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Everest district teens create Holocaust book
August 31st, 2012
A visit to the site of a German Nazi murder camp like Dachau can be a powerful experience for anyone. But such a visit — part of a school trip to Europe — had a personal meaning to Ryan Eisenman, 17, from the area of Weston, Wis.
Eisenman was serving as the student editor of a 750-page oral history book, “Witnesses and Survivors: The Story of the Holocaust,” that was published by the D. C. Everest School District and unveiled in July.
At the reception and celebration of the book held at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee on July 31, Eisenman told the audience that his visit to Dachau in June “put the project into perspective for me.”
And he told The Chronicle in an interview afterward that this project he had been helping to work on for three years was being done “to preserve” the stories of survivors.
“It is so amazing,” Eisenman said, “that [survivors] were able to rebuild from that [experience]” and have “the strength they have now.”
More than 100 people attended the reception at the JCC — about 40 of the 80 students who worked on the project, D. C. Everest School District teachers and officials, some guests like Rabbi E. Daniel Danson of Mt. Sinai Congregation in Wausau, and many of the 72 Holocaust witnesses, survivors, and children of survivors, living in Wisconsin and elsewhere, that students had interviewed for the book.
Milwaukee’s Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education and Resource Center had been consulted by the project’s workers from its beginning. At the reception, HERC director Bonnie Shafrin was guest speaker, and she paid tribute not just to this project, but to it being the 22nd such oral history book created by students under the direction and supervision of faculty in this school district.
“This event is about the power of education,” she said. “About teachers who want students to learn more than what is in the textbook” and “students who want to go beyond what is required.”
And she told the students, “You have become witnesses to the Holocaust in your own right… You honor lives cut short through no fault of their own” and “celebrate those who survived.”
The district is located south of Wausau. It includes the communities of Weston, Rothschild, Mosinee, Hatley, and Ringle; and educates some 6,000 students, few of whom are Jewish.
Paul Aleckson is the social studies coordinator for the district and the primary faculty member who works with this project.
In an article he wrote about the project for the March 2011 Perspectives on History journal, published by the American Historical Association and available online, he stated that the project began in 1998 as a way to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of Wisconsin’s statehood.
At that time, he wrote, a group of social studies teachers received a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council to conduct interviews with the area Hmong community about its members’ immigration to the U.S. from Laos. That first project, Aleckson wrote, “has been the cornerstone for all of the oral history books that have followed.”
Since then, students have interviewed and created oral history books about veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq wars; plus memories of the 1920s through 1960s, Wisconsin women, Wisconsin’s Indians, and other subjects.
The endeavor has received national recognition. In January 2010, the American Historical Association gave the project the Beveridge Family Teaching Award.
In all cases, creation of the books is integrated into the curriculum and an extracurricular club that involves after school and summer work. Participants often begin work when in the eighth grade, as did Eisenman, and they immerse themselves in the subject before they arrange to interview people.
Aleckson wrote that the after-school club “does all of the work to create the publication,” creating a digital text with photographs that is sent to the printer, Roto-Graphic Printing.
Eisenman said Aleckson selected him to be the student editor-in-chief because “I’m a hard worker and I’m interested in history.” He conducted some interviews himself, kept track of all the others, read all the drafts, and wrote brief biographies of the subjects, he said.
Aleckson wrote that students learn about so much more than the subject of each book. They come to “see history as relevant and meaningful in their lives,” to “see connections to the larger world that are not apparent in the artificial classroom setting,” to learn “the value of teamwork and the importance of getting along with fellow workers” and “how to work under pressure and meet deadlines.”
And they learn the satisfaction of a job well-done. “To see it and look at it and page through it is a great feeling,” said Eisenman.
But this project especially is appreciated well beyond the school. “I think it is phenomenal,” said Shafrin in an interview in her office Aug. 7. “There are very few high schools able to do such an ambitious project.”
Survivor Ruth Meador, one of the people interviewed, told the students (in a blurb printed on the book’s back cover), “I’m so proud of you … for doing this project. Too many people have denied, forgotten, or misunderstood the Holocaust and its implications for today’s world.”
And another survivor whom the students interviewed, Nathan Taffel, told The Chronicle at the reception that it was particularly “meaningful” to him that “this was created and done by non-Jewish people… They did a beautiful job and I’m glad to be here to participate.”
The book costs $20. It and other books in the series may be purchased through the website www.dce.k12.wi.us/srhigh/socialstudies/histday/.