When Nicholas Haberman started teaching about the Holocaust as a history teacher at Shaler Area High School, he felt at first that he wasn’t the one who should be leading this lesson. Haberman, raised Presbyterian, did not have much Jewish influence growing up — he said he didn’t meet a Jewish person until he was in college — and had never had the experience of hearing family stories of persecution and war in their homeland.
Now, after 13 years as a teacher and 10 years of leading an elective about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights at Shaler as well as countless trips to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with students, he still doesn’t feel like he can fully grasp the concept himself, let alone teach it to future generations.
“I think it’s taken me 10 years to be able to understand how much it is that I will never know about the Holocaust,” Haberman said. “At first you think that someday you might understand it, but the more you study it, the more you realize you will never understand it.”
Haberman, 35, has devoted his career to researching and teaching about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights, leading an elective on the subject for a decade and introducing a new elective and a Holocaust center at the school to encourage even more focus and collaborative work around these issues.
The goal, he said, is to normalize Holocaust and human rights education in public schools and offer a model for other schools to follow. And although he admits that he won’t ever be able to fully understand the Holocaust, he goes to great lengths to make sure his students can hear from people who do through visits from survivors, the use of personal records and trips to the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“As a teacher, seeing how Holocaust, genocide and human rights education is taught at a public high school in Western Pennsylvania, to me, it felt there was so much more that could and should be done,” Haberman said. “Meeting survivors and hearing their stories, you always feel like there’s more that you should be doing.”
He died within two years, leaving Haberman with “a great sense of obligation to carry on his story and do as much as possible.”
Because of his relationship with Sittsamer, Haberman was asked by a colleague to take over a Holocaust, genocide and human rights elective. The class starts with a history of Judaism, a necessary foundation in a school where most students are not Jewish, Haberman said. Through the semester, they also learn about more recent genocides and human rights violations, and use these tragedies to think about current issues.
In the 10 years that he has been teaching it, Haberman said the class has come to be defined by the stories the students hear.
“These stories of local survivors really drive the lessons,” Haberman said. “It makes them realize that these people are like them, that the perpetrators are people like them, that the victims are people like them, that the survivors are people like them and the bystanders are people like them.
“It’s not a story of 6 million Jews, it’s a story of a handful of people whose lives were affected in a way that we can never imagine but we’re going to try anyway.”
“Survivors encourage students to take action … to lead a life that is useful to their community,” Haberman said.
Haberman is also in the midst of creating a center for Holocaust, genocide and human rights education attached to the school’s library. The center, set to open at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, will act as a multipurpose space for almost any endeavor related to Holocaust, genocide and human rights education, from classes (a space to teach Elie Wiesel’s “Night” ) to professional development (a place to pass on training from the Holocaust Center) to an art gallery (an exhibit for a high school level of the Holocaust Center’s Butterfly Project).
The idea, Haberman said, is to put all the resources in the same place and make them accessible to everyone, even students who are not taking any courses on the subject.
“It was student-driven,” Haberman said. “The students pushed me to give them more stories, more time, more focus, more projects. For that reason, I was able to make it happen.”
“He doesn’t shy away from the emotional aspect of what he’s doing. … He begins the class by letting students know how emotional this is and encourages them to connect on a personal level,” Bairnsfather said. “There’s so much heart that goes into what he teaches.
Through the award, Haberman was an Alfred Lerner fellow at the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous this summer and hopes that opportunity will open more doors for him to continue his Holocaust education. His next stop is Yad Vashem and then Europe to see the concentration camps.
For now, he plans to continue refining the resources that Shaler offers, hoping to make it a model for other schools in the region.
For Haberman, teachers have a responsibility to educate young people not to be “ignorant, not to make the mistakes of the past that we seem to keep making again and again,” he said. “You use the lessons of the Holocaust to teach so much more.” PJC