Some local teachers got an opportunity to learn more about the Holocaust with a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., and a thorough tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with the Jewish Community Relations Council.
The group of 17 Jefferson County Public Schools teachers took a one-day trip to Washington and went on a four-hour tour of the museum, led by Fred Whittaker, a teacher at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School.
Having Whittaker lead the tour is a special experience.
“Fred does a 4.5 hour tour of museum,” said Matt Goldberg, JCRC director. “You can do the tour in an hour and a half, but Fred takes a lot of time to really do it right. It’s really an amazing experience when Fred leads the tour. This is the third time I’ve done this trip with Fred, and I learn something new every time.” Whittaker trained at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and at Yad Vashem in Israel to improve his ability to teach his own students and to be able to share those skills with other teachers, enabling them to teach new generations of children.
“He provides so much insight that the average person taking the tour has no idea about,” Goldberg said. “He talks about the architecture and how it was designed for a reason. The elevators are designed for a reason. Every display is designed for a reason. And they chose that location for a reason.”
While most of the teachers were middle- and high-school teachers, one participant, Beth Watkins, is a teacher of gifted elementary students at Dunn Elementary School on Rudy Lane. Watkins said she wanted to use her knowledge of the Holocaust to teach her children about empathy and tolerance.
“Kids will always say there’s nothing that connects them to today. ‘Well, no of course we wouldn’t do that. That couldn’t happen today.’ But it does happen today,” she said. “And they don’t see how their own lack of empathy and tolerance for each other, the cruelty that they can have for each other, is the same thing.”
As a former art teacher, she admits she didn’t have much understanding of World War II history, and she wasn’t sure how to get it without going back to college. When she saw this opportunity, she jumped at it.
The group had a 90-minute meeting before the trip to give an overview of the Holocaust and what to expect at the museum, then another meeting after the trip to learn how to incorporate the information into their curricula.
At the first meeting, “He gave an overview of how Hitler came to power,” Watkins said. “Because you think, ‘How could that happen?’ He made it really clear how that happened. It was eye-opening, and it was enough in depth that I could say, ‘Ah-ha! I really get it.’”
Whittaker’s description of the architecture of the museum, designed by James Ingo Freed, had a great effect on Watkins, too.
“By having things throw you off balance when you’re in there, it felt like, not only were we learning the history of it … by participating, by walking into the museum … you really were honoring them by going in and sensing and feeling what he was calling forth for you to feel.”
The teachers only had to pay $50 of the expenses of the trip, with the remaining balance covered by the Ernie Marx and Ilse Meyer Holocaust Education Fund.
“We had a robust response from teachers this year,” Goldberg said. The trip is open to Holocaust educators who have never been to the museum before. Whittaker became a leader of the trip after originally taking the trip with Holocaust survivor Ernie Marx.
“While the Holocaust will always be at the center of what I do and it will anchor me to the most important lessons I teach my students,” Whittaker said, “it’s also been a bridge to the creation of stronger family relationships between the Catholic community and the Jewish community.”
Goldberg said that this year’s teachers were all deeply affected, and Watkins agreed.
“There’s one point where you’re up tall in this two-story room,” she said. “You’re just in this room with all these photographs of people who were killed in this town. There was this one picture of a little boy, about 7 or 8, he was so happy, sitting in a field of brown-eyed Susans. It just punched me in the gut. Because right here in my kitchen, I have a picture of my two boys sitting in a field of brown-eyed Susans. And it was so personal. And it wasn’t ‘all those poor people who were killed.’ It was … oh my gosh. It felt so intimate and personal. It made them very real.”
Whittaker told the group four hours is about the maximum amount of time that one can spend in the museum and “still feel.”
“It was so overwhelming, the emotion,” Watkins said. “At four hours, I was like, he’s right – we gotta get out of here because I can’t sustain this. I’m going to have to turn it off, and I’m not going to get out of it what I need to get out of it.”
While emotionally overwhelming, the visit was not depressing, Watkins added.
“The way he presented this and led us through, I was left with hope,” she said. “I felt charged to do what was in my power, to teach this and to carry it forward, to carry forward the message of hope. To carry forward the lessons of what human beings can do to other human beings.”
Goldberg said that’s what the trip is about. “We emphasize that the story of the Holocaust is not about 1933-1945. It’s about a 2,000-year history of anti-Semitism in Europe. And a history of anti-Semitism that’s still around. It has not been eradicated by the end of World War II.
“We’re happy to provide a service,” he concluded, “and we’re happy to make sure these teachers are still teaching the Holocaust for years to come.”