May 30th, 2012
Highland sophomores observe Holocaust Remembrance Day
Highland High School tenth-grade students follow along as speakers and readers from all parts of the District read from “Night”, Elie Wiesel’s moving memoir of the holocaust, during the school’s recent Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Highland - In commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Highland High School’s entire sophomore class focused on that dark period in our world’s history. During the day, students listened intently to poignant recitations of names of some of the Holocaust’s youngest victims.
In addition, a series of presenters conducted a continuous reading of writer and activist Elie Wiesel’s moving memoir, Night. This Nobel Prize winner’s account of his horrific experiences as a teenager in Nazi death camps provided an unflinching, first-hand look at the horrors of the Holocaust.
Jointly coordinated by English teachers Stephanie Santagada and Josh Tatum, along with Social Studies teachers Cathy Gruner and Sarah Dudley-Lemek, this day of remembrance has become a tradition at Highland High School.
Begun seven years ago as an interdisciplinary project after Ms. Santagada learned of the concept at an English teacher’s conference, the event presents a unique learning opportunity. Global History is incorporated into both Social Studies and English in the tenth grade, making it a perfect time to combine the curricula.
In addition to readings of victims’ names and of the book Night, there were video clips from the Holocaust Memorial Museum, from the Academy Award winning film Schindler’s List, and some powerful footage from the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” depicting the human suffering witnessed by U.S. soldiers as they liberated the concentration camps.
One of the day’s special guests was a former soldier from World War II, Benjamin Bragg, Sr., who took part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. According to Mrs. Dudley-Lemek, students were very touched by Mr. Bragg’s story. “Many of them mentioned his video and speech as the most memorable part of the day,” she said. Ms. Santagada also commented, “The students were very moved by this hometown hero’s personal account and of his bravery, especially after learning more about the horrendous nature of the events.”
Among the teachers and other Highland school-community members who read passages from Wiesel’s book were two Board members, Regina Tantillo-Swanson and Tom Miller. Students also read some of the names of the young victims, many of whom were even younger than the sophomore readers themselves.
“The fact that they were so young [from 3 to 17 years old] just made it so much sadder,” reflected tenth grade student Shandeline Pages, who read the names of some of the youngest Holocaust victims. “These were people who had their whole lives ahead of them. It was so sad, but I’m glad to be enlightened as to where and how this happened, and to whom. No one should ever have to go through this sort of thing again.”
“Students were deeply affected by the experience, and are still processing their reactions,” observed Ms. Santagada. “In English we focus on the personal nature of the Holocaust: how to transform such staggering statistics and numbers into personal stories, so as to create empathy and understanding. We also study the progression of prejudice that can escalate from something as ‘harmless’ as teasing all the way to genocide.”
Ms. Santagada and the team of dedicated teachers who coordinate this event continue to find that students respond positively to the program each year. The mix of reading, multimedia materials, and participation keeps the students involved, while giving them a holistic view of the events of the Holocaust. By introducing video to illustrate the text, the day’s activities allow students to not only hear, but see, the impact of the Nazi decisions on the lives of everyday people who happened to be Jewish, or homosexual, or gypsies.
Art teacher Aliza Driller read passages from Night while wearing a prayer shawl given to her daughter by her grandfather, Aliza’s father, at her bat mitzvah. Ms. Driller provided, as a backdrop to her reading, an evocative painting her mother had rendered, inspired by the horrors of the Holocaust. She described both of her parents as “brilliant, generous people,” who “all their lives, lived to make the world a better place, yet often faced anti-Semitism.”
In sharing that her daughter too has needed to deal with the scourge of prejudice and injustice, Ms. Driller observed, “Until all people are free and not persecuted or judged based on religion, race, or gender, it is essential that we continue to bring the past into the light of today. It is only through teaching empathy and respect for differences, that we can change the future and make the world a compassionate home to all living on it.”