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Bearing Witness to the Holocaust

July 26, 2012 By:
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Eileen Marie Dunn

As Holocaust survivor Joseph Gringlas spoke to a group of Catholic school teachers at Daylesford Abbey last Thursday, Eileen Marie Dunn had the urge to apologize to him on behalf of the Polish nation.
Over the four-day Bearing Witness professional development program developed by the Anti-Defamation League, Dunn came face to face with survivors for the first time. The middle school English and religion teacher at Saint Agnes School in West Chester also learned that helping Jews during that time period was punishable by death in Poland -- a fact that made her ashamed to have Polish ancestry.

"It was really hard to listen to," said Dunn, her voice thick with emotion. "They're my people and how could they be like that?"

In addition to a moving experience, the 25 teachers from around the region who attended the training left with stacks of resources about the Holocaust, the history of anti-Semitism, the relationship between Jewish and Catholic communities and prejudice in contemporary society.

Bearing Witness started as a national program in Washington, D.C., in 1996 through a partnership with the ADL, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Archdiocese there. Touched after observing the program in 2004, Randi Boyette, the ADL's associate regional director of education based in Philadelphia, pushed to replicate it locally.

Together with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and donors from both the Jewish and Catholic communities, the Philadelphia regional ADL office launched a Bearing Witness offshoot in 2006. Now in its seventh season, more than 200 educators and administrators representing 110 Catholic middle and high schools in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey have gone through the training.

Over the four-day summer institute, the teachers participated in a model Shabbat dinner at a local synagogue, listened to history lectures from priests and rabbis and even traveled to D.C. to tour the national Holocaust museum.

On Thursday, the last day of the program, local Holocaust educator Josey Fisher followed Gringlas' testimony with tips on how to take what had affected them to their students. Instead of activities like word scrambles or counting items in hopes of conceptualizing the death toll, Fisher urged the teachers to focus on real narratives. Why not tell them about the woman who repeated her name to herself every time she had to answer to her assigned number at roll call, or the concentration camp prisoners who used their allotted water not to drink but to bathe themselves in order to hang onto one small shred of human dignity, Fisher said.

"Those are the stories they will remember because they are human stories," Fisher said. "When we're teaching with real stuff, it doesn't get any better."


Before closing the program, Boyette challenged the teachers to create a sculpture representing their identity using only four colored pipe cleaners. She gave them a few minutes to explain their creations in small groups before forcing them to pick the one pipe cleaner they felt was most core to their being -- and remove it. After a few grumbles, the teachers obliged.

"My wife won't find out about this, will she?" joked John Schrenk, a 7th and 8th grade history teacher at Holy Family Regional in Levittown. Schrenk said the activity made him think about the Jews who maybe had an opportunity to convert in order to escape the Holocaust, but couldn't fathom giving up their faith.

Others reported feeling like they'd lost their center or become unbalanced or incomplete.


Kelli Colella, a guidance counselor at Christ the Teacher in Newark, Del., separated out the wire representing her daughter, Alex.

"My first thought was, would I be able to survive? Would I be able to march on?" Colella said. "It has to be exhausting day in and day out not to be who you are."

Dunn said the sculpture activity made her more aware of all the things that might be important to her students that she can't even see. She's already thinking of using some of the Bearing Witness curriculum to teach them about moral decision-making. In the past, she said, she taught the Holocaust primarily from the historical perspective of the church. Now, she continued, she can go back to the beginnings of anti-Semitism and show them how hatred built up over the years.

Schrenk said he's been guilty of glossing over that, too, though he's made a point of including a Holocaust unit every year.

"To me, it represents the worst that humans can do to one another," Schrenk explained, and students need "to know the horrors of how evil people can be. We have to try to do everything we can to watch the warning signs."

In addition to the summer institute, the teachers will reconvene for two follow-up sessions during the school year. Before the springtime meeting, the ADL office compiles lesson plans they tested to share with the group.

Mary Ann Powell has experimented with many of those activities since she attended the first regional program. But, she said, all the books, movies and magazine articles she's used never made as much of an impression as the survivors she brought in to speak to her seventh and eighth-graders at Saint Hilary of Poitiers School in Rydal.

"When they actually see somebody that has come through it, it's almost like they're struck in awe," said Powell, who stayed involved with Bearing Witness as a planning committee member. "In their world, I guess it's hard not to give back when somebody hurts you."

Aside from what students and teachers get out of the program, Boyette said the Jewish presenters and Catholic participants also end up developing relationships they'd never had before.

In Kathy DiDonato's case, that connection has remained constant since she attended the program in D.C. the same year as Boyette. The next year, she was invited to an advanced Bearing Witness seminar in Israel. After that, she joined the regional committee.

"I've been sitting and listening to this for nine years and every year I still take copious notes and learn something new," said DiDonato, who teaches English and theology at St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Northeast Philadelphia.

Though the Holocaust isn't required curriculum at her school, DiDonato said she and co-workers who went through Bearing Witness have woven in some of the material because they found it so important to teach "the lessons we should have learned from the Holocaust. This spills over into so many different things -- the issue with bullying and violence. Sixty to 70 years have gone by and there are still genocides."

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