(Editor’s note: This is a revised version of the story and contains updates throughout.)
WHEELING, W.Va. — Scores of teachers and students from across the Pittsburgh area have for years traveled to Poland to see firsthand the sights of the Holocaust.
In 2014, perhaps for the first time, an all-West Virginia group may make the trip.
Temple Shalom in Wheeling hosted a program Sunday for Classrooms Without Borders, a nonprofit educational organization that takes students and teachers to Europe, accompanied by Holocaust survivors and historians, to see firsthand where the worst genocide in world history happened — and why.
Approximately 170 people, mostly non-Jews, attended the program, which included a video from this past summer’s trip, and speeches from five of its participants.
The purpose of the program was to raise awareness of CWB, share the experiences of previous travelers on the program and to begin the yearlong process of raising money to send local teachers to Poland on a CWB trip.
“There is an urgency [to these trips],” said Zipora Gur, founder and executive director of CWB. “The survivors are dying; they are going away. And there are people who say the Holocaust never happened.”
To show how the trip affects the way students see the Holocaust, and how teachers teach it, Gur brought with her three teachers and two students who were on her last trip.
One was Jacob Galik of Wheeling Park High School, who teaches the Holocaust in his social studies class. Members of the Wheeling Jewish community subsidized his trip.
For Galik, the experience put the Holocaust into a human perspective. He said he expected to find “a great big evil place,” but instead found scenes of evil surrounded by average Polish neighborhoods.
At Auschwitz, he said he walked through the infamous gate to the place where Dr. Mengele made his selections of who would live or die. To reach it, he had to cut through the backyards of three nearby homes.
“The Poles are in an interesting situation,” he said. “They didn’t do it [the Holocaust], but it’s there.”
Other speakers also put their experiences in human terms.
Mark Barga, social studiers teacher in the City Charter High School in Pittsburgh, said the trip “revolutionized” the way he teaches the Holocaust, — not as a horrible event in history, but as a period in which Jews, Poles and Germans made many choices — good, bad, moral, immoral — which affected the lives of millions.
“Shock and horror is not a good way to teach the Holocaust,” said Barga, who is Jewish. “Everything I saw there was done by humans. … The best way to teach it is to discuss how and why it happened, instead of what happened. The events of the Holocaust are man-made, and they could happen again.”
Danielle Plung, a senior at Shady Side Academy, echoed those sentiments, saying, the Holocaust “wasn’t the mass murder of 11 million, it was 11 million individual murders.”
But the most touching moment of the evening came when Madeline Lemberg, an Ellis School junior and performing artist, sang two songs that expressed how the trip affected her — one she composed titled “Sheshet Alafim” (Hebrew for “Six Thousand,” a reference to the “6,000 stars in the night sky,” according to a Holocaust-era poem), the other a Debbie Friedman song titled L’Dor V’Dor” (“From Generation to Generation”).
She said she struggled with “how to create something beautiful out of so much ugliness.”
Two Temple Shalom members urged the gathering to support the planned 2014 trip.
Barb Lewine, who traveled with CWB last year to Israel, said she became interested in Holocaust studies years ago following an incident in which a boy scrawled a swastika in her daughter’s notebook.
“Kids just didn’t have an idea what this meant,” she said. To counter that lack of understanding, she said teachers need the “ammunition” to teach the topic well.
Finally, Seth Posin, who helped subsidize Galik’s trip, said writing a check for such a cause is an “empowering” experience.
“I feel like I defeated the Third Reich single-handly,” he said, “ and all it took was a dumb little check.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)