Teaching Tragedy

How does one write about the worst tragedy in human history? How does a modern world ensure to never forget but continue to progress? How does one teach disaster to a younger generation? In short, how do we address the Holocaust in society and education today?

The Holocaust was undoubtedly the worst time period in all of human history. During this time, around 6 million Jews, 7 million Soviet citizens, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians, 312,000 Serbs, 250,000 people with disabilities, 220,000 Roma (Gypsies), 1,900 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thousands of homosexuals, artists, intellectuals, and others lost their lives in the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and many others. The world was overrun with fear, hatred, and chaos. While many of us know the aftermath of this horrific time in human history, it is important to understand the causes that led to its inception.

It is impossible to narrow down the causes of this tragedy to just a few concrete examples, but the Holocaust ultimately began with the democratic election of one man: Adolf Hitler. When Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, he preached anti-Semitism and eliminating the Jewish race. In his mind, the perfect Germany consisted of only the tall, blonde, and blue-eyed Aryan race. By passing the Nuremberg Laws, burning books and documents associated with Jewish culture in mass quantities, and requiring all Jews to pin yellow Stars of David labeled “Jude” on their clothing everywhere they went, Germany began the frightening process of reducing Jews to the lowest possible social status. Finally, Hitler began his most terrifying policy yet: his “Final Solution” to eliminate all Jews. The “Final Solution” consisted of “gassings, shootings, random acts of terror, disease, and starvation that accounted for the deaths of about six million Jews — two-thirds of European Jewry.” It was implemented in various steps, including deporting Jews to ghettos, eliminating entire Jewish communities through gassing and firing squads, and sending Jews to concentration camps to be killed in mass quantities. These camps systematically murdered the Jewish population until they were liberated by Allied troops in 1945.  

The Holocaust was one of the greatest tragedies of human history and should never be forgotten. But how do we educate future generations about this tragedy? In the United States, many middle and high school students around the country learn about the Holocaust through facts and figures instead of focusing on personal accounts. At Collegiate, however, students are able to connect to the stories of those affected by the Holocaust through reading testimonies like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. But how do we ensure that students fully understand the gravity of the Holocaust? In order to better understand how this horrific time period is addressed in education, I met with Upper School English teacher Dr. Leah Sievers, Holocaust survivor Roger Loria, Holocaust photographer Dean Whitbeck, and multiple Collegiate students. And in these meetings I realized the Holocaust has a much deeper connection to Richmond than I could have ever imagined.

Photographer Dean Whitbeck presents to Collegiate students

Photographer Dean Whitbeck presents to Collegiate students. Photo credit: Claire Andress.

On October 13, Collegiate juniors and seniors in Sievers’ English elective Literature of Elegy and Redemption were able to learn about the stories of Holocaust survivors from Dean Whitbeck, famous photographer and fellow collaborator on the The Holocaust Survivors Photo Project.” This project, made possible through a partnership between The Weinstein JCC, the Richmond Symphony, and the Virginia Holocaust Museum, consists of large portraits of Holocaust survivors in the greater Richmond area. Whitbeck, originally from Marin County, California, was the photographer chosen to create these portraits. A self-described “West Coaster with an East Coast spirit,” Whitbeck got his start in photography after a long career as a teacher. After moving to Richmond in 2005, Whitbeck began focusing more intently on his photography. “I was listening to a deeper voice in myself. I wanted to push my photography a little bit more. There was a voice inside of me that was a little anarchist of the educational boundaries in the public school system. I felt like I could do more by pulling away and pursuing a life more intent on pushing critical thinking skills and community engagement,” Whitbeck says. After multiple successful galleries, including photographing Richmond’s first Live Art performance, Whitbeck was asked to join the Holocaust Survivors Photo Project to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was an “incredible experience… large organizations worked together to create a project that was so profound,” Whitbeck explains. “We knew the immediacy of this project. We knew we were losing [the survivors] as they aged within the timeframe of this project.”

Whitbeck describes working with the survivors as an eye-opening experience. “I had to take my own personal experience and way I had been informed about the Holocaust and apply it to each and every Holocaust survivor that sat in front of me,” Whitbeck explains. The process was intimate by design. In order to get the best photos of the survivors, Whitbeck used a camera lens that required him to stand very close to his subjects for 45 to 60 minutes. “The technical side of learning how to shoot this was much smaller than the emotional learning. You stand that close to someone and you’re going to have a relationship with them. I had to fight through the uncomfortableness in order to get authentic joy,” Whitbeck says. Whitbeck also aimed to portray Holocaust survivors in a way that had never been done before. “What we do know about the Holocaust is the graphic images,” Whitbeck says. “I always saw the victimization of these people and the way these humans were used by the camera for reasons of propaganda in Holocaust images. I wanted to show the eternity of humans. I wanted to be left with the legacy of these pictures.”

Bud and Sonia Brodecki Photo credit: Dean Whitbeck

Holocaust survivors Bud and Sonia Brodecki Photo credit: Dean Whitbeck.

During his presentation to Sievers’ class, Whitbeck shared his experiences with three of the subjects he was most impacted by: Sonia and Bud Brodecki, and Simone Schwarz. Whitbeck says Bud Brodecki began the shoot in a “funny and gregarious manner,” and he took multiple photographs of the survivor smiling and laughing. However, the mood completely changed when Whitbeck asked Brodecki to lift his sleeve and reveal the identification tattoo he received at Auschwitz, the only concentration camp that tattooed its prisoners. “I saw his identification, and it was a game changer. I picked up the camera, and we talked about the idea of tears. He went into this deeply emotional place, and I went there with him in silence. You don’t inject language in those moments of emotion,Whitbeck explains. After Bud’s portrait, Bud’s wife Sonia joined him, and Whitbeck remembers “the support in her eyes and the relaxation in her face that came out of the long-lasting love.” Sonia and Budd met in a post-war displacement camp after both had spent time in concentration camps, and Sonia described their relationship in her broken English as simply “old love.” Whitbeck also shared his experience with Simone Schwarz, which was much more difficult. Schwarz, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, thought Whitbeck was an SS soldier yelling at her throughout the shoot. “She threw a lot my way privately. These moments of tears and memory were so profound with her. However, she was able to offer something that she wasn’t able to give at the beginning of the session,” Whitbeck says. When Schwarz finished her portrait, she “filled her pockets with silverware and bread from the JCC. She reverted back to a very desperate time because of her Alzheimer’s. She went back to this place of having nothing and filled her bags and pockets with things she thought she didn’t have,” Whitbeck remembers.

Holocaust survivor Simone Schwarz (Photo credit: Dean Whitbeck)

Holocaust survivor Simone Schwarz. Photo credit: Dean Whitbeck.

The day after Whitbeck’s visit, Sievers’ students had the opportunity to further learn about the Holocaust from Dr. Roger Loria, a retired professor of virology at VCU and a Holocaust survivor himself. Born in 1940 in Antwerp, Belgium, described by Loria as the “crossroad of the powers,” Loria was one of the youngest impacted by the Holocaust. In a world where the ideal person was blonde, blue-eyed, and tall, Loria realized he “failed all three of them and would obviously not survive. Everyone that didn’t fit the Nazi mold was considered degenerate and was destroyed.” Loria is one of the few Holocaust survivors that has pictures of his family, thanks to a family friend who risked her life for them. When Loria and his family were forced to leave their home, one of his mother’s friends went back into the house to salvage as many family mementos as she could carry. “If they had caught her, she would have been shot,” Loria says, “but she did that anyway and saved the pictures and other important things. That is the only way I can know how my father and grandfather looked.”

Loria was just three weeks old when the Nazis invaded Belgium. He fled to Dunkirk, France with his mother and father, but they were sent back home by Germans who promised no harm would come to them. “I was three weeks old, mother could find no milk or nothing for me,” Loria explains. “Our assets in the bank were taken over, all business confiscated, you were totally in limbo and could not do much.” As Hitler’s Final Solution intensified across Europe, Loria’s family felt the impact. On August 15 and 16, 1942, Belgian police arrested 1,000 Belgian Jews, including Loria’s only cousin and maternal grandfather. 61.8% of these Belgians were sent to their deaths at camps, including Loria’s family members. “Children below age of nine who could not work, and the elderly, were directly killed. If you could not work at all, you had no survival,” Loria explains.

Holocaust survivor Dr. Roger Loria (Photo credit: Dean Whitbeck)

Holocaust survivor Dr. Roger Loria. Photo credit: Dean Whitbeck.

Loria’s parents decided to flee to Free France, which, unbeknownst to them, was under the control of the Nazi-allied Vichy government in France. When they arrived, Loria’s father was declared stateless. “He had nothing. He had no ID card, no passport. He was in mortal danger and fearing that his presence was endangering my mother and myself, so he went to work in France Libre. He was taken there and sent to Auschwitz, where he died at the end of the war during the Death Marches,” Loria says. Loria and his mother were two of the 317 Jews that escaped France Libre and survived. But he cannot forget the hundreds of children that did not escape. “These children… they didn’t know if they were Jewish, if they were Christian. They just wanted a bottle and a blanket. But they were killed systematically because of their ancestry,” Loria explains.

Loria and his mother walked for days in search of help. They were caught by Nazi officials at the Swiss border and put in a concentration camp there for women and children. This is where Loria has one of his clearest memories of the Holocaust. “I was two and a half, and I was playing in the yard with some stones,” Loria remembers. “I saw this car coming up the road from the mountain area, and it zigzagged up the road. There was something in that car that really drew my attention. A couple minutes later, that car pulled into yard, and two soldiers and an officer came out. I stood in front of the door watching them yelling at women in kitchen working. My mother jumped to the back table, and she jumped out through the back window. She grabbed me standing in front of the door, and we ran into the woods. Any child who went to see his mother in the kitchen never came out. We saw them being ferried to the gas chamber later.” The pair traveled on foot in search of help and eventually found a place to rest in an attic with another Jewish woman. “We had to make sure that she didn’t scream,” Loria says. “She had a child in one of those trucks.”

Dr. Roger Loria presents to Collegiate students

Holocaust survivor Dr. Roger Loria presents to Collegiate students. Photo credit: Claire Andress.

Loria and his mother were caught again later and taken to Rivesaltes, France by train. “We were very lucky in many ways. The French resistance bombed the rail. There was a delay for a few hours. We missed the deportation of people to the gas chamber,” Loria says. In Rivesaltes, Loria and his mother lived with 6,475 other internees from 60 nations, living on 800 calories a day. Eventually, the camp at Rivesaltes was closed, and the mothers and children were freed. “Exactly how that happened, I am not sure,” Loria says. Later, his mother paid a smuggler— using diamonds she had hidden in her toothbrush—to take them to Switzerland. They traveled with another family with a young baby. “If the baby made big noise, I was supposed to give him a sugar cube so the dogs and German patrol would not pick us up,” Loria explains. “I can still remember us crawling under the barbed wire when a Swiss soldier lifted it up and let us in.” Life was difficult for Loria and his mother in Switzerland, but they eventually made their way back to Antwerp, where his mother worked in a Jewish orphanage. In 1949, the pair moved to Israel, where Loria says he truly grew up. “Nobody should be exploited or discriminated against because of ancestry, religion, color, sex, or any other reason,” Loria says. “I was declared a political prisoner, but I barely knew a knife and a fork. As a child, I only knew what a religious group is at age six. In first grade, they were screaming, ‘You killed Jesus Christ!’ So clearly, that came very strongly across. But I am not very religious, and one of the things you learn is that hate and vengeance only hurts you, so you do not keep it in you.”

Dr. Roger Loria, his wife, and Dr. Leah Sievers

Holocaust survivor Dr. Roger Loria, his wife, and Dr. Leah Sievers. Photo credit: Claire Andress.

Collegiate students seem to treasure opportunities to learn about the Holocaust from survivors themselves. Parker Conquest (‘17) believes the way Collegiate teaches the Holocaust consists of “a necessary interaction between facts and personal accounts. [He] likes the way that [Collegiate] is balanced between books and traditional, factual learning.” Conquest also agrees that personal accounts are necessary when learning about the Holocaust. When he read Elie Wiesel’s novel Night in his sophomore history class, Conquest says he “didn’t expect to be emotionally affected, but the firsthand account was absolutely striking.” Steele Viverette (‘18), a student in the Literature of Elegy and Redemption class, agrees with Conquest. Viverette enjoyed Dr. Loria’s presentation because his “middle and high school history classes taught the Holocaust in a very factual and cause-and-effect manner, but meeting Dr. Loria allowed [him] to learn about the Holocaust at a much more personal level.”

Sievers, one of Collegiate’s newest Upper School English teachers and a Holocaust scholar, is the woman who made this connection with Dr. Loria (as well as Whitbeck’s presentation) possible. Influenced by her family’s religion as a child, Sievers has taught Literature of World Religions, worked at Los Angeles’s Museum of Tolerance, and collaborated on the Holocaust Survivors Photo Project, and her Literature of Elegy class is currently partnered with the Virginia Holocaust Museum for a service-learning project. Sievers knew she wanted to study the Holocaust and use her knowledge to help others. “Being around really sad material all the time was really difficult,” Sievers explains. “But you have to be incredibly immersed to be the best scholar you can be.” When asked how she managed to endure the incredibly depressing material, Sievers replied “my dad was a medical professional, and he said he learned how to compartmentalize and how to find activities that allowed him to transition from grief to normalcy. But ironically, I felt invigorated because I like helping people. Helping others made me feel strong.”

Sievers talked about how the Holocaust should be taught in school systems. “My first memory of learning about the Holocaust was reading the Diary of Anne Frank in fifth grade and asking my father if it was real,” Sievers remembers. “I believe time is the most important part of teaching Holocaust history. Often, history teachers have to rush through Holocaust history, but both students and teachers need time to fully develop understanding of history and reasons why it happened and why genocide continues to take place. I also believe cultivating empathy is best done through very specific books and meeting survivors.” Her Literature of Elegy class is further delving into Holocaust history by reading Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of Kindertransport, a book Sievers describes as “a very small slice of Holocaust history, but incredibly personal and honest.” Viverette says the book “showed [him] a side of the Holocaust [he] had never been taught before. Many of us in the class has never even heard of the Kindertransport.”

The Literature of Elegy and Redemption class is also helping the Virginia Holocaust Museum by providing written testimony about Holocaust survivors, which is often difficult to obtain. “The service learning project stems from the survivor testimony of Holocaust survivor Dr. Roger Loria,” Sievers explains. “Students in the course heard Dr. Loria’s testimony, took extensive notes, asked questions, and wrote out his story.  We will work from the students’ versions of his story to create one document that the Virginia Holocaust Museum can use in conjunction with Dr. Loria’s portrait, which is on display at the VHM in Dean Whitbeck’s survivor portrait exhibit.” The students’ contributions will help the museum connect the survivors’ stories to their portraits and display the effects of the Holocaust on a much more personal level.

Clearly, Collegiate students understand the importance of Holocaust education. Sumner Brinkley (‘17) believes teaching future generations about the Holocaust is important because “talking about how prejudices influence behavior is key, especially connecting these prejudices to what is happening in the world now.” Kate Partlow (‘17) believes remembering the Holocaust will help society “prevent history from repeating itself and will also help us better understand today’s humanitarian crises, like the Syrian refugee crisis.” By meeting with survivors, continuing projects like the Holocaust Survivors Photo Project, and continuing to teach this tragedy in classes like Literature of Elegy and Redemption, we will be able to ensure the legacies of Holocaust survivors and victims are never forgotten.

Featured image credit: Dean Whitbeck.

About the author

Claire Andress is a senior at Collegiate.