Lee Holder can't say if he's ever taught a single Jewish student in all his years at North Lenoir High School in rural La Grange, N.C.
Yet Holder, who's also not Jewish, was so touched by the account of a Holocaust survivor that he decided to dedicate his teaching career to the subject. The challenge, he said, is bringing the power of those stories to his students.
Enter Centropa: a Vienna-based nonprofit that has spent the last decade building a searchable online database of old photographs and stories culled from interviews of elderly Holocaust survivors still living in Europe. In recent years, the agency began holding free conferences around the world to encourage teachers to use the material as an educational tool.
This past weekend, staff members hosted their first seminar in Philadelphia. Holder and about 30 other teachers from as far as Ohio and Florida gave up their Presidents' Day holiday to attend the two-day workshop in Center City.
Like Holder, many of the participants taught Holocaust education; others taught history at Orthodox yeshivas, day schools or public schools.
'Tell Me a Story'
On Monday, they typed notes on laptops as Centropa director Edward Serotta walked them through a template that students could use to narrate stories to accompany still photographs of a particular city or person.
"You have to say it over and over again to your kids — tell me a story, I don't want just the facts," Serotta said.
He encouraged them to post finished class projects on the Centropa site (www.centropa. org) so teachers from other countries could share them with their students.
Holder said the conference got him thinking about having his students interview the few remaining members of the lone synagogue in their county and perhaps exchanging stories with students in Eastern Europe.
"There seems to be a disconnect sometimes with history," Holder said. Hearing real-life stories shows students that people from different eras or backgrounds are "just like us."
Debbie Harris, the technology coordinator at the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, Ill., has already started using Centropa content with her 8th and 9th grade religious school students. Instead of recording 10-minute historical narratives, she charged them to create a fake social media profile for a person in the Centropa database they found intriguing.
By engaging the students through a platform that's so relevant to their lives, Harris said, it's easier for them to appreciate "why we still learn about Judaism — it's for these people."
For Lilach Taichman, a history teacher at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, the conference was a perfectly timed follow-up to a Centropa academy in Europe that she attended last summer. Inspired by the rich "collection of faces and stories from our heritage," Taichman said she returned to her Bryn Mawr campus with several ideas for school projects. This month, her students will begin making displays that add "their own personal stamp" to a traveling Centropa exhibit featuring stories from Jews who lived under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.
In addition to the exhibit, Taichman said, she's inviting students and members of the Philadelphia Jewish community to submit family photographs and documents to be included in a new digital archive devoted to European Jewish history.
"We in America don't often look at our histories as completely as we'd like to," Taichman said. For high school students, especially, she said, "we want them to capture these before they get too distant."