A Q&A with the famed filmmaker ahead of The US and the Holocaust.
What US leaders knew about the plight of millions of Jews escaping the Nazis during World War II—and when they knew it—is the subject of Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein’s searing documentary The US and the Holocaust. From 1933 through 1945, fewer than 250,000 visas were granted by the US as 6 million Jews perished across Europe; of his almost 40 films over the past 40 years for PBS, Burns has said he’ll never work on one more important than this.
It wasn’t just a few powerful men at the top responsible for the lack of aid, the film argues. Antisemitism was rampant in the US: Jews were barred from employment, education, and housing as leading capitalists such as Henry Ford called for their marginalization.
The six-hour, three-part series premieres on Sept. 18. It shows an America that knew the fate of those it turned away, including the family of Anne Frank, who couldn’t get a visa.
Acclaimed for such documentaries as Brooklyn Bridge, Baseball, and The Roosevelts, Burns talked with Bloomberg Pursuits about how a nation built on welcoming the tired, poor, and huddled masses could do the opposite. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What compelled you to make this film? We wanted to give a sense of the fragility of the human condition and how possible it is for people, institutions, and governments to go bad. If you wanted to be in the most cosmopolitan place in the world in the early 1930s, where creativity was exploding in music, cinema, architecture, painting, and ideas, you could do no better than to be in Berlin. And then, in January 1933, Hitler came to power.
How did this project come to you? We had made films on the war that raised questions: Why didn’t the US bomb the rail lines at Auschwitz? Why did the US turn away the refugees on the St. Louis? Was FDR antisemitic? Then, in 2015, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum came to us and said they were doing an exhibition called “Americans and the Holocaust” and provided us with leads, archives, and scholars. So we dove in and made this film in association with them.
One of the shocking things in the film is the support US companies gave the Nazis. It’s mentioned that the Ford Motor Co.’s plant in Germany supplied trucks to their army. How complicit was corporate America? I don’t know whether they were doing that to satisfy the shareholders and the bottom line because it was a more lucrative contract, or whether their sympathies were with the German ideals, but it was a quandary like the one American corporations find themselves in today with Russia. Some companies pulled out, while others did not.
America is still polarized on immigration. Is reconciliation possible? Immigration has always been a political football. Between 1870 to 1914, millions of people arrived to build this country. Then, in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act shut it down. The 1965 Immigration Act made things better in some ways and worse in others. Sometimes there is a sense that immigrant energy can transform and reinvigorate, and there are times when there’s this “America for Americans” fundamentalism. The tension is ongoing.
What’s your biggest fear right now? I’ve covered the great crises of the United States—the Civil War, the Depression, World War II—and the current crisis of democracy is equal to, if not bigger than, all of them because of the lack of truth, the usurpation of an entire political party in the service of a lie, and the assault on institutions across our republic. These are the conditions that make it possible for bad things to happen.
Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past? There’s so much capacity for evil. Human nature doesn’t change.
A year ago state Rep. Mark Gillen and his allies at the Berks Military History Museum broke ground for a Holocaust Museum and Education Center to be located adjacent to the fairly new museum in Mohnton.
It was a leap of faith, as planning for the project at 198 E. Wyomissing Ave. was just getting started, and a big fundraising effort was going to be needed to make it happen.
We were happy to report that the plans are moving forward, with organizers engaged in a capital campaign to raise the estimated $1.7 million required for the work. They are hoping to begin work in early 2023 and have the project done by the end of that year.
We encourage businesses to support that effort and for others to consider making a contribution to support this important project. The museum can use more volunteers as well to help with its education work.
To begin with, the existing museum is quite small and badly needs more space to better achieve its mission of telling the stories of America’s military history and Berks Countians’ role in it. The expansion would double the museum’s size from 4,500 to 9,000 square feet.
“We have so many more things that can be displayed and so many more stories that we can tell, but we need more space,” said Gillen, a Robeson Township who is the museum’s founder and president.
And there can never be too much attention devoted to teaching people at the Holocaust. It’s not a stretch to connect that subject to this local history museum. The heroic veterans who fought in World War II, from this region and across the country, played a pivotal role in ending the Holocaust and helping to expose its horrors to the world.
You cannot tell the story of America’s military history without explaining the Holocaust, Gillen said, and that’s what the new building will do.
Gillen plans to have displays and artifacts detailing the period from the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s through the liberation of concentration camps and the Nuremberg Trials, with much of the material having a Berks or Pennsylvania link.
The more the story of the Holocaust can be brought close to people’s homes, the better. Not everyone will have a chance to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel or concentration sites such as Dachau in Germany and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
We’re pleased to see that the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia is cooperating with the local museum and plans to place some artifacts and books on permanent loan to the Berks museum. Combined with the local stories and resources available, these are certain to deliver a powerful message.
That’s crucial because with so much shocking misinformation being spread about this topic, the risk of more people denying the Holocaust or grossly underestimating its significance grows.
There aren’t many people left who lived through that time, be they survivors or the military personnel who witnessed the liberation of the Nazi camps. When such witnesses are gone, the risk of their stories being lost grows significantly in the absence of efforts such as this museum.
Victor Hammel of Wyomissing, a major supporter of the museum expansion effort, noted that when he moved to Berks in the early 1970s there would be 30 or 40 survivors at Holocaust remembrance events. Now that number is down to a few.
It’s up to each of us to support this effort to make sure their stories are told in this and future generations.
Donations to the Holocaust project can be mailed to Wm. Koch CPA, c/o Dick Ehst, 2650 Westview Drive, Wyomissing PA 19610. Checks can be made out to the museum. Those with questions can reach Ehst at 610-505-9190.
More and more school districts and States are requiring Holocaust education. HAMEC can provide virtual programs for your school, congregation and civic group. Wherever you are – be it the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Israel, India, Brazil, Australia,Nigeria or Poland.– we can serve you world-wide.
Starting with the upcoming 2022-23 academic year, schools across Wisconsin will be required to provide education on the Holocaust and other genocides under a bipartisan bill signed into law this past spring.
In an effort to give educators the tools they need to discuss these topics with students, the UW–Madison School of Education on August18 is hosting an on-campus workshop titled Teaching about the Holocaust.
This full-day workshop will have sessions valuable to both social studies and English language arts educators, and will prepare social studies teachers to implement Act 30, which requires schools to include curriculum about the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in grades 5-8 and at least once again in grades 9-12. Educators will receive tangible resources and lesson plans to supplement their new curriculum, and time will be set aside for educators to speak and work with one another to discuss their plans for implementing the new law.
Teaching about the Holocaust is hosted by the UW–Madison School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE). The event is being delivered in partnership with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC), which spearheaded the mandate for Wisconsin schools to teach Holocaust and genocide education. This partnership was made possible by the generosity of donors to the School of Education’s Impact 2030 initiative.
Some presenters at the workshop include: UW–Madison’s Simone Schweber, who is the Michael and Judy Goodman Professor of Education and Jewish Studies; Sam Goldberg, director of education for the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC); and Irene Ann Resenly, Holocaust educator and a PhD candidate with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
One highlight of the workshop is expected to be the closing presentation from UW–Madison alumna and award-winning author Liza Wiemer about her young adult novel, “The Assignment.”
The book is inspired by a real-life incident and explores discrimination and antisemitism, and reveals their dangerous impact.
This work is centered around the question of: Would you defend the indefensible? That’s what the book’s Logan March and Cade Crawford are asked to do when a favorite teacher instructs a group of students to argue for the Final Solution — the Nazi plan for the genocide of the Jewish people. These two high school seniors then decide they must take a stand, and soon their actions draw the attention of the student body, the administration, and the community at large. But not everyone feels as Logan and Cade do — and it’s not long before the situation explodes, and acrimony and anger result.
What makes “The Assignment” unique is how it examines a critical moment in history — but does so through a modern lens. Through this book, Wiemer teaches what it take for tolerance, justice, and love to prevail.
“The book doesn’t see the Holocaust as a date on a timeline,” says Wiemer, who graduated from the School of Education in 1986 and has more than 25 years of teaching experience. “It connects the past to what’s transpiring in students’ lives today. And it empowers not just our youth but all people to be allies and upstanders, and speak up against hatred, bigotry, and injustice.”
While Act 30 was widely praised, the legislation provided little guidance on what to teach and no state funding to support it. To ensure quality education, HERC has over 100 free lessons to fulfill the mandate and has a speakers bureau, including first-, second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors. They also established “The Assignment” book fund, providing free sets of this novel (10-120 copies per school) to be utilized as a part of their curriculum. In addition, Wiemer notes there is a free comprehensive curriculum guide, as well as a Google doc for educators across the country to share their lessons, activities, and assignments.
Wiemer, who has traveled across the country — and even to Australia and New Zealand for multiple speaking events — delivering presentations, notes that “The Assignment” is showing to have a significant positive impact on students.
Wiemer says that at one rural Wisconsin school, only three of 101 students said that they would be allies and upstanders against any form of injustice before reading and discussing this book as a part of a school assignment. Afterward, says Wiemer, that number rose to 82 out of 101.
In addition to English, to date her book has been published in Russian, Polish, Italian, and Korean.
Zofia Posmysz, a Polish radio journalist on assignment in Paris, was crossing the Place de la Concorde in 1959 when she heard from among a group of tourists a voice that shattered the beauty of the scene. The speaker, a woman, was German. Briefly — excruciatingly — Ms. Posmysz thought she recognized in her voice that of the Aufseherin, or guard, who had overseen her at Auschwitz.
Ms. Posmysz, a Catholic, was 18 when she was arrested with other students in 1942 and spent more than two years at the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. Days before the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, she was sent on a death march and transferred first to Ravensbrückand then another camp in Germany, where she was imprisoned until World War II ended in Europe.
The voice Ms. Posmysz overheard that day in the Place de la Concorde did not belong to her former overseer. Still, the encounter unsettled whatever peace Ms. Posmysz had found in the decade and a half since her liberation.
“I started to think: What should I do?” she told the Chicago Tribune years later, recalling the moments when she thought she had come face-to-face with her former guard. “Should I report her to the police immediately, as a former SS Nazi? Or should I go to her and ask, ‘Wie geht’s, Frau Aufseher,’ which translates as, ‘How goes it, Frau Overseer?’ ”
Ms. Posmysz, who died Aug. 8 at 98, went on to a noted career as a writer, exploring the Holocaust in fiction and drama. She turned her experience in Paris into a radio play and then a 1962 novel, “The Passenger,” in which the central character, a former concentration camp guard, sets sail on a cruise ship and meets a fellow traveler with an unmistakable resemblance to an inmate — much like Ms. Posmysz — whom the guard had thought was dead.
The story was adapted for film by Polish director Andrzej Munk, who died in 1961 during production, and later that decade for the opera stage by the Polish-born composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Russian librettist Alexander Medvedev.
Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet-era Russian composer, was said to have declared the opera a “perfect masterpiece.” But Communist censors in the Soviet Union, apparently deeming the work insufficiently laudatory of Soviet sacrifices during World War II, allowed the opera to languish for decades until it nearly disappeared.
Not until 2010 did the work have its premiere as a fully staged production, at the Bregenz Festival in Austria under the direction of David Pountney. Performances in Warsaw, London, Houston, New York, Chicago, Tel Aviv and elsewhere followed. Writing in the New Yorker in 2011, music critic Alex Ross described the opera as “a work of concentrated power that outweighs most other attempts to dramatize the Holocaust.”
Survivors and scholars have long debated the morality of attempting to represent the Holocaust in fiction, music and art. One of the most famous entries in the canon of Holocaust literature is William Styron’s 1979 novel, “Sophie’s Choice,” about the tortured past of a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. The novel, which received a National Book Award, was made into a 1982 film starring Meryl Streep and a 2002 opera by British composer Nicholas Maw.
“I also used to think no words could express such an experience,” the London Guardian quoted Ms. Posmysz as saying. “But that’s changed, because even if a hundredth of the truth is told, a fragment will live on in future generations. That is what we owe those who died there.”
Zofia Posmysz (her name was pronounced ZOH-fyah POH-smish) was born in Krakow on Aug. 23, 1923. She had just turned 16 and was attending a high school that specialized in business and economics when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, prompting the outbreak of World War II.
After the Nazi occupation, Ms. Posmysz’s school was closed. To avoid deportation for forced labor, she worked as a waitress at a government cafeteria. Eager to continue her education, she attended underground classes arranged by the Polish resistance. When she and the other students were arrested, one was carrying leaflets printed by the Polish resistance, an offense that also landed Ms. Posmysz on trial.
She was sent to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi death camps in Europe, where more than 1.1 million people, including nearly 1 million Jews, were murdered. As a Catholic, she said, she was “beyond any doubt” spared the extent of torture visited upon Jews in the camp. But after another female inmate escaped, Ms. Posmysz told the New York Times, her entire work unit was moved to an Auschwitz sub-camp called Budy, where she was subjected to hard labor that almost killed her.
She was later assigned to work in a kitchen and stockroom in the Birkenau section of Auschwitz. There, she was overseen for more than a year by the guard whose voice later seemed to echo across the Place de la Concorde.
“She was always making sure that I was wearing clean clothes and clean laundry,” Ms. Posmysz told NPR in 2011. “Lice and fleas were very common, and so I think she did it for her own comfort, as well.”
There were other sounds from the camps that echoed in Ms. Posmysz’s memory — the cries of inmates who threw themselves on electrified fences, the haunting melody of a Jewish man she saw one night, his arms raised to the sky, singing a prayer for the dead. He was surrounded by bodies — alive or not, she could not tell. The next morning, she told the Times, “all we saw was the smoke coming from the crematory chimney.”
After her liberation in May 1945 from Neustadt-Glewe, a sub-camp of Ravensbrück, Ms. Posmysz walked 500 miles to her home in Krakow. Not long after, she returned to Auschwitz with her mother to explain what she had endured during the war. She showed her mother the bunks where she had slept when she was sick.
“That was it,” Ms. Posmysz told the Times. “She didn’t want to see any more and didn’t ask any more questions. Back home, she cried and said: ‘You should never go back there. You should forget about it.’ ”
After the war, Ms. Posmysz studied Polish literature at the University of Warsaw and became a journalist. Her first newspaper article, according to the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a state-run Polish cultural organization, was about the trial in Germany of SS officers who had worked at Auschwitz. In place of her name, she signed the article with the number tattooed on her arm at the camp: 7566.
Ms. Posmysz later worked for the Polish state radio, where she became director of the news editorial section in 1958. She also branched into more literary writing projects, including the radio play based on her experience in Paris, “The Passenger in Cabin 45,” which aired in 1959.
Ms. Posmysz wrote several other radio plays and books, many of them examining the emotional trauma of the Holocaust. “In Auschwitz I met people who, I have no doubt, were saints,” she said. “I believe that it is the only subject that is still worth my writing about.”
She placed the action of “The Passenger” on an ocean liner rather than in a Parisian square, she said, so that the guard could not run from her past.
“All these people, they still have power over us. We can’t get out of this. We can’t set ourselves free,” she told NPR. “Our oppressors are present in our lives exactly the same as our heroes. We just can’t throw them out from our lives.”
The novel was translated into more than a dozen languages. Shostakovich was said to have read the Russian version and passed it on to Weinberg, a Jew who fled Nazi-occupied Poland for the Soviet Union and lost his family in the Holocaust. Weinberg began work on his opera in 1967, completed it the next year and died in 1996 having never seen it staged. Medvedev, the librettist, died days after the 2010 premiere.
Ms. Posmysz was in her late 80s by then and traveled with the opera production as it moved around the world, often receiving standing ovations.
Ms. Posmysz was married, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available. Because of exposure to toxic substances in the camps, she told the Tribune, she was unable to have children.
A representative of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland confirmed Ms. Posmysz’s death, at a hospice center in the nearby city of Oswiecim, but did not cite a cause.
“For me, the most important thing was that the memory of Auschwitz should not disappear, that it should be alive when we, the witnesses, are no longer there,” Ms. Posmysz told the Polish edition of Newsweek in 2019. “I was convinced that music, more than a written word, a film or another genre of art, can do that.”
More and more school districts and States are requiring Holocaust education. HAMEC can provide virtual programs for your school, congregation and civic group. Wherever you are – be it the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Israel, India, Brazil, Australia,Nigeria or Poland.– we can serve you world-wide.
So long as we are watching history, history is not over. Three minutes of footage, shot by David Kurtz in 1938, are the only moving images remaining of the Jewish inhabitants of Nasielsk, Poland before the Holocaust. Three Minutes: A Lengthening explores the human stories hidden within the celluloid. Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter. A NEON release Official Selection: Venice Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival. A film by Bianca Stigter
(JTA) — How the subject of his new documentary, “Syndrome K,” has largely escaped public attention is a mystery to filmmaker Stephen Edwards.
“It’s the greatest elevator pitch in Hollywood,” he said. “The story of three doctors, one of them Jewish, practicing with a fake identity, that fool the SS with a fake disease that saved Jews from certain deportation.”
“Syndrome K,” which hits digital and VOD platforms on Tuesday after some Jewish film festival showings, tells that little-known, surefire story: How three doctors at a hospital in Rome shielded a group of Jews from the Nazis in 1943 and 1944 by inventing a fake infectious disease called Syndrome K. The prospect of catching the disease kept the Nazis, who were occupying Rome following the fall of Mussolini, away from the hospital. The Jews there hung on until the Allies liberated the city in June of 1944.
Edwards, who has spent most of his career as a composer, is not Jewish — he was raised Catholic — but grew up among the large Jewish community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he got the idea for the film when he saw a meme about the “Syndrome K” story on Facebook, and was shocked to discover that no one had ever made a documentary about it before.
Adriano Ossicini, one of the doctors behind the Syndrome K ruse, with “Syndrome K” director Stephen Edwards in 2018. (“Syndrome K”/Freestyle Digital Media)
Fatebenefratelli Hospital was located very close to the Jewish Ghetto in Rome. The three doctors were Vittorio Sacerdoti, Giovani Borromeo and Adriano Ossicini. Sacerdoti was Jewish, while the other two were Catholic. Borremeo, who among other things protected the family of one of his Jewish mentors, is recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority.
Jews were kept in hospital rooms designated as dangerously infectious. “The Nazis thought it was cancer or tuberculosis, and they fled like rabbits,” Sacerdoti told the BBC in 2004.
The exact number of Jews saved, according to the film, is unknown, although various historical accounts have placed the number in the dozens.
“That’s why I think it’s such a secret story — the doctors didn’t crow about what they did, or talk about it a lot,” Edwards said. He added that the Syndrome K story is so obscure that the late historian Robert Katz’s “The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943–June 1944,” which is considered a definitive book about the Nazi occupation of the city, does not mention it.
When Edwards first began working on the film in 2018, he learned that Ossicini was still alive at age 98. Reaching out through an Italian-Jewish journalist named Ariela Piattelli, Edwards and his producer went to Rome and interviewed the doctor. On that trip, he also talked to a pair of brothers who survived the hospital as children, and Pietro Borromeo, the son of Giovani Borromeo. Both Ossicini and the younger Borromeo passed away within a year of their interviews.
For interviews with the others featured in the film, Edwards utilized the USC Shoah Foundation, which has collected and archived interviews with more than 55,000 testimonies now arrived at the University of Southern California.
That archive included an interview with the Jewish doctor Sacerdoti from around the year 2000, made shortly before his death and believed to be the only one he ever gave. The physician never married or had children, and there’s no record of where he is buried.
Edwards was full of praise for the Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg, for including a system of tagging in their archive that allowed them to find interviews with survivors of the hospital of whom the filmmakers were previously unaware.
“We have no film without Sacerdoti,” Edwards said. “If I meet Spielberg at some point I’m going to thank him.”
Ossicini and Pietro Borromeo aren’t the only voices featured in “Syndrome K” who have since passed away. Ray Liotta, the famed actor, provided the voiceover narration for the film. He died on May 26, at age 67, while shooting a film in the Dominican Republic.
Edwards said that he had gotten to know Liotta a bit when their daughters went to school together throughout their childhoods. He had reached out to the actor to gauge his interest in narrating the film, and “two weeks later, he’s in my studio.” Liotta recorded the entire narration in three hours, on a single day in late 2019.
(Edwards added that on the day of Liotta’s arrival he joined his editor and writer to watch the first 30 minutes of “Goodfellas,” Liotta’s best-known role, in which the actor performs a voiceover narration that the director calls “top five all-time.”)
Patients lay in beds in the “Syndrome K” unit at Fatebenefratelli Hospital. (“Syndrome K”/Freestyle Digital Media)
Edwards, who holds Italian citizenship through his late mother, especially appreciated Liotta’s ease with the story’s many difficult Italian names and places.
“He walked in, and it’s not an easy gig: It’s Fatebenefratelli Hospital,’ Adriano Ossicini, Giovani Borromeo, Vittorio Sacerdoti, all the Roman names, plus all the German names, all this vocabulary,” Edwards said. “And he was such a fun guy to work with, super-funny, top-level pro, profane, lots of F-bombs, we were just laughing, we were having a ball… we were just so sorry to lose the guy.”
The director had always been a World War II buff, and two of his uncles fought in the war. But he remembers very well first learning about the Holocaust.
“When I was probably 12 or 13 years old, I was watching TV on a Saturday morning… when I saw one of these documentaries about the Holocaust, where it showed all the atrocities and horrors. And I was just horrified — I had no idea, I hadn’t gotten to that history lesson in school yet.” He asked his father, who explained it to him.
The Holocaust, of course, can be a weighty and depressing subject, especially when one is immersed in it for a lengthy period of time. How did Edwards handle the burden?
“The story itself was more about the threat of atrocities,” he said, noting that 80% of Italian Jews survived the Holocaust, a very different percentage than in most of Europe. “This is a story about people being their very, very best, in the face of people being their very, very worst, and that’s what really attracted me to it.”
In addition to the documentary, Edwards said that he has brought a team together to try to make a feature film version of the Syndrome K story. In the meantime, he appreciates the irony of the timing of the documentary’s arrival.
“You can’t make that stuff up,” he said. “Making a movie about a fake disease in the middle of a pandemic is just so ironic.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul approved Wednesday a package of bills meant to aid the survivors of the Holocaust as well as boost education in New York schools.
Hochul at a ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage said the measures were needed to support the state’s 40,000 survivors of the Holocaust amid a rise in anti-Semitic attacks and online radicalization.
“I think it’s really timely that we talk about the past, but what’s really going on in the present,” Hochul said. “That’s something we’ve had to encounter with the rise of anti-Semitism and the radicalization of people.”
The measures approved requiring the state Education Department to survey New York schools in order to assess the quality and standards of Holocaust education in the state. State lawmakers had pushed the measure in the wake of polling that has shown many adults are ignorant of the circumstances of the genocide.
“That is our best hope to stop the penitration of radicalization,” Hochul said.
Hochul also approved measures that require banks to waive fees for Holocaust reparation payments as well as having museums to better track and identify art looted during the Holocaust.
Many survivors live in poverty in New York.
“It’s our duty to protect these people and ensure their later lives are nothing like their earlier lives,” Hochul said. “I take this hate personally, because I feel wounded when someone is harmed in our state.”
The Holocaust means something different when you stand in the gas chamber at Auschwitz or the tunnels dug deep into the mountains by prisoners of the small Langenstein-Zwieberge concentration camp. How you view the attempts of Jewish resistance changes when you walk through the small neighborhoods where Jews were forced to live and pass through the buildings and doorways once inhabited by Jews.Once you’ve walked those paths, the way you understand the Holocaust—and the way you teach it—irrevocably changes.
Twenty Arizona public educators took that journey in June with a program organized and sponsored by NAU’s Martin-Springer Institute. In the Footsteps of Survivors: Study Tour of Holocaust Memorial Sites in Poland and Germany followed the “footsteps” of two Holocaust survivor memoirs—Doris Martin’s “Kiss Every Step” (Doris and her husband are the founders of the Martin-Springer Institute) and Edward Gastfriend’s “My Father’s Testament.” Using the survivors’ stories as a guide, the teachers experienced in more intimate ways how the horrors and atrocities affected European Jews suffered in and after the Holocaust.
Martin-Springer Institute (MSI) director Björn Krondorfer, a Regents’ professor of religious studies, organized and led the trip; in the years before the trip, he coordinated with more than 20 Polish and German experts who met the group at each step of the tour. The group explored each location on foot, including the cities of Berlin and Krakow as well as remote former Nazi labor camps, now hidden in overgrown forests. The local experts shared the complexity of history and memory in Poland and Germany today. Those experts included curators, memory activists, historians, religious leaders, educators and specialized guides who shared lesser-known narratives and critical perspectives. The group also read out loud small parts of the survivor narratives at the locations where the events took place.
“We wanted the teachers to understand the Holocaust not just through reading texts but to be present in the actual locations to comprehend political geography, see the actual sites turned into memorials and to be exposed to experiential/sensual learning through landscape, sounds, smells and distances,” Krondorfer said. “We also wanted them to understand how the memorial sites are presented in modern-day Poland and Germany 80 years later.”
The MSI team, including program coordinator Melissa Cohen, spent more than two years planning and raising funds to ensure the study tour would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the teachers. The trip was funded by donations from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Molly Blank Fund of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, G Shanahan and Marc Dubowy and the friends of the Martin-Springer Institute. NAU’s Center for International Education assisted with the logistics and acted as liaison with the tour agency.
This trip was especially timely since the Arizona Legislature passed a bill in 2021 requiring the teaching about the Holocaust in middle and high schools. There are textbooks that can do that, of course—but it’s not the same.
The NAU Review reached out to teachers who attended to ask about their experiences. Below are their stories in their words.
Jeffrey Mann works at Flowing Wells High School in Tucson; he teaches honors world history to freshmen and biliteracy world history to a mix of freshmen and English language learners.
Jaime Festa is the curriculum director for Lake Havasu Unified School District; prior to that, she was a high school government and economics teacher at Lake Havasu High School.
Laura Romero-Ballesteros teaches seventh-grade social studies in Tucson.
Amanda Johnson teaches sophomore and senior English at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe.
Katherine Scholler teaches in the Social Studies Department at Coconino High School. She is taking a leave of absence for the upcoming school year to pursue a master’s degree in history at NAU.
How did you hear about this trip? Why did you apply?
JF: Somehow, an email came to my email inbox and spoke to my history teacher heart. Although I am not in the classroom, I work to develop, adopt, implement and evaluate all of the curriculum in our district. I work very closely with English and social studies teachers and knew this would be an opportunity to ensure that the students who go to school in Lake Havasu City would be exposed to a deeper understanding of the Holocaust. I also work with rural schools across Arizona. As an advocate for rural education, I want to make sure that rural students have exposure to the historical understanding of the state-led, systematic persecution and killing of the Jews and other people deemed less than or a threat to the Nazis and connection to the lived experiences of those who were impacted by the Holocaust.
LR-B: I was part of the book group that read and discussed both books. I applied for various reasons. I have always believed that to truly understand and appreciate history, one must go where history took place. I felt both stories of Doris and Eduard where stories I wanted to learn more, and I felt in order to feel some degree of what they each went through I would need to follow their footsteps from start to finish. I had previously visited Auschwitz but never had the opportunity to visit labor camps or other concentration camps and wanted to see for myself what these terrible places looked like and get a sense of the trauma prisoners had to endure on a daily basis.
AJ: There are so many incredible insights and impressions I will treasure from this experience—it facilitated my growth as an individual and an educational professional. The impact of our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau will forever be imprinted on my psyche: walking the ground where so many struggled, resisted and were murdered brought so many emotions and questions to the surface; I know I will be processing the experience for a long while. In particular, seeing artifacts stolen from the victims of the Nazi regime and its collaborators brought me to an emotional low; I couldn’t imagine that human beings would take everything—even the most basic human dignities—from other human beings. Processing that this inhumanity was the result of human choice created so many questions that I will wrestle with for a while.
KS: The loss of Jewish life and culture is still so clearly seen and felt in the various cities that we visited. To see remnants of this life was hallowing—for example the indentation of a missing Mezuzah in a door frame, or a menorah welded into the metal work on a balcony or the gap in a row of buildings where a synagogue had been burned down, all in the midst of a city going about its daily affairs, spoke volumes as we toured these areas where few to no Jewish people now live.
The other experience I’ll recount here was the most emotional and impactful one for me. We went to Langenstein-Zwieberge Memorial, the last camp where Edward was imprisoned before liberation. Here we saw a mass grave, where Edward’s cousin Nathan’s body was thrown after he died from dysentery. They had survived the past three camps and death marches together, leaning on each other as their source of strength to continue on. His death was so close to liberation. At the site of the mass grave, another member of our group, Lisa Carotenuto, and I jointly read a passage to the group from his memoir describing Nathan’s death and Edward’s reaction. To read it again at this spot was profoundly sad, but also a way to honor and remember him.
JM: Framing this inherently historical trip around literature (a pair of survivor accounts) rather than “traditional history” was incredibly effective. Doing this allowed me to center my experiences during the trip in those personal narratives (therefore emotions) as opposed to experiencing them through “historical analysis” (therefore intellectually). The difference was profound for me, as it pushed me to confront the history of the Holocaust in a way that makes me uncomfortable, vulnerable and ultimately open to the process of growing. I was impressed with Björn’s deft handling of these dynamics. He pushed and prodded us through regular reflective activities helping us create meaning out of the cacophonous thoughts and impressions in our heads while simultaneously nurturing a safe, accepting space for us to engage that way. I know that I felt safe to struggle with my feelings and give them voice within the group. We were set up to succeed with these reflections due to their regularity, the individual accountability required and Björn’s varied grouping strategies.
JF: Being able to follow the paths of Doris Martin Springer and Edward Gastfriend contextualized the experiences of Holocaust survivors and helped me understand that every story is unique and deserves to be told. The stories of the human lives destroyed can’t be told, and it is up to us to ensure government-backed atrocities and persecution of individuals does not happen. As educators, we must be vigilant in teaching young people how to not become perpetrators.
JM: Two things jump out to me:
How deeply ingrained the prejudices/conflicts in that part of the world are and how many different fault lines those conflicts have been drawn over time, whether religious, class-based, “race” based, nationalistic or ideological. It is complex. It is nuanced. It is deeply felt. It is messy. They are neighbors.
How uniquely individual people’s responses to the Holocaust/World War II/Nazi period are for the people who lived through them and subsequent generations. In my head, I knew how much denial there was or people’s tendencies to hold their noses and feign ignorance while distancing themselves from the unpleasant past. It was very different to see it in person, though, juxtaposed as it was with examples of unblinking ownership of Nazi atrocities. I had never really thought about the ways successive generations challenged the sanitized narratives their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents claimed or about the emotional impact such conflicts could have. Seeing the different ways that “official” responses developed in Poland, Western Germany and Eastern Germany was eye-opening too. The underlying ideologies between formerly communist governments and western-led governments was clear too.
The parallels were painfully vivid between the responses we saw in Central Europe and the responses we face in the U.S. confronting (or denying) the injustice, racism, vitriol and politicization of our own shameful history. As before, these aren’t new to me as intellectual constructs or phenomena, but their presence was more immediate and pronounced in this context. It was good for our group to confront these realities as we did.
AJ: Perhaps one of the most important overall lessons I began to process is that persecution and genocide can only occur as a result of human choices—to persecute, but also to be complicit in our words, actions, silence and inaction.
LR-B: In general, my understanding was based on statistics and some stories. Being part of this educational opportunity, I was able to learn of specific treatment, various locations and chain of command, but most importantly, my misconceptions or questions were cleared. Although I did walk away with questions related to humanity and the actions/motivations of people, I was able to gain a better understanding of how and why the “Final Solution” was proposed, the people behind it and the sheer scope of how it almost succeeded. Going to Wannsee where all the initial decisions were made and learning of the men behind these decisions was information I did not have a full understanding of but know I can use this information to answer questions my students consistently ask.
KS: I realized during the trip that the more you learn about the Holocaust, the less you understand. The word of the trip for me was incomprehensible. Because of this trip, I now have a more functional understanding of the administration of it and the geography of the genocide of the Jewish people during WWII, and I took a multitude of notes over the course of 17 information-packed days that vastly expanded my knowledge base. Yet at every turn, this trip confronted me with the fact that the Holocaust isn’t something we can ever (or should ever) comprehend. Even so, it only further solidified why Holocaust education is vital. Because what also came starkly into view is that even if we cannot comprehend it, we are capable of it. Knowing that and learning the depths of it is terrifying and uncomfortable, but also integral to preventing it from happening again and understanding our role in the present world. This trip taught me that in more ways than I can adequately express.
How do you anticipate the experiences you had on this trip informing your teaching?
KS: The most important goal in my teaching is building empathy and critical thinking. This trip provided me with a wealth of knowledge that will add depth to their learning of the Holocaust and help them make connections to their lives today. I feel that I can better answer questions and develop questions for students. I want to center the memoirs of Doris and Edward in conjunction with photos and materials from the trip, to allow them to feel more intimately what Holocaust victims experienced and how lives were impacted. I was also thinking that it would be great if I could possibly set up a virtual meeting with students and one of the guides we had on the trip, to give them a part of that experience as well. I would also use these memoirs to develop group discussions that have them ask questions of themselves, their peers and the greater society to dissect how this genocide happened and what steps have to be taken to prevent it from happening again. I look forward to meeting again with the other educators on our trip to brainstorm more ways to incorporate this experience into the classroom.
AJ: The experience of this journey will reflect in all aspects of my teaching—helping my students to make humane choices and develop into responsible, benevolent global citizens.