Each Little Life

When I signed up for yet another webinar hoping to find the magic bullet that would make our journey through this year online, I didn’t expect that much. I have always signed up and mostly showed up to educator online professional development. It varies in quality, as everything does, so I go in optimism-forward.

Echoes & Reflections, sponsored by USC’s Shoah Foundation, was offering a series of workshops about Holocaust education. I have taught the Holocaust for years; my husband is Jewish; and we raised our son in the temple. “Prewar Jewish Life” was a topic I had not considered, nor studied, so I signed up.

The presenter spoke to us from Yad Vashem in Israel, calmly yet passionately, knowledgeably but warmly, about the importance of students understanding the loss of individuals. Yes, the numbers are staggering and the horror like looking at a three-million car pile-up, unimaginable. But with students we run the risk, she cautioned, of encouraging them to stand by watching rather than personalizing to create the empathy and understanding that might one day actually alter human behavior.

My sixth graders had just finished the novel Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. We were entering the writing unit about identity, have been talking about our identities for weeks. Misha, the main character in Spinelli’s book, is trying to discover who he is. He has no memory, no history, and finds himself in Warsaw, Poland in 1939.

Today I showed my students the Echoes video ,”Glimpses of Jewish Life Before the Holocaust.” Before viewing, I made my plea for them to think about kids, kids just like them, with full lives, experiencing what Spinelli depicts in real life. The video is under five minutes in length and includes actual footage and voice overs of kids from 10-18, using actual journals, primary source documentation. I swear, this has changed me.

When it was over, I stopped sharing my screen, looked at their faces and avatars, and …waited. One of my students, a sixth grader who struggles with writing grammar and mechanics, whom I’ve heard described as “super-low…we even had her tested last year, but she just missed the cutoff,” spoke.

“Ms. Emerson, usually teachers start right with the ghetto, the horrible part, the Holocaust. They should start here, with the lives. These kids are just like us. They have pets, and fights, and chores. They could’ve lived—like us. This is where you should start.”

If given another opportunity to teach the Holocaust, I vow never to forget…this.

5 thoughts on “Each Little Life”

  1. Yes, kids often have the insight we miss. Seeing kids living everyday normal lives that students can relate to makes what happened all the more horrible.

  2. This post gave me chills. My fourth grade teacher was a Holocaust survivor. She was hidden by a neighbor and eventually found safety in the US. She was a small girl at the time. I think of her and her life, the life she had with her loving family, every time I read or talk about the Holocaust. There is such power in regular life. The regular lives of long ago Jewish children, of our lives, of our students’ lives. It sounds like you have a very wise girl in your classroom. She’s lucky to have you for her teacher.

    1. Yes, regular life is every life, and all those “hopes and dreams” as another student said! Thanks for sharing.

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