The Lessons of Yesterday

I spent today at a workshop given by holocaust survivor Irving Roth which focused on the use of memoir. It was well worth the cost of the seminar and the two hours it took to get to the university where he was presenting.

Roth started his presentation by calling up the words of John Dewey, who essentially believed that it’s impossible to teach anyone anything new; that new knowledge must be built upon knowledge or experience that the student already has – or, lacking that, the student must be presented with an experience that will help him or her cement the new knowledge they obtain through the experience in real and meaningful ways. I’m not doing the theory a whole lot of justice here; let it suffice to say that Dewey wasn’t a big fan of lecture-based learning, and neither is Irving Roth. He spent the rest of the day explaining how to take the enormity of the holocaust and make it relevant to high school-aged students through exercises in empathy and human experience.

It’s very easy, he explained, to be completely overwhelmed by the events of the 1920s through the ’40s. The coincidences of geopolitical, economic and social factors that brought about the rise of the Nazis and Fascists are really secondary to the point that the holocaust was an essentially human experience that orbited around the very human experiences of loss, betrayal and fear. We are all human, he continued, and we are all capable of experiencing these things. Understanding how to lead students to tap into those recognizable experiences – those experiences of loss and fear and betrayal that our students already carry within them – and to relate what we teach them of the holocaust to those experiences, helps young people come away from the lesson with a deep sense of the humanity of it all. When students are encouraged to feel as they learn, the holocaust is no longer a disembodied event that happened sometime in the murky past. Students are able to create connections – to practice empathy – and to begin to internalize the vast and timeless implications of the era.

Roth also spent a great deal of time emphasizing that we are all orchestrators of choice. Every act we take, every decision we make, every relationship we play a part in is composed of a series of choices that not only brought us to this point, but which will bring us through to whatever is on the other side of those acts, decisions or relationships. He very beautifully illustrated that we, as humans, are all equipped with a moral center (though the argument can be made that there are certain individuals who lack that center, but those who truly do are rare enough to not really come into play for purposes of our discussion). If we are to be truly human, we have to constantly refer to that center – to inform every single act and decision from a standpoint of what we know in our core to be “right” or “wrong”. It is in doing this, Roth says, that we are able to survive the greatest horrors that we as humans can experience. The choice is to remain human in the face of evil that would seek to take our humanity from us.

I have about twenty pages of notes that were absolutely effortless to take; notes about questions of morality, notes about the overwhelming statistics of death and destruction during the Nazi reign, notes about hope for the future. Roth has a way of storytelling that is compelling and animated; he is an expressive man who (not unlike my father-in-law) likes to bounce up and down on the balls of his feet and wave his hands in the air to illustrate action. He is a man who, despite the horrors he experienced, the losses he suffered, and the attempts made on his humanity, chose to stay in the light. He has made it his life’s work to see that light kindled in others by creating the Adopt a Survivor and Surrogate Survivor programs. He tasked us educators to carry on the work of keeping the stories alive, of celebrating the lives and spirits of those who experienced the holocaust firsthand, and to see to it that the next generation understands the lessons that history so desperately wants to teach us.

Irving Roth inscribed the inside cover of his book Bondi’s Brother for me. “Dear Mrs. Chili,” he wrote, “may the lessons of yesterday guide our tomorrows.” As a teacher, it’s my job to see that those lessons are taught. It’s a responsibility I accept, and continue to strive to be worthy of doing well.

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