By Jon Gargis
Susan Stringfellow wasted little time securing a resource to help her teach a significant part of world history: the Holocaust.
The fifth-grade science and social studies teacher at Boston Elementary in Cherokee County was one of the first to reserve a new traveling exhibit from Kennesaw State University’s Museum of History and Holocaust Education. “Never Forget: An Introduction to the Holocaust” is billed as a museum field trip that comes to the school and includes age-appropriate materials to teach fifth-graders according to Georgia’s social studies curriculum. The exhibit is free for any school in the state to borrow.
Stringfellow signed up to receive it in January during her teaching of World War II. It greatly supplemented the materials she had in her classroom.
“I believe our textbook has all of one page on the chapter of this time period on the topic of the Jews and the Holocaust,” she said.
“What we hear from teachers is they have to teach this [the Holocaust], but they don’t feel well equipped — there aren’t a lot of resources, there aren’t a lot of books, there aren’t a lot of exhibits, anything they might need,” said Richard Harker, the education and outreach manager for the museum.
While the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust has created trunks of materials for middle schools to check out for up to three weeks, the traveling Kennesaw State exhibit doesn’t fit inside an actual trunk and is generally set up on a Monday and taken down four days later.
A product of nearly two months of research and work with teachers, the exhibit consists of 10 panels that can be set up in nearly any educational setting, from a classroom to a media center. A teacher’s guide covers important vocabulary words and includes suggestions for classroom activities, though Harker said museum officials hear back from teachers about activities they create to use with the exhibit.
Stringfellow, for instance, created a scavenger hunt that had students reading the panels to answer a series of questions she had written. When she used the exhibit to teach all 82 fifth-graders in her school, she set up a rotation of her three classes to listen to Harker introduce the exhibit and the concept of the Holocaust. Harker installed the exhibit in an empty classroom across the hall from Stringfellow’s, a task he said took 10 to 15 minutes.
“Through Mr. Harker’s presentation and our subsequent reading of the exhibit panels staggered throughout the week, we were able to have a thorough discussion of the Holocaust and its importance in this time period and also how it is a repeated refrain in the history of the world. Repression is a recurring theme, even today,” Stringfellow said. “My time for covering any one period in our ‘American History From 1860 to the Present’ is limited. This helped me cover a sensitive topic in a unique way.”
The traveling exhibit features the experiences of one Holocaust survivor. Born in 1922, Norbert Friedman, now a resident of Sandy Springs, grew up in Poland and survived 11 concentration camps. His story is told on the panels, through words and photos from his childhood, and via an accompanying DVD of an interview with him shot in 2013 at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education.
“Norbert is an incredible man, and he’s got so much passion for sharing his story, and he’s been sharing his story for a long time,” Harker said. “He’s getting older and frailer and isn’t as able to travel as much and tell his story as much as he once did. This exhibit is a new and a different way for him to tell his story beyond just having him speak to groups of students.”
Harker said the video clips and exhibit create a powerful retelling of his story. “For all of the terrible things that happened to him, he is such a hopeful man; he is such a kind man. It’s hard to even imagine how, if you had gone through such things, how you could be so optimistic and kind, and he is. He is such an inspiration. When you meet Norbert and hear him tell his story, even in the darkest times, there were moments of hope, there were people who did heroic things, even when everyone around them were doing inhumane things.”
While the exhibit highlights the impact of the Holocaust on Jews, it also addresses the actions of the Nazis against homosexuals, the Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political opponents and others.
Nearly a dozen schools have used the exhibit this semester. Harker estimates that more than 2,000 students have seen it.
The exhibit went to Renfroe Middle School in Decatur in early February and was set up in the school library. Harker on Monday of that week spoke to sixth-graders about the exhibit and the Holocaust.
On Tuesday, the school observed No Place for Hate Day as part of a campaign from the Anti-Defamation League. The day’s events included a presentation from Herbert Kohn, a Holocaust survivor sent by the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum.
“It was so powerful because while he was speaking, and there were 330 sixth-graders in this media center, he was surrounded by the traveling exhibit,” said Melissa Silver, a sixth-grade teacher at the school. “He was there for a long time, and as they were looking around the room, because they’re 11-year-olds, they got to look around and read the panels. It was a very moving experience.”
The exhibit panels remained the rest of the week, which gave other middle-schoolers and faculty the opportunity to view them.
Silver said Georgia’s social studies standards for sixth grade include World War I and World War II but do not say how in depth teachers should go, leaving it up to educators’ discretion.
She said the exhibit helped her teach a key part of world history.
“I think the Holocaust provides them [students] with context for a lot of the late-20th-century events and current events, in terms of what’s going on in the Middle East and why it’s important that people are accepting of other people or at least understanding of their heritage,” Silver said. “We teach about the dangers of scapegoating, prejudice, being a bystander, and the escalation of hate from biased individual thoughts and action to societal discrimination to violence. And in learning about individual stories of survival and courage during the Holocaust, we hope to empower our students to stand up to hate and intolerance.”
The exhibit’s curriculum aims to answer questions such as “What was Jewish life like before the Holocaust?” and “Who were the Nazis?”
“I think what often happens is kids who are learning about this for the first time think that Jews sort of emerged in Germany at the same time that the Nazis did, and they forget that there was a large Jewish population in Germany that was integrated, that was incredibly involved in everyday life, and so we answer that question, what happened to the victims, what life was like after the Holocaust, and what did other countries do to help,” Harker said. “The students often are shocked at how little other countries did to help the victims of the Holocaust.”
Perhaps the most important question focuses not on history, but on the present and future.
“The final question we have for the students to think about is ‘What should I do now?’ ” Harker said. “We really ask the students to think about it. The Holocaust happened decades ago, but the lessons are still so appropriate to today’s world, and we ask the students to think about why people make the choices they make and what ways they can be an ‘upstander’ rather than a bystander. How can they make a difference in their community?”
He and Stringfellow said the exhibit is valuable because it helps students apply history’s lessons.
“I have been so inspired by the connections my students made in the struggle of slavery and Jim Crow laws to the Jews and the Nuremburg Laws, then to the Japanese internment camps — another exhibit I borrowed from the museum — and to current events in Africa,” Stringfellow said. “I was not taught this way. Maybe it will make a difference.”