Students find life lesson in Holocaust

Eighth grader Jack Blaser presents his drawing, "Through the Darkness" to Avonworth junior, Mara Bett. Jack is explaining how he drew a heart as a flower growing through dark spikes and barbed wire to show how love can grow through hardships. His artist's statement explains, "Out of the horrible things in today's world and in the past, people have always risen out of the darkness with love to share."

Reading, writing, arithmetic -- and then on up to Shakespeare, advanced composition and calculus. All lessons taught in schools to prep students for moving on and earning a living. But what about another form of education: the education for life?

Avonworth teachers Kathy Galecki, eighth grade reading, and Melissa DeSimone, gifted and enriched classes, attended a 2017 study seminar trip to Poland with “Classrooms Without Borders” to study Holocaust history. The background expertise learned there recently helped them to arrange for two teams of visitors to address students on the topic of how themes within Holocaust literature are relevant to the present.

All of the students read segments from diaries written by teens during the Holocaust, and all of them read Alan Gratz's historical novel, “Refugee,” which tells the stories of three young refugees in the time periods and settings of 1938 Berlin, 1994 Cuba, and 2015 Syria. Students also grouped into different book clubs, each club focusing on one specific novel.

Eighth grade students received a letter from Dr. Tipora Gur, the executive director and founder of Classrooms Without Borders, asking them to share their analyses of Holocaust literature themes with their community. The letter challenged students to help with the organization's mission of teaching the public about the importance of learning from history. Students accepted the challenge, and after reading Holocaust literature -- both fiction and nonfiction books and diaries -- they met with project advisors from organizations such as Classrooms Without Borders, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, and Film Pittsburgh/Teen Screen to review their project proposal ideas.

Project advisors who visited the school in early December included Nancy Aloi, retired Bethel Park superintendent, and Melissa Haviv, both from Classrooms Without Borders; Mimi Botkin, Barb Ginsburg, Paul Lyons, and Zoe Silberblatt, all Film Pittsburgh/Teen Screen educators; and Jackie Reese, a Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh educator.

Also on hand as artist-in-residence for the unit was Susan Stein, an English teacher and actress from New York City and author of “Etty,” a play based on the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum. Stein conducted her three-day workshop, "Recovering Lost Voices," and led students through a critical reading of excerpts from several diaries of Jewish teens navigating adolescence during the time of the Holocaust. Her workshop culminated with a poetry writing exercise that captured students' understandings of the diaries.

Students showcased their final analyses of how the themes were relevant to present times at their Holocaust Literature Themes Exhibit, which included their own works of art ranging from poetry to paintings.

On hand to view the results of the students' work just a few days before winter break were Dr. Zipora (Tsipy) Gur, executive director and founder of Classrooms Without Borders; Justin Kahanov Velluc, communications manager; and Laura Penrod Kronk, representing the board of directors; as well as 30 Avonworth community parents, administrators, and high school students.

Students will now gather their artwork and writing into a scrapbook to be given to the Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash congregations.

Both Galecki and DeSimone agreed that “The students' hope is that the scrapbook gift will symbolize how the younger generation will carry on the lessons they learn from history to positively impact the future and help create a world without bigotry, discrimination and oppression.”

A world without bigotry, discrimination and oppression. Now there is a lesson very worth teaching and very worth learning.