by Lydia Webster (MA 2017)
Editor’s Note: This post appears in honor of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, April 24, 2017.
On a wintry Sunday afternoon in early February, I attended a symposium entitled At the Threshold of Memory: An Exploration of New Modalities in Holocaust Education. Organized by alumni of the Tauber Holocaust Educator Fellowship, a project of TCI/Jewish LearningWorks, the symposium was co-sponsored by the University of San Francisco’s Museum Studies MA Program and the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice and held on the USF campus.
While this topic might seem as though it would do little to brighten a grey, rainy day, the event proved to be one of great warmth, insight and creativity. Introduced by our own faculty, Paula Birnbaum, the conference kicked off with a brief panel discussion led by five educators, all graduates of the Tauber Holocaust Educator Fellowship. Their goal was to provide educators with the tools needed to be advocates for social justice through teaching the Holocaust. It was, however, also engaging for those of us with broad interest in the subject, and it was certainly relevant for museum professionals. The insights I gained from this conference undoubtedly can be applied to museums – and not just to their education departments! After all, what are museums, if not experiential learning environments.
The Holocaust is a constant presence in today’s media, raising the question of how we can turn the current climate of divisiveness into one of healing, unity and understanding. The opening activity of the conference had the audience discussing Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe’s concept of “Essential Questions”. We were asked what we believe are characteristics of an essential question.
Responses ranged from “probing,” to “difficult if not impossible to answer,” to “one that leads to other questions,” “uncomfortable,” and “one that makes you think.” Invited to think of our own essential question about the Holocaust, we then recorded these questions on index cards, and placed them on tables around the room. From this vast display, we were instructed to select the question that resonated with us most, and then find a partner with whom to discuss it. The pedagogical twist was that, after we had spent some time choosing a question, we had to attempt to answer a different question selected by our partner. Many of the essential questions raised by the group dealt with the current political climate, modern day fascism, and how we could prevent history from repeating itself. The ensuing dialogue reinforced the necessity of such a conference at a Jesuit institution that holds social justice at its core.
It was then time for a quick break before engaging in a hands-on workshop. Attendees were asked to choose between five topics, all based on the panelists’ own essential questions. Topics ranged from exploring the sustenance of faith, tradition, and identity during the horrors of the Holocaust, to overcoming obstacles for talking and teaching about the Holocaust, to questioning the role of the Holocaust is in contemporary Jewish life. I elected to take part in a workshop entitled “Revealing Humanity through Art and Remembrance,” along with a group of 10 people, ranging from high school students and their teachers, to university students and assorted community members who were intrigued by the topic in one way or another.
Led by Sandy Cohen-Wynn, a local artist and Holocaust educator, first we were invited to share our reasons for attending the conference, and why we were drawn to the art-specific workshop.
One of the most moving stories came from a woman whose partner had been a Holocaust survivor. She shared how at the end of their relationship, she tried to capture his life through the medium of words, attempting to pen a biography of his experiences during the Shoah. No matter what she wrote, she felt unable to adequately convey the magnitude of his experiences, causing her to turn to art as a possible outlet for expression.
As part of this workshop, our instructor, Cohen-Wynn, invited each of us to select a photographic portrait from a group of images of people whose lives were touched by the Holocaust. We were asked to share why the individual captured in the image had caught our attention. The initial responses were, for the most part, surface-level; “I liked his hat”; “she looks very glamorous”; “he looks like my brother.” Nevertheless, after an hour spent with our chosen subject, we were able to bring their personal story to life.
Using the biography provided on the back of each photograph, we each created a poem using 20 words or phrases. We then read our poems out loud, a task that was noticeably challenging for some – myself included! However, under our instructor’s reassuring and attentive guidance, people soon fell into a rhythm, sharing poetry that was as shockingly well-crafted as it was moving.
We also were given the opportunity to try our hand at charcoal drawing. By flipping our photographic portraits upside down and focusing on capturing the play of light and shadow, we created images that less directly resembled the pictured individuals, but captured their essence.
This exercise enabled us to conceive of how the same light that illuminates us had once touched them, that they were real people. By exploring art as an “access point” for engaging students in learning about the Holocaust, we were able to memorialize these individuals in a meaningful way that reaffirmed their humanity and resisted the tendency to account for those who survived or perished as merely statistics.
My only wish upon leaving the symposium and viewing the pop up exhibition of all the various endeavors of the afternoon was that I could have participated in more workshops. As I left the bright, chattering crowd of enthusiastic educators sharing what they had learned amidst the sounds of klezmer music, I felt that the conference had been a success. It went above and beyond the aim of the organizers to instill a new appreciation for what Holocaust education can be.
To learn more about USF’s graduate program in Museum Studies, click here.