By Christina Sahovey
One of the most tangible outreach initiatives that the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh does (and sadly something that has been put on hold for now) are welcoming groups of students through our doors, as they come on field trips. This is one of the Center staff’s favorite activities, too. We have seen some students be moved to tears, and other students who arrive seeming apathetic but then see or hear something with which they truly connect.
When groups arrive, we usually start out with a brief introduction about the Holocaust Center. This is often followed by a speaker. While in the past we usually had a survivor address groups of students, in recent years we have shifted primarily to Generations Speakers – the children, grandchildren, and other relatives who keep their family legacies alive by telling their survivor relative’s stories. Pittsburgh has an amazing, dedicated, passionate cadre of between 5-10 speakers or speakers “waiting in the wings,” as they are currently working on compiling their family stories into a presentation and working on their delivery style when they tell the story to groups. While they lack the first-hand experience, the Generations speakers also have the unique perspective of adding into the story what their relationship with their survivor relative was like and how it shaped them in life. Just snippets of our Generations speakers include: Lynne Ravas, who tells the story of a young Jewish orphan saved by a couple in New York; Chana Brody’s story which not only includes that of her parents’, both of whom were survivors, but also her own early life living under communism in the former Czechoslovakia; Emily Loeb tells the story of her grandmother, a young athlete, living in a secular culture in Germany; Alison Karabin’s story about her grandmother surviving the horrors of Auschwitz and the Volary death march; and Susan Hawkins, who shares her parent’s stories of survival, but also her own travels back to her mother’s and father’s homelands years after the war. We also very lucky to have the duo of Lee Fischbach, the daughter of a survivor, who speaks alongside her father, Oscar Singer, one of the few remaining camp survivors in Pittsburgh willing to address groups. (To see and hear some of our incredible Generations Speakers, check out this page: https://hcofpgh.org/generations-speaker-series/)
After the speaker, the students are often broken up into two smaller groups, with one going into to the front gallery for the temporary exhibit and one staying in the back. The groups are then led on a tour of the galleries – including the Butterfly Wall, library, and art and artifacts on permanent display in the rear of our space. Oftentimes the painting “ANNE” by Mitzi Trachtenberg makes a lasting impression with the students. It is not uncommon for a student to come up to a staff member and ask what it means. After we ask them if they know who it is (so far, everyone has been able to identify Anne Frank!), we ask them to look at the art and think about it – why does the star get bigger? Why do you see less of Anne’s image? – they get it. That it’s all about a loss of her identity, and the significance of labeling her only as “Jude.” This is always incredibly rewarding for us!
We’ll show them the display case with the artifacts, explaining the significance of the artifacts and taking their questions. We will also show them the “Ten Stages of Genocide” and “Holocaust Victim Groups” poster, too, which often leads to a lot of surprise. For example, students are often surprised to hear of Jehovah’s Witnesses being a victim group (we also get to interject a bit of local history here, and tell that the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious movement, Charles Taze Russell, was born right here in Pittsburgh’s North Side!). They also get to see the Memory Room, which houses the lighted glass wall with names and families and the towns or cities from which they came carved into it, and a piece of art made by the daughter of a Tree of Life first responder. The glass wall is also an effective teaching tool, as it lists the countries where the families once lived – showing students just how wide-reaching the Holocaust was, and how many countries in Europe (including ones they often do not think of, like France, Greece, and The Netherlands) were affected.
The students also get to see whatever exhibit is currently in the front gallery space, which rotates every few months. Currently, the exhibit is “For You Were Strangers: Jewish Immigration to Pittsburgh, 1880-1910. Past exhibits in the 2019-2020 school year school groups coming through our doors have had the opportunity to see included “Art from the Holocaust” an exhibit from Yad Vashem, and “Optic Voices: Roots” by Pittsburgh-based photographer, filmmaker, and Emmy Award-winner Emmai Alaquiva .
Some schools add other programs to their time with us, including hearing a presentation by our wonderful colleague Marcel Walker on the CHUTZ-POW! Superheroes of the Holocaust comic book series. He’ll give a presentation about what it’s like to make the comic, how the profiles of stories featured are selected, and incorporate his own story of how he became a comic artist into the program. He’ll then often give our complimentary copies and even autograph them after taking the students’ questions. Many school groups also travel the 5-10 minutes to Community Day School to see the Gary and Nancy Tuckfelt Keeping Tabs: A Holocaust Sculpture. The Holocaust Center maintains a wonderful partnership with Community Day, where their 8th grade student docents meet the school groups once they’ve left the Center and arrived on campus, and those student docents give the tour to the visiting students – giving those Community Day students a source of pride and responsibility, as well as an opportunity to hone their public speaking and leadership skills.
We also have a generous grant from the Grable Foundation which allows us to give scholarship funds to schools that meet certain criteria, to cover bus and substitute teacher costs. In the 2019-2020 school year alone, we have welcomed visits from 20 different middle schools and high schools come through our doors and a grand total of 572 students! Of those 20 schools, six received funding from the Grable Grant program. These schools include public, charter, private, Catholic, Jewish day schools, intermediate units, and homeschool groups. They have come from a total of 9 counties in our commonwealth, representing Allegheny, Washington, Westmoreland, Indiana, Fayette, Greene, Beaver, Mifflin, and Buter counties; the school that traveled the farthest to come here came from Mifflin County Junior High School – a county past Harrisburg, and a three-plus drive each way to and from Pittsburgh! (In past school year, we have also had school groups come from West Virginia and Ohio, as well.) Also notable, Freedom Area Middle School in Beaver County brough over 120 students to the Center back in December! They came in two separate groups of about 60-65 kids over a two-day period in one week. It is also worth noting that many of these school groups come from rural areas which do not have much of, if any, Jewish population. We have heard students say that they had never met a Jewish person until coming to the Holocaust Center; for some, just coming to Squirrel Hill may be their first introduction to a large Jewish community.
While it is unknown if we will be able to welcome any more school groups this year or when we would start up the field trips again, we welcome any interest from educators in the meantime! If you are a parent, feel free to share this information with your child’s teacher; similarly, if you know a teacher, feel free to pass this information along to them. (More information can be found here: https://hcofpgh.org/field-trips/).