Joseph Alexander and Jordanna Gessler
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MAY 1, 2017

Global Studies Students Discover the Power of Testimony

Every year, Windward Global Studies students look at a series of important concepts on a global scale. The course concludes with a unit on genocide and international responsibility, which inspires them to be upstanders who recognize when something is wrong and act to make it right.

Since 2014, Windward has partnered with USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Steven Spielberg, whose mission is “to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and hatred—and the suffering they cause—through the educational use of the Institute's Visual History Archive.” The Foundation has more than 50,000 video testimonies, each one a unique source of insight and knowledge that offers powerful stories from history that demand to be explored and shared.

At the end of their unit, students engage with the USC Shoah archived testimony of the Rwandan genocide, with an end goal of answering the following questions:

 - Why does this matter and why should we care;
 - How do we both remember and memorialize these people and their stories;
 - What does it mean to the world

Through a connection fostered by a Windward middle school family, Windward was able to partner with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) and its Director of Education, Jordanna Gessler. Jordanna and Global Studies Honors teachers Peggy Procter and Dan Walker had several conversations about the ways in which the School and the museum could collaborate on a lesson on the Holocaust, which would act as a precursor to the Rwandan genocide project.

What transpired was a wonderfully executed, two-week intensive on the Holocaust taught by Jordanna, an expert in Holocaust Studies, in collaboration with the Global Studies team.

While Windward was able to provide historical context for the Holocaust, Jordanna was able to take it a step further by linking the personal stories of Holocaust survivors with theory about genocide in general. This very important link to survivors and their stories demonstrates the importance of testimony and narrative in remembering these people and these horrific events,” said Dan.

Jordanna taught the history of the Holocaust in a way that was very engaging for students thanks in part to the wealth of information and resources she had from the museum.

Students looked at Nazi propaganda to try to understand what role it played in the years immediately prior to World War II. They also inspected various primary source documents including a letter from an American soldier who was a liberator of the concentration camps and a postcard from a synagogue from the Polish city of Lodz that showed how important the synagogue was to the people of that community in the 1910s and 1920s.

“This program exposed students to the concept of genocide through an in-depth understanding of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, as with all genocides, was an event with dehumanization at its core. The mini-course on the Holocaust allowed students a deeper understanding of the time period, as well as an opportunity to investigate primary sources from the rich collection in LAMOTH’s archive. We discussed events, theories, and patterns relating to genocide through discussing the Holocaust. For example, by exploring and learning about the 1930s and the initial years of Nazi rule, students gained an understanding of propaganda, stereotypes, hate rhetoric, segregation, identification, and ostracization. Learning about the Holocaust within the context of genocide shows how hate, discrimination, and prejudices has led to some of the worst chapters of human history,” said Jordanna.

“The Windward students demonstrated a deep level of curiosity.  Their maturity, interest, and thoughtfulness allowed us to explore themes of dehumanization, propaganda, othering, resistance (spiritual, intellectual, and physical), and human rights. I was very impressed by the way in which they studied primary sources and the way in which they grasped theoretical concepts, always asking questions that exemplified their knowledge and passion to learn.”

The trip to LAMOTH, which took place Friday, April 21, allowed students to make sense of the Holocaust in an immersive experience expertly led by museum docents who were able to tell the very human stories behind the institution’s collection of documents, artifacts, and photographs.

LAMOTH is a nonprofit organization founded by Holocaust Survivors in LA in 1961. The two main missions of the museum are commemoration and education. LAMOTH provides free Holocaust education to the public and houses a large collection of artifacts from Europe from before, during, and after the Holocaust. These are used as a tool as part of the visitors’ exploration and interaction with the material and history.

On Tuesday, April 25, Jordanna brought 94 year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Alexander to campus, who shared a harrowing story of his time spent in twelve different labor camps, the Warsaw Ghetto, and Auschwitz-Birkenau between the years of 1939-1945. When Joe arrived at Auschwitz, his left forearm was tattooed with the number 14284, which he showed the students during his presentation.

In late April 1945, Joe recalled spotting his first American tank. “We were free,” he told the students. He then departed to a displaced persons camp and eventually immigrated to the United States in 1949. Joe’s story was followed by a poignant Q & A session with the students.

“One of the key educational philosophies of LAMOTH is the importance of intergenerational-dialogue. By speaking with and learning from witnesses, we can find inspiration to create a more just world. I was so happy to watch students approach Joe after his talk, thanking him in earnest for speaking about his experiences and letting him know that they would always remember his words and message to never give up hope.  This is how we shape the future landscape of Holocaust education and remembrance, and the students at Windward are the next generation of leaders,” said Jordanna. Windward is in the process of further developing its partnership with LAMOTH, which includes working directly with Jordanna to once again incorporate her lesson into next year’s Global Studies unit.

Click here to read this story on Windward School's website.