At JFSA workshop, teachers explore power of self-reflection in Holocaust memoirs

Why read memoirs about terrible persecution? This provocative question was the focus of “Teaching the Holocaust: Diaries, Personal Correspondence and Memoir,” an in-service workshop for teachers held at the University of Arizona Poetry Center on Oct. 28. The workshop was organized by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Coalition for Jewish Education. Cosponsors included the Jewish Community Relations Council, UA College of Education, UA Poetry Center, and the TUSD, Marana, Vail, Amphitheater and Flowing Wells school districts.

“It’s the uniqueness of each individual story in the larger scheme of history that makes Holocaust memoirs endlessly fascinating,” said guest speaker Susan R. Suleiman, C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. It’s important for students to “explore questions that have no simple or correct answers,” she added, “especially when the author raises these questions in the memoir itself.”

In her first session, “Moments of Self-Consciousness in Holocaust Memoirs,” Suleiman suggested issues that promote critical thinking among students to the more than 180 workshop attendees, including teachers from local school districts and a dozen students from Salpointe Catholic High School.

Do students become part of an author’s family as they read heart-wrenching memoirs? she asked. Suleiman also discussed other types of self-reflection in Holocaust memoirs: Are authors attempting to establish a relationship with their readers, trying to educate about the destruction wrought by the Holocaust, or dealing with memory that shifts over time?

Whatever the writing technique, asserted Suleiman — herself the author of the memoir, “Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherland” — “it’s implicit in all Holocaust memoirs that none of the facts are invented.”

To make her case, the Harvard professor included excerpts from Holocaust memoirs in an informational packet that all attendees received. For example, she said, Primo Levi in “Survival in Auschwitz” addresses his readers “in a surprisingly hostile way” in a poem at the onset, “You who live safe/In your warm houses …” Thus Levi begins his book adopting the tone of a Hebrew prophet, said Suleiman, but it’s up to the reader, or student, to formulate an interpretation.

For many years, workshop presenter Susan Shear, a former interviewer for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, had no idea of the wealth of Holocaust information within her own family. “My family started talking about the past. My mother had saved letters for over 50 years,” says Shear. “Even though I was working in Holocaust education, hearing those letters took me back to Nazi Germany.”

As the story of family members’ attempts to escape Germany unfolded, Shear developed “No Way Out: Letters and Lessons,” a curriculum that she also turned into readers’ theatre. She had letters exchanged by her German ancestors dating back to the 1700s, which testified to their German loyalty, well-respected place in society and wealth.

Shear and three others gave a dramatic reading of some of her family letters along with a PowerPoint presentation, demonstrating how letters and primary documents can provide unparalleled resources for teaching. Shear’s grandparents immigrated from Breslau, Germany to the United States in 1938, following her grandfather’s arrest during Kristallnacht and subsequent release. Their daughter Gerda and her husband, Heinz Schottlander, had insisted that they leave first.

But the Schottlanders, a highly educated couple who lived on a 30-acre estate, were unable to leave Nazi Germany, even though Shear’s grandparents tried to obtain visas for them from 14 countries. Shear’s family never discovered the exact plight of the Schottlanders and their infant son. The letters simply stopped.

After Shear discovered her family’s correspondence she began typing it into her computer, and with historical hindsight, she warned her relatives, “Don’t do this. Do that.” The “No Way Out” curriculum, she says, depicts “the humanity and dignity in these very gentle letters. They’re not horrific.”

Tucsonan Sidney Finkel, a Holocaust survivor and author of “Sevek and the Holocaust: The Boy who Refused to Die,” also spoke at the workshop.

The Federation’s CJE and JCRC provide curricular materials supporting Holocaust education for students in grades 5-12 and a library of reference materials for teachers. For more information, packets of excerpts from the recent workshop, or to schedule Holocaust survivors as speakers in local schools, contact Bryan Davis at 577-9393 or bdavis@jfsa.org.