It was 2007 - winter of my first year as a twenty-three-year-old 9th grade American history teacher in a suburban Pittsburgh public school. When we got to the chapter on WWII there was a section called “The Holocaust.” I panicked. How do you teach the Holocaust?! Read the section? Define the vocab words? Crossword puzzle? Movie? No, not for the Holocaust. I knew my students deserved better. But… in forty minutes, how does anyone, especially a new teacher, know where to begin?
Even if I stretched it to a few days, how does one cover the history of antisemitism before, during, and after the Holocaust in such a short amount of time, and who was I - a non-Jewish twenty-something with no experience - to suggest I could do it justice?
Like many teachers, I’m the product of the American public education system - a system that does not have a national mandate to teach the Holocaust. In fact, I’m the product of the school where I currently teach - a school almost entirely devoid of Jews in the 1980s and 1990s, and continues to be throughout the 2000s.
As a gentile teacher in a primarily gentile community, how was I qualified to teach the Holocaust to anyone? Like many teachers, I felt the Holocaust was something so gigantic, so impossible to comprehend, so insanely complex, that I simply could not do it justice. Stressed and overwhelmed, I turned to the organization in Pittsburgh most likely to offer advice on Holocaust education - the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
Their advice in 2007: “Don’t panic. Call Jack Sittsamer. He’ll take care of you.”
So I called Jack. And that moment redefined my career, my outlook on life, and my future.
Meeting My First Survivor
My first phone call with Jack was simple. “Pick me up at my apartment in the morning. I’ll speak to as many students as you want for as long as you want. Drive me home when I’m done.”
So I did. I scheduled an assembly for all the 9th grade students. The auditorium was overflowing for over an hour. And for the first time in my life, I witnessed a room full of hundreds of teenagers absolutely silent. No video. No audio. No handouts. Just Jack, alone on stage, with hundreds of students listening.
You could hear a pin drop. Teachers cried. Students cried. Aftward, there was a line up the aisle and out the door for Jack, because all the students wanted to shake his hand, give him a hug, or take a photo with him. He was famous. In one hour, Jack offered his personal stories of the Holocaust to students, and they had accepted them with open hearts and open arms.
While driving him back to his apartment I asked Jack if he’d come back next year. I told him I’d never seen students so engaged, so respectful, so… educated. He replied,
“I’m going to die soon. And when I do, it’s up to you to tell my story.”
Obviously, as a young teacher, my reply was naive. “Jack, you look perfectly healthy! You’ve got to come back next year to give another assembly!” He said, “Teachers are the next best resource for Holocaust education, because teachers are trained storytellers, and teachers have the ability to reach every child in America.”
Obviously, teachers will never be as effective as survivors, but in that moment, Jack made it clear that that his story was now my story to share with all my students in the future, and all teachers must adopt the stories of survivors. Not only must they pass on the stories, but also the obligation to share them with future generations.
In 2008, Jack died. Since Jack, I’ve been fortunate to introduce my students to many survivors.
Many teachers are expected to teach the Holocaust having never met a survivor. Having never had a Jack in their life. Teachers often ask, “How will I teach the Holocaust once all the survivors are gone?” But for many, the survivors were never there.
The LIGHT Education Initiative
Fast forward to 2017. I had been studying and teaching WWII and the Holocaust for over a decade, many of those years teaching a semester-long elective for juniors and seniors entitled, “The Holocaust: Background, Tragedy, and Aftermath.” Though I had shared Jack’s story with many hundreds of students, I realized I wasn’t giving them real-world experience making “Never Again” a reality. Yes, they learned the long, painful history of antisemitism. Yes, they used bits and pieces of all the best resources from the finest academic Holocaust institutions in the world. Yes, they read excerpts from all the quintessential Holocaust books. But were they applying that knowledge to their daily lives? Were they living the words of Yahuda Bauer, to never, but never, be a bystander?
It dawned on me that we’ve been teaching students for years how to be innovative, how to use technology, how to problem solve. We’ve also been telling them after they graduate, they need to make the world a better place. I noticed some teachers with isolated pockets of change-making, but across the board, the focus was STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. Nearly all my students had become innovative problem-solvers through successful implementation of STEM, but there was no unified humanities yin initiative to the yang of STEM.
While STEM taught how, what initiative taught why?
And what of human rights and contemporary genocides? If the Holocaust - the most thoroughly documented genocide in history - is daunting for the average teacher, how is someone supposed to successfully teach the trio of Holocaust, genocide, and human rights violations?
My goal became teaching through differentiated instruction and differentiated assessment through project based learning and community outreach. Through the lens of Holocaust, genocide, and human rights violiations, my students would become the leaders in their school and communities now rather than after graduation. Thus, LIGHT was born.
LIGHT stands for Leadership through Innovation in Genocide and Human rights Teaching, the goal of which is to inspire, prepare, and empower students for leadership roles in Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education, remembrance, and advocacy.
Rather than another state mandate, LIGHT would take the incentive-based approach, like STEM had successfully modeled. Teachers would be provided with time (in lieu of teaching periods or duties), money (to create a LIGHT Center - humanities makerspace within their school) and support (as part of the LIGHT network, connecting them to local and national networks of institutions and educators).
During the first year of LIGHT at my high school, my students created the first-ever LIGHT Center - a permanent space of remembrance and advocacy. Institutions like the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum no longer touch the lives of students once or twice a year - they have a home in the school 180 days a year, exposing all students in my school to quality Holocaust education all year long.
During our first year, LIGHT students planned an “Evening of Holocaust Remembrance and Education in Commemoration of the Tree of Life.” Over 100 of my students planned, organized, and volunteered at an evening event, featuring survivors, musicians, student performances, a children’s program, the Butterfly Project, educational booths, a museum exhibition, cultural food, elected officials, and fundraising efforts. The community - my primarily non-Jewish community - came together and dedicated an entire evening to remembering victims of the Holocaust and those affected by the Tree of Life tragedy. Students also participated in arts and writing competitions, wrote letters to their representatives, launched social media genocide awareness campaigns, petitioned the local government and school board to formally recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and began creating a Holocaust memorial dedicated to child victims.
At the start of the 2019 school year, I was planning another exciting year of LIGHT programming and events, including a 2nd annual 2020 remembrance and education evening. Then I met David.
When the Director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, Dr. Lauren Bainrsfather, introduced me to David Estrin of , I knew LIGHT finally had the missing piece. I always saw the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh - the institution that raised me into a quality Holocaust educator - as the core of LIGHT, but when I found David I finally realized how Never Again could actually become a reality. Connecting schools through LIGHT to local Holocaust Centers and Museums as part of a national #TogetherWeRemember campaign is the key to carrying on the legacy of survivors for generations to come.
But there’s one missing piece. An incentive-based approach like STEM needs financial incentives. Every school administrator and teacher I speak to says the same thing. “We’re 100% behind LIGHT and Together We Remember. IF you can provide us with the financial incentive, we’ll make it happen.” STEM succeeded in large part from extremely generous donations of large corporations. LIGHT has already received a generous grant from the SteelTree Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to spread to ten Pittsburgh-area schools. With over thirteen thousand districts across the country and over one-hundred-thirty-thousand schools, LIGHT and TWR need quite a bit of support.
The future of quality Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education is not another mandate or resource (though they can obviously help). The future is the LIGHT Education Initiative through Together We Remember in partnership with local Holocaust Centers and Museums across the country. And the time to act, as we all know, is right now.
Nick Haberman is a Pittsburgh Public School Teacher and the , a project of . This is the third and final blog post featuring Together We Remember’s work among Slingshot’s “10-to-Watch.” by TWR founder and CEO David Estrin and by Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Director Dr. Lauren Bairnsfather.