Debra Maller, a Rahway High School teacher, had a personal connection in her trip to Lithuania on a study program. Although the small town where her ancestors were born, Alsedziai, was too far off the itinerary to reach, she did visit the school in Vilnius where a relative served as the director. And she visited Ponar, where many members of her family were murdered during World War II.
Making the Holocaust personal can be a very effective way to teach it, she said, “and now I can show pictures and I can tell my story and what happened to us.”
Maller was among four New Jersey educators, including Jill Tejeda of Livingston High School, who participated in the 2017 European Study Program in Lithuania and Poland, sponsored by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR). Nineteen middle and high school teachers from 11 states attended.
The goal of the two-week trip, which took place in July, was to provide educators with a deep understanding of the complex history of the Holocaust to enable them to teach it effectively. The trip includes lectures, meetings with rescuers, and visits to Holocaust sites, including Treblinka and Majdanek.
Dr. Sam Kassow, the Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and Dr. Peter Hayes, the Theodore Z. Weiss-Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., accompanied the teachers.
This is not a trip for beginners. JFR ran its first European Study Program in 2003, and both Maller and Tejeda are veteran teachers. Tejeda, who teaches a class for Holocaust teachers at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, holds a master’s degree in Middle East, Hebrew, and Judaic studies and is working on her dissertation in genocide studies at Drew University in Madison.
“Every time I go to Poland, I learn something new,” said Maller, who has been there twice before.
Both have been to Europe with other Holocaust groups, but this was the first time they traveled to Lithuania, which is complicated to visit, Tejeda pointed out, because there are no concentration camps and few marked
sites, with the exception of mass graves.
“1941 in Lithuania was so so intense and so gruesome…and the war came so fast and furious there,” said Tejeda noting that 1.5 million Jews were murdered in a span of six to nine months. “It’s crucial for people to understand and it’s really a window into what was to come. Kids often say, ‘Why didn’t the Jews leave?’ If they were in Lithuania, there wasn’t time. It’s as if the Nazis came in on a Sunday and by Tuesday they were murdering people. It was that fast.”
The country played a significant role in the start of the war but is often left out of high school history classes, which primarily focus on the Final Solution, according to Tejeda.
Beyond the personal, Maller had another takeaway: “The first actual massacre in Lithuania was done by Lithuanians, not Nazis,” she said.
Having scholars on the trip adds depth, according to Tejeda. “As much as you think you know about the Holocaust, you feel like you know nothing because the scholars are so incredible,” she said. “Everything we learn from them we bring into the classroom.” But, she added, “We also learn from the other teachers.”
It’s hard to teach about the Holocaust without going to the sites, she said, so the more she can bring into the classroom from her own experience, the better it translates, making it a unique subject to cover.
“It’s not the same as being a math teacher,” she said.