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What Good Comes of Suffering?: Fellowship for future teachers sparks community crusade against intolerance

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One of thousands of horrifying and brutal images, a black-and-white photo from the Holocaust, shows a mother with kerchiefed head walking with her two small children. The context is vague, and you can only guess the trio’s destination—could be the market, a day with grandma, or home.

Looking beneath the shot, a terse caption dispels the mystery, and you discover with a sick feeling that the three are walking to a death camp gas chamber.

Mary Lee Webeck
Dr. Mary Lee Webeck

That vision of the two small children with their threadbare coats walking trustingly on either side of the mother, her head bowed, is almost too nauseating and terrible to let dwell in the mind. Many people would just as soon look away. And forget.

For Dr. Mary Lee Webeck, an education professor at The University of Texas at Austin, forgetting is not a choice, and for Naomi Warren, an 84-year-old survivor of three Nazi death camps, it’s not an option. Through serendipity and common missions, they came together three years ago to encourage others to remember and, in joining forces, mobilized an entire community to action.

In 2002 Warren’s family, who are active supporters of Holocaust Museum Houston, approached the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin proposing a fellowship that would allow a different group of up to 20 teachers-in-training to go to the museum each year for a week. While there, the Fellows would receive intensive instruction with scholars and survivors of the Holocaust.

Dr. Marilyn Kameen, Dr. Sherry Field and Dr. Joan Shiring agreed that the project was a perfect fit for the college, and, with Webeck, they set to work preparing a program for the first class of 12 Warren Fellows.

In addition to being immersed in stories and unforgettable images of the Holocaust, Warren Fellows from the colleges of education and liberal arts would learn how to deal with other sensitive, difficult topics with their future students, find out about resources and be offered teaching materials.

“Not a day goes by that I do not feel compelled to teach the lessons I learned during my week in Houston,” said Tarah Burris, a second-year kindergarten teacher in Houston and a Warren Fellow. “Those were lessons of tolerance, lessons of not falling into the trap of becoming a bystander when others are wronged and of not being a perpetrator oneself.

Naomi Warren

Naomi Warren, survivor of three Nazi death camps.

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“My life changed in the first moment that I heard Naomi Warren speak of her life as a victim and, more importantly, as a survivor of the Holocaust. I knew at that moment that I had a duty to her and to the millions of others to share their story.”

Even though it originated as a tribute by her family to Naomi Warren’s legacy of strength and perseverance, the fellowship also was created with the idea that big changes—the kind that transform the way human beings handle being human—start with small changes. The mission has been nothing less than to teach future teachers to present lessons that encourage their students not to become adults who sit idly by through another Serbia or Rwanda.

In the case of Webeck, a professor whose research focus includes civic education and civic responsibility as well as the impact that philanthropy can have on education, the Warren project has been an uncanny marriage of interests she’s carried for most of her life. As a lonely 10-year-old girl in Wyoming, she read “The Diary of Anne Frank” for the first time one summer and her mind whirled with questions she did not know how to ask. As she advanced through school, she eagerly waited each year for teachers to address this horrible thing called “the Holocaust,” but it remained unmentioned. Webeck assumed that because her family moved every three years for her father’s job she simply somehow was missing that lesson and it was not until college that her curiosity was satisfied.

Perhaps it was because Webeck’s father was a trailblazing mental health reformer who worked for tolerance or it could be because she pondered, with a child’s mind, the reasons for the Holocaust, but for most of her adult life Webeck has learned or taught others the importance of individual responsibility in a tolerant, civil society.

Coexistence exhibition poster
“Coexistence,” an outdoor art installation of giant posters created by artists from around the world, will be displayed in Austin on Auditorium Shores.

With her fervor for the larger questions of life and for sparking public engagement, it was probably inevitable that Webeck would spread the word about an indomitable and extraordinary woman named Naomi Warren and the College of Education’s involvement in the fellowship. From the beginning, it was something of a fait accompli that the enthusiasm of Webeck and her colleagues in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction would ignite others and the project would spread from its university boundaries.

The first to come on board was Ballet Austin, with internationally acclaimed artistic director Stephen Mills finding a kindred spirit in Webeck.

“About 18 months ago Dr. Webeck, who attends the ballet, approached me and asked if I had ever considered creating a piece built around the issues of the Holocaust,” said Mills. “Matters of social justice have always preoccupied me, and I’ve been interested in the Holocaust since 11th grade, so as it turns out, she and I were on parallel tracks. The idea of trying to create a ballet on such a complex topic seemed overwhelming, though.”

Although Mills felt initial misgivings, the project would not leave his mind, and he continued to revisit it, thinking, “Why not?”

“I knew that a ballet on this theme would need to be much more than just a pretty dance,” said Mills. “I saw this as a way of dealing with some of my social concerns, and I wanted the ballet to be presented with lots of support and educational opportunities surrounding the event. I’ve always believed that art has the power to change our lives, and this project seemed like a good opportunity to see if that is indeed true.”

A deal was struck, and Mills agreed to provide the artistic content if Webeck would handle the educational portion.

From there, interest in the project grew rapidly and Webeck found herself surrounded by eager supporters like Brent Hasty, a doctoral student in Curriculum Studies, and the staff of Houston’s Holocaust museum, all who shared her excitement and were willing to help.

I recently returned from a conference where I had a chance to hear parents describe how they lost a child through acts of terror. Innocent individuals around the world continue to suffer loss of life and limb by those who have been taught, since childhood, to hate. Judy Yudof, co-chair of Light: The Holocaust and Humanity ProjectSoon Austin Independent School District was on board, with Superintendent Pat Forgione curious to learn what the school district could do to promote the vital lessons and messages communicated through the Warren Fellowship.

With a desire to take the project’s message to the community in as many formats as possible, someone was inspired to bring “Coexistence,” a giant, outdoor poster exhibit from Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem to Austin in the spring, providing it free to the public. With more discussion, a free lecture series at The University of Texas at Austin was planned and Nobel prize-winning author Elie Wiesel agreed to speak at the end of March.

And word continued to spread.

An academic collaboration between Webeck, Hasty and liberal arts faculty members Pascale Bos, Robert Abzug and David Crew took root and organizers of the Austin Jewish Film Festival asked to reference the Holocaust project and Warren fellowship on opening night.

“Paper Clips,” a documentary which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was featured at the Austin Jewish Film Festival, provided the perfect launching point for discussing the Holocaust with children, and area teachers were invited to bring their students to view the film. The film follows a middle school in the small Appalachian town of Whitwell, Tennessee as the students pursue a history lesson on the Holocaust and decide to collect six million paper clips, each paper clip symbolizing a life lost in the genocide.

Photograph from the Holocaust of a starving child

“We…shall be compelled to destroy a third of the population in the adjacent lands. We can achieve this by systematic undernourishment which in the end gives a better result than machine guns do. Physically breaking them will be more effective especially among the young.” —German Officer Gerd Von Rundstedt, 1942

Photo: Holocaust Museum Houston

Joe Fab, the director of “Paper Clips,” was engaged to speak to Austin schoolchildren about the making of the documentary and Dr. Juanita Garcia, director of the Principalship Program at UT, used the film to teach her future principals about leadership and social justice.

The Anti-Defamation League offered its “No Place for Hate” teaching materials to Austin area instructors for use in the classroom, and documentation of the months-long Holocaust project began as well. In collaboration with Austin photographer Hannah Neal, a book was envisioned that would record the stages, processes and partnerships of the community-wide initiative.

A televised April town hall meeting on the set of Austin City Limits, hosted by journalist and commentator Linda Ellerbee, was arranged and, with support from Humanities Texas, a two-day professional development institute for high school history and middle school language arts teachers was organized.

At some intense point during the middle of the planning—perhaps right after the coexistence-themed exhibition of 11’x16’ vinyl posters was secured for a March showing on Auditorium Shores or right before the lecture on representations of the Holocaust—organizers realized that this creation, this series of events that was greater than the sum of its parts, needed a name. It was agreed that the aspiration-turned-reality would be called “Light: The Holocaust and Humanity Project.”

Somehow, a professor’s dream and a Holocaust survivor’s goal had turned into a city’s opportunity for dialogue and reflection. Enriched by broad support from the Austin community, what started as a fellowship for future teachers had amplified and broadened into a series of events that will run through April.

“In Austin, we have made a conscious decision as a community not only to abstain from acts of bigotry and hatred,” said Austin Mayor Will Wynn at a January press conference regarding the Holocaust Project, “but also not to be bystanders to such behavior. When civic dialogue begins, there are great opportunities for education and enlightenment. I hope, through this, that we make Austin a model community and send an important message to others.”

To seal the commitment, leaders of the community and participants in the Holocaust Project have signed a pledge to combat bigotry and hatred. Gov. Rick Perry and former Gov. Ann Richards, the project’s honorary chairs, were the first to place their names on the document, with project co-chairs Forgione, Tom Meredith and Judy Yudof, among others, following suit.

Just two days after the Austin press conference announcing the Holocaust and Humanity Project, the world paused to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of prisoners at Auschwitz, a Nazi “death factory” in Poland. As part of what they phrased their “Final Solution,” the Nazis killed up to 1.5 million men, women and children in the crematoria and gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau and a total of about 6 million European Jews.

I would like to make a promise to Naomi Warren - I promise to take your story and the story of so many others to the next generation, and I promise to do my part to make sure we remember the Holocaust, how it began and what it takes to prevent it from happening again. Tarah Burris, Warren Fellow and Houston Kindergarten TeacherPress coverage of the remembrance ceremonies relayed the tortured comments and tears from the ever-smaller group of survivors and the staunch vows of world leaders to remember and never again, through complicity, allow the germ of evil to grow to genocide.

But several articles also contained jarring addendums.

It was noted that Europe has for many years been experiencing a virulent resurgence of anti-Semitism, driven by the younger generation. The slaughter of thousands in Bosnia and Africa was invoked in stories as evidence that memories do seem to fade and nightmares may be forgotten. And in a recent piece about a remembrance ceremony in Dresden, Germany, at least half of the article was devoted to explaining why the German National Democratic Party leader expressed admiration for Hitler and was quoted as saying, “Only a great leader can commit great crimes.”

To a kindergarten teacher looking out on a dozen innocent faces, it could seem like the bad news is so big it swallows up hope, and it could feel like an exercise in futility to unfurl a lesson on the Holocaust or devote bits of time here and there to talk of tolerance.

Warren Fellows like John Mark Crane, though, would argue that the classroom is the perfect place to begin.

“If I teach just 100 children the responsibility they have to make the world safer and more humane and even half of them listen and are brave enough to act on that,” said Crane, a member of the 2004 group of Fellows, “society already has been improved. Like me, I hope they learn never to forget.”

Kay Randall
Office of Public Affairs/College of Education

Photo of Dr. Webeck: Marsha Miller

Photo and video of Naomi Warren courtesy Holocaust Museum Houston

Photos from banner graphic: Jewish Virtual Library:
View of fence at Auschwitz and Child survivors at Auschwitz

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  Updated 2005 May 16
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