Local teacher comes back from an educational trip to Poland

PITTSBURG — Reading about the Jews who faced extermination by Germany’s Nazi regime is one thing, but going to where it happened is an experience which is “difficult to put into words.”

Angela Lewis, a Pittsburg Community Middle School 8th grade English and Language Arts teacher, recently came back from a trip to Poland made possible through Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Israel which uses curriculum called Echoes and Reflections. The organization is a joint partnership of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem.

“This experience is very difficult to put into words,” she said. “I saw what I have read in history books and in the novels I have read. I now understand so much more.”

Lewis now understands, “that Auschwitz and Birkenau are two different camps, why the Jews were told to bring dishes (deception once again), how small the cattle cars were. I saw Auschwitz-Birkenau, the latrines, the cattle cars, the pits made for bodies, the synagogues, the Jewish cemeteries, the hospital where Dr. Mengele performed his experiments, the forests that lead to death, the infamous railroad leading into Birkenau, the infamous sign at Auschwitz that reads ‘Arbeit macht frei’-works sets you free, the ovens, the gas chambers, the grill, monuments, the barbed wire, Schindler’s Factory and so much more,” she listed. “I would not have been able to have this experience if it weren’t for the Echoes and Reflections grant in which I am very thankful.”

Lewis is one of 25 teachers across the United States selected to participate, where she learned about the Holocaust. 

“As an educator, I feel it is important to be a lifelong learner; there is always room to grow in all subject areas,” she said. “Traveling abroad is an opportunity to experience another culture, and see the world through multiple lenses. 

“It’s a chance to meet people, share ideas, and prepare for the upcoming school year. It’s the jumping off point for an international adventure of travel, cultural exchange, and personal enrichment unlike any other.”

Lewis said she has read many books about the Holocaust, and many of her students do as well. During book fairs at the school there would always be Holocaust books for sale, which the children pick up and read. Every Tuesday Lewis also has a conference with each of her students in the library to discuss the books they are reading. 

“After my in depth study in Poland, I feel I can have a much deeper and more knowledgeable discussion with them,” she said. “I have walked the same paths as the Jews, stood in the same cattle cars, touched the same barracks, and have even been in the cemeteries in which they were buried.” 

Each of the teachers were assigned a Holocaust victim to research before they arrived in Poland. The teachers gave a presentation in Poland about each of their victims. 

Technically, Lewis had two victims assigned to her, but the couples love intertwined them as one. She chose to do a two voice poem to share their story. 

“Since the person I was assigned found true love at Auschwitz, I needed to find a way to present the voice of each victim in this Romeo and Juliet type story,” she said. “In the poem I created, both victims’ voices were heard. 

“Practicing my poem at home was fairly easy, but delivering the poem in front of a gas chamber/crematorium at the camp where the person I researched was put to death, was quite different.”

Lewis listened to the other teachers’ stories. One teacher sang a song in front of a river, another teacher made a foldable (a three-dimensional, interactive graphic organizer), one teacher gave a narrative. 

“Each teacher had a unique way of presenting which is something I am able to take back to my classroom,” she said. 

Many of these stories will be forever remembered by Lewis and the other teachers, she said. 

Her leader also shared several stories, “focused on the victims whom have no voice rather on the perpetrator,” Lewis said. Photographs accompanied the stories, putting a face to each person. 

“As we listened, we were often standing near a pit meant for the Jews, in a Jewish cemetery, in the woods on the path Jews walked, at a death camp, or near a monument built to remind us never to forget,” Lewis said. “Each story was harder and harder to imagine, especially when it was about children.”

One story in particular will always remain in her heart, Lewis said. Their group was at a memorial for Polish people who were deemed righteous among the nations, individuals who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II as they faced extermination by Germany’s Nazi regime. 

“In short, there were eleven people hiding in an attic of a farmer and his wife,” Lewis said. “The wife did not want to hide any Jews because if the Nazis found out, it would be sudden death for the two farmers.

“The husband demanded they hide the eleven Jews. So they did — for two years.”

During this time, the seven children and four adults could not come downstairs and out of hiding, Lewis said. One child and one adult died while hiding. 

How did Sheryl know this story so well? 

“The six year-old girl in hiding was her mother,” Lewis said. “The farmer became righteous among the nations, and if it weren’t for his bravery, Sheryl would not be here today to tell the story.” 

During one of the tour presentations at Birkenau, “a tall, lanky man” named Harold walked to their circle and sat down and joined in with the audience. It turns out he was a teacher too, and he had quite a story to share. He asked to join their tour and quickly became part of the group once approved. The group spent more time at the camp, and near the end of the tour there was a ceremony near a pond containing many of the ashes of those killed at Birkenau. 

“Harold was attentive and thoughtful and made his way out of the camp with the rest of us on our way to lunch,” Lewis said. “Before getting on his bicycle, which was loaded down with camping equipment, he stopped to thank us.

“It was clear in his demeanor that he came to Birkenau with incredible sincerity. This was made all the more apparent as he told us that when he was a young man, he found out that his grandfathers were extremely active in the Nazi party.”

One of his grandfathers was a member of the SS-Totenkopf, better known as the Nazi Death Heads, the men who ran the extermination camps, Lewis said. 

“This realization was traumatic for him as a child and through many years of therapy, he has been coming to terms with his family’s legacy,” she said. “Harold has been traveling by bicycle from camp to camp to learn more about the people who his grandfathers had hated so much. “He stated he is not a child of his family, but rather a child of the world. 

“Before Harold walked away, he tightly hugged Sheryl, our guide, who is a descendent of Polish Holocaust survivors. It was a moment when we all put down our cameras and watched.”

This was the fourth trip Lewis took this summer. During the other three trips she was accompanied by Lynette Wescott, a PCMS sixth grade social studies teacher. The two teachers wrote grants together and were approved to travel to New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Last year, Lewis and Wescott took a tour to Belfer National Conference for Education and the Freedom Foundations at Valley Forge. They also participated in the Korean War Digital History Project. They also visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  

“I am a life-long learner who wants to experience and learn like my students,” Lewis said. “I want to become the student on my journeys and experience it like they would. 

“As I head back to school Monday, I know I am rejuvenated and refueled and ready to take on the school year. Never forget.”