Talking about the Holocaust is hard, emotional work, says teacher Lisa McGowan. But she believes it’s important work.
That’s why she devotes about a month of every school year to exploring the historic tragedy through literature with her sophomore English students at Tacoma Baptist High School. She also helps students understand how what happened during the 1940s relates to their world today.
“These kids are the last generation who will be able to hear the (survivor) stories firsthand,” McGowan said.
In time, all the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps will die. Then, only the young people who have heard or read their stories will be left to remember.
McGowan’s sophomores read “Night,” the haunting memoir by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. They learn about propaganda and stereotyping, how the Nazis employed the techniques, and how the techniques appear in modern media. They produce art projects that relate to themes from the Holocaust. They write essays and submit them to a scholarship contest.
McGowan said growing up as a white girl on the Colville reservation in Eastern Washington helped shape her views on the importance of teaching teens literature that focuses on social justice.
Although she spends a lot of time on the Holocaust, she also has her students read other works that explore inequities throughout world history.
They read “Cry the Beloved Country” by South African author Alan Paton, “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, and “The Scarlet Pimpernel” by Baroness Emmuska Orczy.
“My goal,” McGowan explained, “is to help them become aware of what is happening, and what will continue to happen, unless they start making a stand.”
She relates the experiences of the characters in the books her students read to modern lives – talking about everything from bullying and prejudice among teens to the genocide in Rwanda.
As a teacher at a Christian school, McGowan also infuses her lessons on history and literature with those from the Bible.
“Scripture says that if something is wrong, we are not to tolerate it,” she said.
Last summer, McGowan attended a seminar on the Holocaust sponsored by the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation. She was one of five teachers who traveled to Chicago, visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie and met with survivors of the Nazi era.
“One was a 7-year-old boy, who was hidden in a women’s barracks,” she said. “Another was an 8-year-old who was hidden in an attic, alone.”
Still others talked about the brutal life they endured in the camps.
“After two and a half hours, we were all sitting there in tears,” McGowan remembered.
She brought the experience back to her classroom. She invited a Holocaust survivor to speak to her students for the first time this year.
Thomas Lenda, of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, visited her classes last month. In 1942, when Lenda was 6, his family was sent to Terezin Concentration Camp and separated. Three years later, they were reunited.
The Tacoma Baptist students were moved.
“Hearing it firsthand, you could see his emotions,” 16-year-old Clarissa Gregory said. “It was really sad to hear everything he went through.”
“It makes it more real. It opens your eyes,” 15-year-old Colleen Tobin said. “I don’t think it seems that long ago.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
When: 6-8 p.m. March 25
Where: Tacoma Baptist School gym, 2052 S. 64th St., Tacoma
Details: Lisa McGowan’s students will display projects based on themes from the Holocaust. Student photography and artwork also will be displayed, and the school band will play chamber music. The show is open to the public.