Two Kentucky school teachers who have made major, though different, contributions to Holocaust education in the state, will travel together to Poland this summer to see the scenes of the genocide for themselves.
Ron Skillern, who teaches Holocaust studies at Western Kentucky University’s summer VAMPY program for gifted students, and Fred Whittaker, who teaches the Holocaust through the religious studies program at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, will tour Poland as part of the nonprofit organization Classrooms Without Borders.
While there, the two teachers will blog for Community, sharing their observations and reflections on everything they see and learn.
“I’m just really excited,” Skillern said. “What a terrific opportunity to do this together. We’ll be able to run things by each other.”
The group will be in Poland from June 30 to July 10. It will visit the Warsaw Ghetto, Treblinka, Lublin, Majdanek, Wierzbnik, Kielce, Auschwitz, the Krakow Jewish Quarter and Plaszow.
Pittsburgh-based Classrooms Without Borders is an experiential project that exposes educators and students to the scenes of the Holocaust in Poland and elsewhere in Europe, generating new thoughts and ideas for teaching this dark period of history. A survivor, Howard Chandler of Toronto, Canada, will be along for the entire trip, as will experienced docents.
In addition, Poles who are descendants of Righteous Among the Nations – Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews – will meet with the group, recounting their own family stories.
A teacher for 31 years, Skillern started the Holocaust studies course at VAMPY (Verbally and Mathematically Precocious Youth). He also conceived the idea for students from each summer’s class to create a life-sized mural depicting a Holocaust theme. Last year, the murals – dubbed the Never Again exhibit – toured Kentucky, came to The J and were the subject of a KET documentary.
“You need something for kids to personalize and feel,” said Skillern, whose students also perform a drama based on the life and death of Anne Frank and conduct a mock trial of Hitler. “Art is a great way to personalize.”
He hopes to Skype with his VAMPY students from Poland, sharing his on-scene experiences as they work on their projects.
A native of Waukegan, Illinois, and a teacher at St. Francis for 15 years, Whittaker was instrumental this year in persuading the Kentucky legislature’s to pass the Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act, which mandates Holocaust and genocide education in the public schools. He spent many hours in Frankfort lobbying for the bill and recruiting St. Francis students and parents to the effort.
Whittaker currently is involved in organizing a working group that will craft parameters for Holocaust studies.
Teaching the history of any act of genocide, he said, should reflect the unique circumstances of the victims.
“We don’t want this to be a form of genocide education in which any genocide can be substituted for the Holocaust,” Whittaker said. “The law is not finished; it’s still in its infancy. We’re working to create a committee so proper pedagogy and context can be generated. Upon that foundation, any number of curricula can be placed.”
A devout Catholic, Whittaker doesn’t shy from infusing religious teachings into his instruction of the Holocaust.
“The end [result] has never just been adequate historians,” he said, “but young adults who appreciate their calling to be peacemakers on earth – to step into the suffering of others and bring hope and healing.”
(Editor’s note: Read Skillern and Whittaker’s blog at jewishlouisville.org/community or at facebook.com/JewishLouisville.)