|Human Rights Education: The Fourth R. 9.2 (Winter 1999): 14-15.
[a publication of Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Educators' Network]
Students Re-create Stories of Holocaust Rescuers
by Carole Koepke Brown
As we teach students about human rights abuses, they often experience secondary trauma. They are traumatized by seeing, hearing, and reading about others' horrific experiences. In my Literature of Human Rights course at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I developed the Rescuers Project to help students cope with the difficult lessons of the Holocaust. This life-affirming, creative project, based on stories of those who hid Jews during World War II, gave students the opportunity to talk about and process the emotions evoked by the distressing realities they were studying.
"The Literature of Human Rights," offered for the first time in Spring 1997, was inspired by Educators' Network Curriculum Coordinator Nancy Flower's Literature for Teaching Human Rights: An Annotated Bibliography, as well as my own passion for spreading awareness of global human rights issues. The course proved to be popular, quickly filling to capacity, with many students placed on a long waiting list.
The Rescuers Project provided a much needed change of mood for the students who had read two emotionally draining autobiographies. First they had witnessed horrific events in the autobiography of Nobel prize-winning Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan peasant who champions her people's rights. This was followed by Harry Wu's Bitter Winds, an account of his experiences in several forced labor camps in China.
Then I planned for the students to be tellers of stories in which ordinary persons who were bystanders risked their own lives to act on behalf of others. I assigned Gay Block and Malka Drucker's Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, stories of more than a hundred rescuers from ten European countries. The book includes each rescuer's story in first person, accompanied by color photographs of those who hid Jews during World War II, bringing out each person's vivid individuality. Each student was assigned a ten-minute presentation of one person's story. As students together brainstormed approaches to this assignment, I explained that risk-taking would be rewarded. I encouraged students to select a story that had a strong personal appeal and to use their own idiosyncratic creativity in exploring the endless possibilities for presentations.
To prepare students for the Rescuers unit, I showed the 90-minute video Weapons of the Spirit, featuring citizens of the small Protestant farming community of Le Chambon, France, who collectively protected Jews during the Holocaust. In that rural area of France, 5,000 citizens saved about 5,000 Jews.
I also assigned the introduction, afterword, and epilogue of the Rescuers text, to get us ready to hear from Ursula Wuerth, the wife of a member of our faculty. Ms. Wuerth described for the class her experience as a child in a German family who chose to hide Jewish persons in their home. To honor her family, she explained, a carob tree has been planted in Jerusalem on the Avenue of the Righteous.
After spring break, I then took a seat among my students while they shared heartening stories of altruism, each student bringing alive the intimate story of one ordinary, heroic citizen. Examples of these presentations suggest the remarkable range of student creativity:
Megan Rechi created a striking sculpture of a hand to teach us about Johannes DeVries. As Megan explained, "I was able to visual this strong, caring man with his hand outstretched. Two figures encompassed by the hand represent Solomon and Eva [the children he saved]. The hand in the sculpture, by holding onto the figures, provides a sense of love and security and safety."
Jennifer Remington began her report by passing out candy to everyone in the class. Then, using equipment from our media center, she gave us a tour through the Web Page she designed as a tribute to Gertruda Babilinska, a Rescuer who saved a young boy named Mickey. Jennifer posted a map, pictures, and three voice clips telling Gertruda's story—spoken in an authentic accent by Jennifer's European friend. To complete her report, Jennifer explained that Nazis would give poisoned candy to unsuspecting Jewish children.
Shawn C. Drury recreated the story of Stefan Raczynski in the form of a play and brought in his mother, who speaks German, to act a crucial role.
D. A. Franco built a rectangular box with one end open. Over that end, she tacked an upside-down Polish flag covering the end like a curtain. After D.A. reviewed the courageous acts of Zofia Baniecka, she invited each person in the class to come up and reach within the box. She explained, "As with the Rescuers, you can choose to act or to be a bystander. If you choose to act, you may experience some of what the rescuers did." Those who reached in the box found at the back a replica of an outstretched hand.
Elva Evans used multi-media to tell the stories of two rescuers from occupied France, Emilie Guth and Ermine Orsi. Elva taped her narration and music (Brahms, Beethoven, John Williams, Samuel Barber, John Barry) so that her slides were exactly synchronized with her narration and music.
Sarah M. Soden created a collage to tell the wartime story of Aart and Johjte Vos from the Netherlands. Symbolic objects frame two poems Sarah wrote in Johjte's voice, for her husband Aart. The first poem begins,
The year we met, the year we married,
Smoke was spirit, ash was bodies,
And the world was black and white;
Jew or not
Cold or housed
Safe or hungry
In hope or in despair . . .
There was no such thing as middle ground.
A photo taken by the author appears on p. 14. Its caption reads: Sarah holds her collage in honor of a Dutch couple who provided refuge for thirty-six Jews. She explains, "The scattered rose petals symbolize blood and tears, the branch of the pussy willow is indicative of the return of spring and hope. The Star of David, made of rose stems, represents the Jews, and is tied with blue thread to represent Israel and Palestine."
After the Rescuers unit, the students explored Nadine Gorimer's July's People, Gandhi's autobiography, and finally, Toni Morrison's Beloved. As a whole, the course was well received, and the Rescuers unit was the centerpiece of the course.
Just before graduation in the spring of 1997, I received a note from student Annette Varcoe, whose words suggest that lessons learned extended far beyond the course:
To my surprise, the topic of human rights has popped up several times! Perhaps the information on human rights has always been there, I was simply unaware of it before your class. I just finished an article in the May 1997 issue of National Geographic about India, which I read much more critically than I anticipated.
Following a colleague's suggestion, I shall adapt part of "The Literature of Human Rights" for my freshman writing class. I want more students to follow Annette's lead: to read more critically and be more aware of the pervasive issue of human rights in the news and in their own lives.