“That is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
That dictum from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel sums up one of the lessons Helias Catholic High School English teachers Kathy Jarman and Sarah Kempker absorbed during their weeklong trip to Poland this summer.
There, they took part in an intense, immersive class on the genocide commonly referred to as the Holocaust.
They toured former Nazi death camps and listened to experts, witnesses and survivors of that dark moment in history, when 6 million European Jewish people were systematically marginalized, sent to work camps and killed.
All of this took place during the reign of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany in the years leading up to and through World War II.
“I felt like I was walking on holy ground,” said Mrs. Jarman. “Auschwitz and Birkenau — because the soil was sandy and kind of ashy — I can’t help but become emotional when I think about it.”
For 13 years, both educators have been teaching second-semester sophomore literature students about the Holocaust, using Night, a first-person account by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
“Teaching this through literature, we get to focus a bit more on the human side of it,” said Mrs. Kempker. “Reading a book by someone who was there, who lived that experience — there is that emotional side, rather than just the facts of a history book.”
Over time, the two teachers have established a relationship with the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis and have had survivors visit the school and share their firsthand recollections.
That helped make the lessons very personal for Mrs. Jarman and Mrs. Kempker and their students.
Three years ago, Mrs. Jarman was scrolling through her Twitter feed and saw an invitation for educators to apply for a program at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust museum in Poland.
Both teachers applied and got accepted. That meant two of the 30 participants from throughout the world were from Helias Catholic.
The group toured several of the Nazi death camps where millions of Jewish people and political prisoners were murdered, their possessions plundered and their earthy remains burned in ovens or buried in mass graves.
The visitors spent time in a museum at the notorious Auschwitz work and death camp. One room was filled with suitcases and shoes taken from people who were killed there.
Another contained human hair that had been shaved off the heads of the people when they arrived there.
“You could see women’s hair braids with ribbons in the pile, just cut off,” said Mrs. Kempker.
They toured one of the gas chambers in which thousands of people were systematically killed.
The educators were forced to confront the evidence of unfathomable evil, dark paradoxes, and disturbingly nebulous, ever-shifting wartime distinctions between bystander, perpetrator and victim.
They stood in places described by the author of Night as well as survivors who had spoken to their students in years past.
Some of it was too much to bear.
“I remember saying, ‘I’m never coming back. I don’t like this place, the way it makes me feel,’” said Mrs. Kempker. “But three years later, we jumped at the chance to come back.”
“Praises and consolations”
Ben Fainer, one of the survivors who had come to Jefferson City to speak to Mrs. Jarman’s and Mrs. Kempker’s students, had died by the time the teachers made their first trip to Poland three years ago.
They took with them a copy of a book he had written, titled Silent for Sixty Years, photographed it at Birkenau and sent the photo to his daughter.
She responded, “Would you pray for my family members who died in that place?”
The teachers asked her to send the names of the people they should pray for.
“The list of immediate family members who died at Birkenau was a spreadsheet eight pages long,” said Mrs. Kempker.
At the memorial, the teachers prayed the Kaddish, a traditional prayer of people who are mourning: “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored, elevated and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He — above and beyond any blessings and hymns, praises and consolations which are uttered in the world. Amen.”
“We haven’t learned”
This year’s weeklong gathering immersed participants more deeply in the web of factors that led to the Holocaust.
“We were on our feet from 8 in the morning until sometimes as late at 8 at night, moving from place to place, trying to maximize our time there and see as many places as we could within the program,” said Mrs. Jarman.
They attended powerful lectures by scholars and survivors, on topics ranging from pre- and post-war politics to the role spirituality played in the lives of those who survived.
One of the presenters had taken in a family of refugees from the current war in neighboring Ukraine.
“Being close to the border made it feel like a bit more of a reality and very relevant to what we were there to study,” said Mrs. Kempker.
One of the lecturers said something Mrs. Jarman will never forget: “We’ve learned to build museums, but we haven’t learned to stop genocides.”
He also told them that there can be no education without an emotional connection.
“That’s really grown for me since we’ve had the opportunity to go to these conferences,” said Mrs. Jarman, “to help our students connect emotionally to what happened there.”
“Silent but loud”
The group visited Treblinka, a death camp where 900,000 people were killed.
They walked along a tree-lined, curving path that prison guards during the Holocaust called “the way to heaven.”
It was the road from the trains to the gas chambers.
“It’s one of those places where you feel a tremendous weight while you’re there,” said Mrs. Kempker. “We were in a forest and there were no birds chirping, no animals scurrying.
“It was silent but very loud,” she said.
They also visited the cell at Auschwitz where St. Maximillian Kolbe was held prior to his execution.
The renowned Catholic priest was among the thousands of prisoners there when one escaped. The prison guards decided to execute 10 randomly selected men to keep any of the others from escaping.
St. Maximillian offered to die in the place of one of the 10 who had a family.
“What I didn’t know until I went there was that the man whose life he saved wound up attending (St. Maximillian’s) canonization,” said Mrs. Jarman.
“Part of my purpose”
Mrs. Kempker said it took weeks for her to feel normal again after returning to the United States.
Both teachers took exhaustive notes throughout the gathering and wrote daily reflections in their prayer journals.
“Prayer was an absolute necessity,” said Mrs. Kempker. “Prayers for strength and guidance to help me remember this, to help me use this, to make it part of my purpose to help educate others about this very dark moment in history.”
After touring one of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the two teachers talked about what the hundreds of thousands of people must have been thinking right before they were put to death there.
Together, the teachers realized that the people who carried-out these atrocities were not demons or monsters but flesh-and-blood human beings.
“Human beings, just like you and me,” Mrs. Kempker stated with awe and sadness.
The teachers agreed that it’s urgent to listen to the first-person testimonies of as many survivors as possible before their time on this earth runs out.
Those who experienced the Holocaust as children are now in their mid- to late 80s.
“Humans might be kinder to each other if they could understand what this place is,” Mrs. Kempker surmised.
“This didn’t end”
Mrs. Jarman and Mrs. Kempker share a deep, indescribable bond over what they teach and what they’ve experienced through these trips to Poland.
They are convinced that teaching the unit on Night, coupled with their own firsthand observations from visiting the death camps and hopefully with testimony from survivors, helps shape their students’ worldview for the better.
“The reason we do these things is to keep the memory alive, the stories alive,” said Mrs. Kempker.
She recommended praying “that God may help all of us find the courage to stand up and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
“Pray also,” said Mrs. Jarman, “for people who think this is old history, to be aware that this didn’t end, that it continues everywhere in all different times.”