By Rachel Torres
Rachel Torres is a resident of Newtown, CT and High School History Teacher at Newtown High School. To learn more about her Holocaust Education journey, please visit her blog at torrestopiablogspot.com.
In October 2018, a student of mine who is Jewish became a target of an antisemitic remark by one of his peers, during a lesson in which I was being observed by my Department Chair and Assistant Principal. Quickly I found myself becoming an advocate for this student and asking the question, “Why is this happening and what can I do to prevent this from reoccurring?” As a Puerto Rican woman in a predominantly white town and school district, I couldn’t not take action. So, I dug deep into research and enrolled for conferences, webinars, and summer abroad programs offering Holocaust Education.*
The knowledge I gained from attending these education programs assisted me in rewriting our Western Studies curriculum to include specific objectives and activities to use in teaching the Holocaust. I wanted to see an expansion of Holocaust study to include pre and post-war Jewish life and culture so that students understand that the story of the Jews didn’t begin with and doesn’t end with the Holocaust.
More than ever before, with the rise of contemporary antisemitism and hate crimes, our fractured political system, and the loss of survivors causing a shift from lived memory to learned memory, the Holocaust must be taught with a sense of urgency and spirit of compassion. Teaching the Holocaust is a perfect opportunity to show students how to interpret historical content through the personal lens of their unique life experiences. Most, if not all students have faced some form of discrimination or persecution or know someone who has. They see on the news or social media how racism, xenophobia, and hatred are normalized. I want to encourage my students to promote justice, challenge bias, and take action. I desire to instill awareness, understanding, and empathy. I try to humanize the experiences of perceived “others” and give voice to them. I believe this inspires students to become positive agents of change in their communities and the global society.
In October 2019, I took my freshman students to the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust to see the exhibition Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. My students were mesmerized by the artifacts and stories behind them, but were even more deeply captivated by the testimony of an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor named Bronia Brandman. Mrs. Brandman, with great courage and conviction, shared about her love for her family, all of whom – with the exception of her brother – perished in the Holocaust. My students hung onto every word she uttered and asked her poignant questions that belied their years. I was moved to tears.
When we returned to school, I asked students to write a note to Mrs. Brandman expressing their gratitude for her kindness and generosity of time. I read them to make sure they were appropriate and, of course, they did not disappoint. Their letters were compelling and heartfelt. They made connections with what they had experienced as second graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, when a gunman murdered their peers and educators. They too, are survivors, searching for meaning to what they experienced and how to cope with pain and loss.
Employees of the Museum of Jewish Heritage received copies of my students’ letters and asked me if they could have permission to print these excerpts. I knew I would have to obtain parental permission and was hopeful that they would be supportive. And they were. Some even shared how that experience had brought their family closer as their student openly talked about how meeting Mrs. Brandman had changed their life.
These are excerpts from some of those students who shared their heart with Mrs. Brandman:
“Your testimony yesterday just reminded me and mirrored a lot of my feelings about how I handled trauma. I can’t even describe how much I respect and wholeheartedly admire your resiliency. I wish words were enough, but as we’ve found, they often aren’t. From the bottom of my heart, I forever thank you for everything you’ve done for survivors.”
“I want you to know that your story of resilience in the Holocaust has helped me to open up about my experiences in the December 14 shooting in Sandy Hook in 2012. I have been angry and resentful…for so long, and you have started me on my path to truly healing myself of my PTSD… You are living proof of what the human spirit can overcome…Thank you, one last time, for my hope.”
“Your speech moved me in a way where I started telling myself that I need to live every day to the fullest and really cherish the moments I have with my family because you never know when you are going to lose everything. Whenever I feel like I’m going through a tough time, I will think of you and how brave you were during this awful time period.”
“I will never forget my trip to this museum, and one day I will tell my kids about the amazing woman who came and spoke to my class in freshman year of high school. I will do my best to have as much courage and strength as you did.”
“I can’t even begin to express how much you have inspired me. I want to tell my story of all I’ve been through… it is nothing compared to yours but I want to make sure it never happens again.”
A few months later, I received a signed copy of Bronia Brandman’s book, The Girl Who Survived, along with a thank you note from Mrs. Brandman about how it was her honor and that she would never forget us. Can you imagine, a Holocaust Survivor thanking us? I was so humbled, but I understood that our visit and my students’ notes validated what she already knew; even though the Holocaust came to an end, we cannot stop there. I want my students to understand the importance of remembering and honoring the memory of those who have endured senseless tragedy. As Elie Wiesel once said, “Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.” The proliferation of Holocaust denial via social media underscores how imperative it is to never forget.
So now, as I gear up for my 16th year in the classroom and for the weirdest and most uncertain teaching experience of my career, I am reminded of being resilient. Whether hybrid or remote, with masks, plexiglass dividers, or not, I will focus on my love for students and passion for teaching history. There is too much at stake not to – antisemitism has not declined, racism is being confronted. Social justice must be at the forefront of everything I teach. I will continue to cultivate a classroom environment where students transform into compassionate and informed global citizens. One resilient student at a time.
* Below are some of the institutions whose programs Ms. Torres participated in following the antisemitic attack on her student in 2018: