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Monday, March 24, 2008

Teacher focuses on the faces of the Holocaust

By Pamela McLoughlin
Register Staff
— There are many words that could be used to describe the Holocaust, but Platt Technical High School English teacher Jeffrey Levinson isn’t about to put those words in his students’ mouths.
Levinson doesn’t teach them facts, such as Hitler came to power in 1933 or that Heinrich Himmler was the second most powerful Nazi behind Hitler.
And unless asked, he doesn’t pull out the figures, like that Nazis killed six million Jews and five million non-Jews.
Instead, Levinson sets up a poster exhibit in the classroom showing the face of the Holocaust through everyday images of the time — the worried faces of adults, the blankness of children, a town where folks are waving Nazi flags.
The graphic images of dead bodies, including of babies, are in a folder on a desk if students choose to look at them.
And a poster bearing the classic shot of thin bodies in a heap is on a desk to the side.
The assignment in this ninth-grade class is to view the exhibit, then for students to choose a word or phrase conjured by the experience, then use it in a poem, essay, acrostic or other vehicle.
“I’m not here to shock them,” he said. “I want to know what they’re feeling. Right now, I’m training them to be thinkers.”
The words students in one class came up with recently shows they are indeed thinking.
Hate, genocide, pain, cruel, sad, terrible, alone, hatred, murder, lost childhoods, scared, heartless, nightmare, tortured, anguish and one of Levinson’s favorites, “Why?’
It was Sarah Garofalo, 15, of Milford, who thought of, “Why?”
She thought Levinson’s lesson technique was powerful.
“I liked it because I think it helped us learn for ourselves,” Garofalo said. “Usually, we’re told everything.”
Posters around the room were donated years ago by the Anti-Defamation League and previously used by another teacher.
Levinson, a Jew who grew up hearing the stories of three aunts who survived the Holocaust, for many years taught Jewish education for the Jewish Federation of New Haven.
Levinson said he got an earful around the table because his aunts thought of him as both curious and really into his Judaism.
He said learning about the Holocaust is so important, because similar atrocities are still happening in places like Darfur and Tibet, and he wants students to know and feel how important it is to rise to eradicate such acts.
Platt is also a great place to apply such lessons, he said, because there are students of many ethnicities and from 22 towns and cities.
“I hope it teaches them tolerance,” he said.
Part of the required reading for ninth-grade is Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” a work based on his experience as a young Orthodox Jew being sent with his family to the German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II.
The poster images that really got to the students run the gamut.
For Kyle Healey, 14, of Milford, it was seeing a poster of children smiling and then a couple of posters down, children with blank expressions.
Levinson said the poster display has a set order and he purposely didn’t follow that pattern.
Massimo Izzo, 15, of West Haven, was bowled over by a poster depicting a town with the words “The Rise of Nazi Germany” across the top.
He found it scary seeing an entire town of people carrying Nazi flags where no one hated Hitler. Rather, they loved him.
Sebastian Arcos, 16, of New Haven, was struck like many of his peers by the children. “What they did to the children. I didn’t know they killed the babies,” he said.
One student did an acrostic of “Hitler,” with the word H for Holocaust; I for In World War II; T for tortured many people; L for lives lost; E for everyone was scared and R for Remember those who died.
Aja Scott, 14, of West Haven, was most moved by a poster of the famous poem that ends: “When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”


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