the home of the Holocaust survivor who's now deceased. So we really feel as if Olga Lengyel's legacy is alive in her home.
So we bring the teachers there. We hold all of our sessions there. These teachers come to New York. We meet for ten days. All day, we have intensive reading, writing, workshops, and lectures. And gatherings with Holocaust historians, and legal scholars, and teachers. And so we give them as-- as rich a program as we can.
And I should also mention that the teachers are all part of the Rural Sites Network of the National Writing Project. What's interesting about that is the National Writing Project also has a local branch at Lehman, called The New York City Writing Project. So this is sort of a partnership with several Lehman based institutions: the New York City Writing Project, the National Writing Project, the Holocaust Educators Network, and the foundation.
Another piece of this project is the teachers we bring to New York agree to go back and do teacher development, professional development workshops in their own communities. So we're looking for teachers who have at least some experience already, with understanding the Holocaust. Having traveled either to Germany, or Austria, or Poland. Having attended, perhaps, a seminar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
So we're looking for people who have some experience so that they can go back and work with other teachers. I think starting at the very, very beginning with no knowledge would require a different kind of approach.
I mean, I think there have always been radical educators. And I think the people I'm thinking about have always wanted to do work in the area of social justice. And I think anyone who comes to us already has a commitment to, whether you want to call it teaching tolerance, or having an agenda for social change. Or understanding diversity.
I think all of the people we bring together already are committed to instilling in their students an understanding of what prejudice and racism do to people. And how we can so easily erase the humanity of someone who is different.
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