Living History: Eighth Graders in Warsaw Remember the Holocaust

Video by Mateusz Pasynkiewicz, 8th grade, American School of Warsaw

April 25, 2013

by Barbara Cervone

WARSAW, POLAND — On April 13, Poland marked the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Throughout the Polish capital, church bells rang and sirens sounded in tribute to the fighters who began the first and largest armed insurrection by Jews against the German troops in World War II. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, two uprising survivors, and other officials commemorated the event at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, a ceremony that was part of larger efforts to rally collective remembrance of those who stood up against the hatred and violence of the war, along with horrors Jews suffered.

Komorowski gave one of the country's highest honors, the Grand Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland, to 88-year-old survivor Simha Rotem. "The Nazis made a hell on earth of the ghetto," Rotem said in a speech. "Persecuting the Jews appealed to the lowest of human instincts."

For more than a decade, eighth grade students at the American School of Warsaw have gathered and produced their own tribute to those whose lives were forever changed, if not shattered, by this "hell on earth." Inspired by George Santayana's words, "Who does not remember history are condemned to repeat it," they have interviewed local survivors and turned their stories into video essays and narratives that bring the Holocaust to life, once again, and make its lessons indelible.

This year the eighth grade class—71 in all—honored 12 survivors. More than 90 percent of Poland's 3 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and a 2011 census found that there are now just 7,500 living in the country.

The student group who interviewed Barbara Góra, born as Irena Hochberg in 1932 of Jewish origin and raised in the centre of Warsaw, learned how many survivors of the Holocaust experienced a "lucky coincidence" that helped them outlive the atrocities and history. Barbara credits the Polish guard standing at the gate to her building, who cried out “Niemcy!" ("Germans!"), with giving her family the few minutes it needed to bury themselves under a pile of fur coats in the attic, escaping the soldiers' loaded guns.

Top: Barbara Góra; Bottom:Anna Drabeck


"At the end of the interview," the students write in their narrative, "Barbara added that for a girl like her, with an appropriate German appearance (Aryan looks), it took around twenty-six people to risk their lives in order to save her."

“To ile ludzi musia?o by? zaanga?owanych w ukrycie ?yda, który móg? by? ?atwo rozpoznany?" ("So how many people did it have to take to hide a Jew who could be easily identified?") Barbara repeatedly emphasized that mainly “lucky coincidences” saved her, as well as ... the kindness of other people, who even during times like the Holocaust, risked their lives to help other people. A sentence she said that stuck in our minds was, “My jeste?my dzie?mi szcz??cia." ("We are the children of fortune.")

For another group of students, the theme of endurance coursed through their interview. Anna Drabeck was only one when the war began. Her family became imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto and her father was forcibly recruited into the Red Army. For the next six years, Anna moved from one town and hiding place to another, separated from her mother, battling polio, typhoid, and starvation and gathering and burning cow dung to keep warm. When the war finally ended, the father she barely knew astonishly reappeared, followed soon after by her mother.

The students begin their tribute to the 76-year-old Ms. Drabik:

Endurance. In our privileged world, few know what this truly means. However, Ms. Anna Drabik, a survivor of the Holocaust, is one whose childhood was snatched away by the war. Faced by death, disease, and danger at every corner, she withstood all the horror and atrocities of the Holocaust and built herself a life of purpose from the ashes that remained after the war. This is her incredible story

Living History

In August of 1953, the American School of Warsaw (ASW) opened with twelve students in a humble church basement. These students were similar to today's ASW students in that they represented a wide variety of cultures and spoke nine languages: a hallmark of ASW. Founded as a private, non-profit educational institution, ASW was established to provide an English language school in Warsaw for children of all nationalities. Contributing to international good will and understanding through the school's multi-national character was a second objective. Today, the school enrolls 900 students from 50 countries.

Started eleven years ago by former teacher Linda Hoiseth, "Living History" project immerses all of the school's eighth graders in an intimate, "hands-on," two-week exploration of the experiences of Polish Jews during World War II. An interdisciplinary team of teachers guide the students, building upon the introduction to World War II students have received in their social studies class.

The students first read Elie Wiesel's Night, they watch Schindler's List, and they visit Auschwitz. Working in groups, they also interview local survivors—who shrink in number with each passing year—and turn their interviews into photostories. The students publicly present their work and what they have learned at the project's end, paying tribute as well to the individuals whose stories they have told.

Not surprisingly, the impact on students runs wide and deep.

"It's one thing to read the flat words on a page," says social studies teacher Constance McGuire. "It's another thing to sit across the table from someone who may have been a child about their age during that time of history, and to hear their experiences, especially as it relates to their family. I can't imagine a better way to develop empathy."

Reflecting on the experience, students are asked to describe their five "pivotal moments." They point, for example, to seeing at the Auschwitz Museum a huge glass display case, about the size of a walk-in closet, filled with hair cut from the heads of an estimated 140,000 victims. They always mention their interview with a survivor.

"They listen to these stories and they are amazed by the bravery and the obstacles," says Yvonne Cross who teachers language arts. "Even though they may have heard their grandparents' stories about the war, this is the closest they get to touching and being touched by the personal, human toll of the time."

Science teacher Lance Yuen, who oversees the digital elements of the project, talks about some of the seemingly small details of the survivors ' stories that invariably catch the students' attention—and hearts. One detail that troubles students is how so many of the survivors had to change their names and assume new identities, again and again, in their urgent drive to avoid detection. It defies their own growing sense of forming an identity, of becoming their name, Yuen suggests.

At the project closing ceremony this March, one student summed up the feelings of his 70 classmates. "For the past few weeks, we have discussed the politics and the dates, the statistics and the mass execution," he said. "Yet the true horror cannot be depicted within a textbook. In Schindler’s List we saw the events play before our eyes. When reading Night we heard Elie Wiesel’s voice of misery. And by visiting Auschwitz, we set foot in the reality."

Addressing the survivors in the audience, he continued:

However, we cannot experience what has passed. We may only listen. That is why I would like to thank you, on behalf of the whole 8th grade, for joining us today and sharing your memories. . . .It is our understanding, our decisions, and our actions that can ensure that no such atrocities shall occur ever again.



Shout Outs



have a story for wkcd?

Want to bring public attention
to your work? WKCD invites
submissions from youth and
educators worldwide.

Write to us


“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator