One morning last week, I walked quickly towards my classroom. I was followed by two of my students. “It took me an hour last night to do my homework for your class,” stated one of the students proudly. I swung around walking backwards for a moment. The assignment was fairly short. I had expected it to take maybe twenty minutes. When I inquired as to why it took so long, he responded, “Well, I just started reading all of the information and couldn’t stop.”
That statement is like music to a teacher’s ears. Given the assignment, I was particularly excited. Students were each assigned a different topic from the student section of Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum website. They were required to fill out a handout regarding their topic. The website is well organized and contains numerous pictures and articles full of information about the events of World War II and the Holocaust.
When I introduced the topic the week before, I challenged students to honor the memory of those who died and who survived the Holocaust by learning as much as they could about that period of time in history. I explained that with that knowledge, their generation could help prevent something like that from happening again. I silently prayed that they would take this challenge to heart as they walked out of my classroom that day.
In the days following that lesson, my students asked a plethora of questions relating to World War II, the Holocaust, and Judaism. They were curious, eager to learn, and shocked by the realities of those terrible years. Since our curriculum changed a few years ago, this is my first eighth grade class that did not learn about these topics in sixth grade. For some of them, my class was the first time someone actually explained in detail what happened. It was a tremendous responsibility. The Holocaust and World War II are two of the most emotionally difficult topics I teach each year, but also the most important in my curriculum.
Tomorrow, my students will venture into various Holocaust-themed novels. Some groups will read fictional stories, such as Stones in Water, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and The Book Thief, while others are reading true accounts of what happened, such as The Diary of a Young Girl and We are Witnesses. Regardless of the book, each one contains pages filled with stories of hope and survival during a time of darkness in our world.
When I think about those who survived the Holocaust, those who experienced grief and loss on a level that I can’t even imagine, it makes my own loss seem very small. My heart yearns for my daughter, and not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. However, many of those who survived the extreme brutality of concentration camps or fear while hiding have known more loss in their lives than most of us will ever be able to wrap our minds around. Far too many people returned home after years of malnourishment and living in horrific and terrifying conditions only to find out that not one single member of their family or community survived. This, combined with the huge amount of death many witnessed in camps, would certainly create a very cumbersome heart. I can’t imagine what kind of strength survivors must have to carry that amount of loss with them each day.
We can honor the memory of those who died in the Holocaust and those who survived by remembering and by educating future generations about what happened. As the old phrase says: “scientia potentia est” or “Knowledge is Power.” There is much truth in those words. To learn and to know is a powerful tool that can be used to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again.
Today, I challenge you to honor their memory – to educate yourself and your children about what happened, so that young minds will be inspired to work toward a world that promotes unity and respect for all people.