By Kris Martins
For J. Stern, Opelika native, the Holocaust is more than a history lesson at school. It’s the reason he is alive in the United States.
In 1937, his father and five other family members boarded the last ship — the S.S. Washington — that allowed Jews to leave Nazi Germany after his great uncle begged them to come to Opelika where he had lived since the early 1900s.
The city welcomed the family with open arms, J. Stern said. His father, Henry Stern, was six years old when he boarded the ship and spent years of his life searching for other Sterns in phonebooks, thinking no one else had survived.
That was the case for most of the family, he believes, as communication between the family members abruptly cut off at a point in the war. But Henry Stern did reconnect with one of his cousins in 2004, after decades of searching.
The Holocaust always made his father emotional, J. Stern said, so early on he didn’t talk about it much with his family. But later in life Henry Stern gave Holocaust presentations at schools, including Opelika Middle School teacher Kathryn Gholston’s class.
Henry Stern died in 2014, but it’s stories like his that Gholston and others are working to keep alive through education.
Last summer, she and her colleague Patricia Skelton completed a three-day workshop for teachers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that gave them tools and teaching materials to bring Holocaust education to their classrooms.
Skelton, who teaches history and English, will introduce Holocaust literature to her sixth-graders for the first time this spring.
“We’ve got the Syrian refugees right now, so we’re going to be able to apply and show that even though this was horrible, it happened, we need to learn about it for this very reason. … There’s still events happening all over the world,” Skelton said.
Nonfiction Holocaust literature such as “Salvaged Pages” offers a child’s perspective that students can relate to, Gholston said, which in turn helps the story resonate.
Aside from the numerical facts and atrocities of the Holocaust, Gholston wants students to understand the foundation that led to the mass killing of six million Jews.
“How you get from discrimination to prejudice to extermination,” she said. “Just getting the kids to realize their choices are important and what they do matters. And when you stand up for something, it means something. And when you let somebody be discriminated or made fun of … what does that say about you? Then you become part of the problem.”
Though Gholston has taught on the Holocaust in her class before, she wants to incorporate more writing and a greater variety of literature next semester.
In introducing Holocaust history, Skelton strives to teach her students empathy and to apply lessons from history every day as they work to improve society as future leaders.
“It’s a hard lesson, but I think this program is going to help us teach kids to become more tolerant and more empathetic, and that’s so important,” Skelton said.
Students should learn both sides of the Holocaust — its effect on Germany and Jews — especially with the rise of Holocaust deniers, J. Stern said.
“If you don’t remember your history, you’ll relive it,” he said. That was the reason his father began speaking about it. “He did not want the youth of today to not understand and know what was going on.”
And education, Gholston added, plays a role in preventing something similar from happening.
“It stems from ignorance and fear, and so the only way you can combat that is with education and just getting these kids to just connect to somebody who is different from them,” she said. “But really, we’re not really different from each other.”