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CLASSROOMS WITHOUT BORDERS: Local Chapter Plans to Send Students, Teachers to Holocaust Sites

November 18, 2012
By LINDA COMINS Life Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

What are some of the lessons learned from studying the Holocaust? For Dr. Zipora Gur of Pittsburgh, "It's not about worrying. It's about strength and having determination to do something about making a better world."

To that end, a Wheeling chapter of Gur's organization, Classrooms Without Borders, is being formed. The group's goal is to send local teachers and students on a study trip to Holocaust sites in Poland in 2014.

Five area residents, including Wheeling Park High School teacher Jacob Galik, who participated in a summer study trip to Poland, told of their experiences at Temple Shalom in Wheeling on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. In addition, Barbara Lewine of Wheeling spoke of attending Classrooms Without Borders' intensive study seminar with Holocaust scholars in Israel.

Article Photos

Photos by Linda Comins
Participating in a Classrooms Without Borders program at Temple Shalom in Wheeling are, from left, Madeline Lemberg, a junior at the Ellis School, Pittsburgh; Sara Sturdevant, an art history teacher at the Ellis School; Mark Barga, a Pittsburgh public charter school teacher; Dr. Zipora Gur, executive director of Classrooms Without Borders in Pittsburgh; Jacob Galik, a Wheeling Park High School teacher; Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner of Temple Shalom; Barbara Lewine of Wheeling and Danielle Plung, a senior at Shady Side Academy, Pittsburgh.

Nearly 200 people, mostly non-Jews, filled the temple's social hall for the presentation. Many of Galik's current and former students, along with their parents, were in attendance.

Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner and congregants of Temple Shalom arranged for Galik to participate in the study seminar to Poland. His trip was funded by Howard and Roanne Burech, the Shelby Lynn Posin Fund for Adult Education and Joan Berlow Smith.

Seth Posin, who contributed through the Posin fund, urged others to support the continuing effort and to join the newly-formed Wheeling chapter of Classrooms Without Borders. He explained that the initiative is "a community-wide grassroots effort" that seeks "to equip teachers to effectively teach about the Holocaust."

Now that Galik has visited Holocaust sites and can share his "vivid and visceral memories," Posin said, "Generations of his students will discuss the Holocaust." Posin added, "Our chapter of Classrooms Without Borders is dedicated to sending local Ohio Valley teachers to Poland."

Posin noted that the Holocaust was "an attempt to wipe from consciousness the memory of 11 million people." But with education and survivors' recollections, "They (the victims) will never be silenced. Those stories of those 11 million souls will never perish," he said.

Galik, who teaches social studies elective courses on the Holocaust at Wheeling Park, said of the study trip, "It was a life-changing event." Accompanying other educators in this study program, he said, "It was an absolutely incredible opportunity to meet other teachers who teach the same thing. My teaching is better for it."

While he knew that "horrible, horrible things happened there," Galik said he was not prepared for the incongruity of Holocaust sites standing adjacent to ordinary neighborhoods and back yards. "That's when it sort of hit me. How important it is that we continue to teach these things," he commented. "The Poles are in an interesting situation. They didn't do it, but it was there."

When the group of American teachers and students toured Oskar Schindler's factory, "that's when it dawned on me," Galik said. "It really hit me that I was there and I walked out, and all these people couldn't because of fate and the evilness of one man (Hitler)."

One concept that the visitors learned was the Holocaust wasn't just the murder of 11 million people, it was 11 million individual murders. The horror was driven home to Galik when they saw "16 tons of human ash" (from people exhumed from mass graves) preserved underneath a dome at one site.

Addressing his students, Galik said, "I looked at it as your trip that I went on." He told his current and former students, "You fill my heart with joy."

Lewine, who said she became involved in Holocaust education in West Virginia after a boy drew a swastika on her daughter's paper in middle school, remarked, "The most important asset we have are the teachers. The teachers teach in their classrooms; the students take it home to their parents."

The meaning and lessons of the Holocaust "go from what happened and continue to what happens today" with bullying and genocide, she said.

Under the auspices of Classroom Without Borders, Lewine and nine educators from Pittsburgh participated in an intensive program at the International School for Holocaust Studies in Yad Vashem, "the brain and the soul of Holocaust remembrance" in Israel, she said. "This is an extraordinary place for teachers to be taught."

Lewine commented, "To be there, to be among the people there, is priceless." She said a teacher from Pittsburgh saw the name of her father (who is still living) on Schindler's actual list that is displayed in Yad Vashem.

Mark Barga, who teaches history in a Pittsburgh public charter high school, said he had an average understanding of the Holocaust before going on the Classroom Without Borders trip to Poland. Growing up Jewish in north-central Ohio, he had experienced anti-semitism in rural Ohio.

After the extremely challenging and provocative experience of visiting Holocaust sites, he said he now "teaches the Holocaust within the broader context of the human rights perspective."

Barga - who teaches in the inner city where many students have witnessed violence at a young age - said he realized that "the shock and horror of Holocaust imagery is not an effective way to teach in my community." He now asks different questions as he prepares students "to look evil in the face."

After meeting a Holocaust survivor, Barga said, "I started to change the way of looking at this. What I really found was man-made situations, policies, choices. Yes, it feels evil and horribly sad, but this was actions by humans. That really shook me up.

"Those who carried out the demonization were human beings," Barga commented. "Explaining is not excusing. Understanding is not forgiving.

"When you're there, you can't stop thinking about the victims," he said. "The best way to teach this is to talk about why and how this happened, not what happened. The causes of the Holocaust are man-made and could happen again. We must address this in our classrooms."

He continued, "It's important to understand that people made choices. I try to challenge my students to focus on choice, on their own agency."

Of participating in the study trip, Barga said, "It revolutionized the way I understand the material. It revolutionized my idea of my role as an educator."

Sara Sturdevant, an art history teacher and chair of the visual arts department at the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, said the trip to Poland was incredibly moving and powerful.

In keeping with Gur's determination that the trips are not just for the travelers, Sturdevant said a photography exhibit, titled "Seeing Through," is being created to share visual images of what the group experienced in Poland. The photography exhibit will be shown at Urban Pathways charter school in downtown Pittsburgh Wednesday, Dec. 5. That venue was chosen because students from the all-girls Ellis School are raising money to send Urban Pathways students on a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., she said.

Sturdevant said organizers hope that the photography collection will be a traveling exhibit that can be displayed at other schools participating in Classroom Without Borders programs.

Danielle Plung, who is Jewish and a senior at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, said she brought back from the trip to Poland "something about myself, something about human nature and something about how we can live on this planet."

The group was accompanied by a Holocaust survivor who "was smiling everywhere we went." She remarked, "This man had the courage to go build a life after everything he's been through.

"To actively be engaged in this world and to live after what he's been through is incredible. Howard (the survivor) taught me that circumstance is not the defining factor of one's life," Plung commented. "Who are we to let circumstances define us ... Our boundaries are only in our minds."

Madeline Lemberg, an Ellis School junior and musical artist, said that after seeing Holocaust sites, she wanted "to create something beautiful out of something so ugly."

For the presentation at Temple Shalom, Lemberg sang her original composition, "Sheshet Alafim" (Hebrew for "Six Thousand," a reference to "6,000 stars in the night sky" during the Holocaust) and a Debbie Friedman song, "L'Dor V'Dor" ("From Generation to Generation").

Gur, executive director of Classroom Without Borders and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, said the study seminars are "about engaging teachers and the future." With Holocaust survivors dying, "there is an urgency in this vision," she said.

When teachers and students are sent to Holocaust study seminars, "you will change a community," Gur predicted. "You will have teachers and students who can make a better community."

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