Speaker tells ‘human stories’ behind the Holocaust
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Speaker tells ‘human stories’ behind the Holocaust

Sara Losch, director of lifelong learning at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, recently wrote to congregants that “for years, I’ve heard from adults that they don’t have a legitimate education about the Shoah.”

“Many of us did not learn about it in school,” she added. “Some of us only know what we know from movies or novels.”

To address this need, the synagogue’s Elsie and Howard Kahane Holocaust Education Fund is sponsoring a three-part lecture series, “Why they did what they did: Understanding the human behavior behind the Holocaust,” led by educator Sharon Halper.

The program, employing personal narratives to explore human behavior, community dynamics, and social context, began on Jan. 13 and continues on Jan. 20 and 27.

Halper – who teaches both children and adults and has been a synagogue school director, teacher trainer, writer, and consultant – pointed out that her lecture series derives from her studies with Facing History and Ourselves, a group that “delivers classroom strategies, resources, and lessons that inspire young people to take responsibility for their world,” according to its Website, Facing.org.

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Sharon Halper

At the heart of its work is the resource book “Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior,” from which Halper has drawn her series title.

A child of refugees and survivors, the educator said the topic of the Shoah has always presented “both a particular challenge and a particular desire to convey those aspects of the Holocaust that I find compelling.”

In her talks, which she said “are not linear history and are not devoted just to the Holocaust,” she will review with attendees what the world was like “before, during, and since” the Shoah.

“It’s important to understand what early 20th-century Europe, and the U.S., looked like,” she said. “Why was Hitler elected? We need to understand not just what it was like in the 1920s but in the 1890s. Why was the turf right?”

It is also important to understand how the Jews lived, she said.

“We think of it only as a time of death. But what did it mean to live and to resist?”

Halper pointed out that, in 21st-century terms, “resistance means winning, walking away. What does that mean with respect to those who perished?”

She said she finds it compelling to look at the documents and artifacts that survived the Warsaw Ghetto, where they had “soup kitchens, gardens, and handed out recipes saying what to do with frozen cabbages.”

“What did it mean to live?” she asked, noting that she will look at “human stories.”

Halper said she would begin her first session with a discussion of the eugenics movement and the movement called Social Darwinism.

“Why was the language Hitler spoke not a foreign tongue, even in America?” she asked, noting that the United States at the time was concerned about immigration, “people who didn’t look and sound like us.”

She will move on to discuss issues such as the Armenian genocide, World War I, and Versailles, tackling questions such as “What did Hitler learn from the world around him?”

In addition, she will explore the motivation of rescuers, people who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.

In discussing the Warsaw Ghetto, she said, she will make use of the archives of the Oneg Shabbos group of scholars and others, compiled by a social scientist in the ghetto first as resource material and later – when he realized that survival was not possible – as a historical record.

Halper said three boxes, containing thousands of artifacts such as diaries and letters but also things like Purim candy and children’s school schedules, were buried around the ghetto. Two have been unearthed.

The educator, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and has written curricular materials for the Union of Reform Judaism, said that her parents came to the United States in the late 1930s from Berlin and Vienna, and her stepfather from Russia.

“There are two kinds of families,” she said of Holocaust survivors, “those who spoke and those who were silent. My family was silent. You knew you could not ask.”

The Barnert lecture series is free and open to the public. For further information, call (201) 848-1800 or e-mail ncohen1847@barnerttemple.org.

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