Streaming Holocaust class enriches Dominican students

By Clarion Herald Staff
Photos | COURTESY ST. MARY’S DOMINICAN

In St. Mary’s Dominican High School teacher Claudia Vallejo’s Spanish III class, pairs of students gathered around laptops to view artwork by women and men in concentration camps, in ghettos or in hiding. The class connected recently via Skype with Laurie Garcia, associate director of education/outreach at the Holocaust Museum Houston.

In their study of the art of the Holocaust, students view and discuss various works of art and write reflections about the art.

One was the oil-on-canvas “Portrait of a Woman, Lodz Ghetto,” 1941 by Sara Gliksman-Fajtlowicz. Born in Lodz, Poland in 1910, she studied at the Academy of Arts in Warsaw. She joined the Union of Polish Artists in 1930 and was deported in 1940 to the Lodz ghetto, where she worked as a graphic artist.

Painting of the soul

When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, Gliksman-Fajtlowicz was co-opted into a forced labor group to clean up the ghetto ruins. Despite hunger and danger, she continued to draw. After liberation, she remained in Poland, where her works were exhibited in Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz. In 1957, she emigrated to Israel. 

“As a part of our educational programming, we wanted to offer students the opportunity to participate in a program that integrates the fine arts with Holocaust history,” explained Garcia. “Artwork plays a vital role in history, especially during periods of injustice, as it illuminates the stories of individuals and the societies in which they live.

“Artwork leaves behind an important historical record; deepens our understanding of historical events by exploring the personal experiences and messages of those impacted by violence; and highlights the transformative power of art to initiate change in our world today.

“We hope students will use the fine arts to discover the power of their voices and utilize this knowledge to become empowered ‘upstanders’ in their schools and in their community,” Garcia added.

The museum’s Art of the Holocaust program began in 2016 with the launch of Educator in Motion, a program that Vallejo’s classes have participated in for the past three years.

To date, the museum has delivered 110 sessions to more than 3,200 students in five elementary schools, 10 middle schools and nine high schools through the Art of the Holocaust program, while more than 94,500 students have been reached by the Educator in Motion programs in total.

Students gain perspective

“My purpose is to take my class beyond the physical space of a classroom,” Vallejo said. “I try to put my students in touch with different professionals and topics from our classroom to anywhere. As a Spanish teacher, I want my students to learn the language’s structure, but we also go deeper than that. I want my students to be globally aware.  I want them to realize that learning a language is to learn culture, social, political and other issues. 

“When you learn a language, you are opening your mind to knowledge, different views and other world realities. It is a unique opportunity for the students to be able to connect with Holocaust Museum Houston, learn in Spanish about a topic such as this one that makes them think and connect this subject with a relevant issue that affects them today.”

For the recent class, each student created artwork about an issue that resonated with her. The students presented their work to Vallejo and Garcia. Many of the works dealt with deterioration of the earth due to human actions, pollution and climate change.

This marked the third connection between Dominican and Holocaust Museum Houston. Previously, they have interviewed the hologram of Pinchas Gutter, a survivor of several concentration camps; discussed the book, “Turning Pages: My Life Story about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor”; and the ABC program, “All Behaviors Count: Stopping Hate. Starting Here,” which examines the five forms of social cruelty: taunting, rumoring, exclusion, ganging up and bullying. The anti-bullying program  uses contemporary commercials, storytelling and poetry to highlight negative impact.

Garcia called the interaction with Dominican students “an absolute pleasure. I always enjoy my time with the students and am so moved by their poignant response toward the material. It is incredible to have engaging conversations with students, to see the powerful connections they build between the past and the present, to hear their excellent ideas on ways they will be empowered ‘upstanders’ in their community and the world today.”

Enhancing knowledge

Virtual learning experiences increase the museum’s accessibility to schools and create inclusive learning spaces for students.

“Holocaust Museum Houston uses the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides to teach the dangers of prejudice, discrimination, hatred and apathy, and works toward a more humane society by promoting responsible individual behavior, cultivating civility and pursuing social justice,” Garcia said. “Through our educational programming and exhibitions, we encourage visitors, students and educators to examine the Holocaust and other periods of injustice and consider the role individuals played throughout this time.”       

Garcia said “the poignant testimony of Pinchas Gutter highlights the choices individuals and communities made as Jews faced persecution and violence and the dangerous implications these decisions had on the lives of others.”

She said the story of Sotomayor examined choices from a different lens.

“It underscores how our choices and actions can be used to promote equality, justice and respect for all in modern-day society,” Garcia said.

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