Andria Hejl made her summer school project this year extra special, to enlighten classrooms for years to come.
An upper elementary teacher at Coastal Montessori Charter School, in Pawleys Island, Hejl was welcomed in June as one of 25 Alfred Lerner Fellows for the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous’ Summer Institute for Holocaust Education. The five-day endeavor at Columbia University in New York covered such aspects as new approaches to teaching this complex subject in history in schools, and involved other teachers from across the United States, as well as Poland and Croatia, and hearing from Holocaust survivors.
A married mother of two daughters, Hejl paused to think about new lessons learned and other ways she wants to help shape Holocaust education and awareness in her profession.
Q: What did the process of your selection among the Lerner Fellows for 2017 involve?
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A: There was an extensive application that went first to the council and then to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. It was such an honor to be chosen to participate and would not have been possible without the support of both organizations. Stanlee Stahl, the executive vice president for the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, delivered a spectacular program with world-class scholars; I cannot thank them enough.
Q: This past school year, my daughter’s social studies middle school class had a group viewing of the movie “The Book Thief,” set in Germany during World War II – that our family later borrowed from Horry County Memorial Library to watch together. Then, for summer reading in 2016, she picked out, and could not put down, Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” How do the most poignant, effective Holocaust educational resources vary through the grade levels in schools, with youngsters’ age and maturity?
A: I believe the experience is even more powerful when children choose books on their own, which was the case with my students at Coastal Montessori. My students became so invested in what they were reading and the lessons that came with it, they wanted to learn more. They presented a plan to our director, Dr. Nathalie Hunt, and received approval to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C. It was a truly rewarding experience.
For older elementary students, it’s important to find materials that convey the events of the Holocaust without the graphic depictions, which they are not yet ready to manage. I prefer to use texts that include children near the age of my students, for these are easier for them to connect with. Novels such as “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry and “Letters From Rifka” by Karen Hess are good choices for the older elementary group. There are a number of primary resources as well, such as “Salvaged Pages” by Alexandra Zapruder, a collection of journal entries written by Jewish youth during the Holocaust. These journal pages offer today’s students a window into the lives of children their age and the fear, devastation, and absolute hunger they faced daily.
Another wonderful story is “My Dog Lala” by Roman Kent, a Holocaust survivor and the president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. This beautiful story of a young boy and his beloved dog also details how the Nazis dehumanized the Jews in Poland but in terms that younger students can understand. As students mature through high school, more graphic details of the horrors of the Holocaust can be introduced.
Q: Has the loss of almost all members of the World War II “Greatest Generation” kickstarted other, new, innovative ways to introduce Holocaust awareness to younger students, and what approaches have impressed you the most that you want to incorporate in your classroom in coming years?
A: The opportunity to meet a survivor or rescuer is becoming increasingly rare, which is why organizations such as the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and our own South Carolina Council on the Holocaust, are so important. As well as advocating for survivors and rescuers – with the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous financially supporting 400 aged rescuers in more than 20 countries – these organizations offer vast resources including video recordings of interviews, as well as preserving firsthand accounts for future generations. These resources are a vital part of my lesson plans.
Q: After the involvement and interaction with other people from around the country and world at the Summer Institute at Columbia University, what was the most important newfound knowledge, point of view or experience you brought home that forever changed your outlook on this everlasting mission to remind people about the Holocaust, and how recent and vast this travesty of humanity reached?
A: Every moment of the Summer Institute was invaluable to me from the lectures by the scholars, to the privilege of hearing Roman Kent’s story in person, to the connections I made with teachers doing amazing things in their classrooms around the world. It was especially meaningful to meet and spend time with the teachers from Poland and Croatia, who shared the projects they have been working on with their students.
For many Americans, World War II and the Holocaust are something far away, which they only learn about in school. For these eastern European teachers and their students, it is still very much a part of life. I am looking forward to the opportunities that now lay ahead for our students here to develop a relationship with students in Poland and Croatia in order to build a bridge of understanding across cultures.
Q: How many people realize that this fellowship program is named after Alfred Lerner – who besides founding the former MBNA credit card company, was a Marine Corps pilot, a huge benefactor for The Cleveland Clinic, in the locale where he resided, and revived the Cleveland Browns NFL team in 1999, after the original franchise was relocated in 1996 as the Baltimore Ravens?
A: Every teacher who participates in the Summer Institute is honored with the title of Alfred Lerner Fellow. While some might not necessarily be aware of his football connection, we do know that this spectacular opportunity exists because of his dedication to and support of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous and in particular to Holocaust education. ... I am grateful to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous and the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust for their support of teachers who are determined to keep the story of the Holocaust from becoming a footnote in history books.
Contact Steve Palisin at 843-444-1764.
Of related interest
WHAT: “Out of Hiding (at last!)” lecture
WHO: Renee Fink, sharing her personal experience of hiding from the Holocaust when she was 4 years old in the Netherlands
IN: “Sand Bar Lecture Series”
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Museum of Coastal Carolina, 21 E. Second St., Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.
HOW MUCH: Free with museum admission – $9.50 ages 13-61, $8.50 ages 62 and older, $7.50 ages 3-12, and free ages 2 and younger.
INFORMATION: 910-579-1016 or www.museumplanetarium.org