Five months ago, we three English teachers from Mounds View High School applied for a grant through an organization called Fund for Teachers. The purpose of our grant proposal was to visit Poland (specifically, a couple important sites from the Holocaust) to better help our students develop empathy. We all teach the graphic novels Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman to our freshman classes, and we have struggled in the past to help students connect to the events he writes about. This was the core of our grant proposal: learning how to help students empathize.
Three months ago, we found out our grant was chosen and that we were being given the opportunity to travel to Europe this summer! Flights and hotels were booked, tours and workshops were scheduled, and a countdown was started for the number of days remaining until we’d embark on our journey.
A week ago, we left the great Midwest to embark on our summer journey, beginning with some personal travel. In the last week, we’ve visited Giant’s Causeway and various pubs in Ireland, we biked around Old Town Square and toured a castle in Prague, and yesterday, we arrived to Krakow, Poland, ready for our fellowship to officially begin.
This morning, we walked under the gate at Auschwitz, a gate that proclaims “Arbeit Macht Frei” - “Work Sets You Free.” The experience was surreal; as the sun rose higher in the sky illuminating the grounds, it was on one hand difficult to imagine the horrors that took place within the walls of the camp, yet also eerily tangible to feel the heavier mood that seemed to set in upon entering Auschwitz.
Auschwitz is an infamous place where millions of Jews and non-Jews perished. This is a place we have each learned the history of and heard stories about many times in our lives, and although the numbers are truly staggering, they can begin to become just numbers. In each area of Auschwitz we were presented with a horror related to camp life and these significant numbers and despite being directly in the camp, it was still easy to feel some distance. But, then our tour guide started to reveal some of the more personal stories related to the camp. We asked the question, “Why didn’t more people try to escape?”, a question we have all been asked by our students.
Our guide responded that prisoners knew that the S.S. and camp administrators had documentation of their family members and where they lived, which was the greatest deterrent. If a prisoner escaped, his/her family or friends would be arrested and placed in the camp, commanded to stand on a corner with a sign that said, “I am here to fill the place of________.” These new prisoners would stand by the kitchens with these signs so all of the prisoners would see them and would know what would happen if they tried to escape. We discovered that often the family members of the prisoners would die or suffer in place of their loved ones. There are only 144 recorded escapes from Auschwitz, and after hearing this story, it is clear why there weren’t more.
We heard horrific stories such as this one throughout the day, but none of that compared with seeing the videos of home movies of prisoners before the war began. We saw families playing at the beach, religious ceremonies, birthday parties, laughter, celebrations, and young and old couples sharing loving looks and gentle kisses. Life was normal. Life was exactly how ours are right now. And then it ended. Our goal is to foster empathy among our students, and today we had our own lesson in empathy. We watched videos of happy families and then walked into a building that contained over 4,000 pounds of human hair and over 88,000 shoes. The juxtaposition was truly sobering, and those numbers, although extreme, are beginning to have more significance.
Throughout the morning, we wondered how we can possibly help our students more significantly understand the gravity of these events, as well. After lunch, we attended a private workshop with an Auschwitz educator who led us through a lesson that we can re-create in our own classroom. We examined mugshots, death certificates, chronicles, and other prisoners of Auschwitz and pieced together a small image of their experiences during the Holocaust. What we did in about 10 minutes, it took historians thousands of hours to uncover and piece together. The massive numbers and statistics associated with the Holocaust can be overwhelming while adding “comfortable” distance, alienating us from empathizing with the individuals, but this workshop helps to overcome that distance and humanize the unique experience each individual had, no longer lost in the statistics. We walked away from the workshop equipped with new resources and ideas to practice next semester.
Tomorrow we will visit Auschwitz II - Birkenau for a morning tour, followed by a private workshop and lecture in the afternoon. We are looking forward to deepening our understanding of this tragedy and exploring ways to bring it back to our classrooms.