Summer program helps Otsego teachers with Holocaust class

By: 
Daniel Pepper Staff Writer

Otsego High School students will again have a chance to take an elective course on the Holocaust.
“For me, I’ve been interested in it because I have a hard time wrapping my head around how people can be so mean or how a few people can be so good,” teacher Lori Laughlin said.
Students have agreed, making the class a popular elective, which was discontinued because the Social Studies department didn’t have room to teach it. Laughlin wanted the English Language Arts department to step in and she and English/French teacher Julie Trahan spent a week this summer taking a course at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills and Laughlin will be teaching the course the fall and spring trimesters.
Trahan said students always respond to it.
“I do a lot of literature units about that,” she said. “They always seem very interested.
“It’s so powerful, it’s probably the most powerful literature I’ve ever read.”
The summer class was hosted at the memorial and included 19 teachers, including Catherine Hellman of Allegan High School and Corey Harbaugh of Fennville High School.
The teachers met a pair of women who’d survived the Holocaust as children.
Trahan said it was heartbreaking to hear the stories from the women, one of whom was in a death camp and one of whom was hidden in an attic by a farmer.
“I’d have thought that to be in hiding was better than being in a camp, but no, the way she talked about the fear and how it was, it wasn’t any easier,” Trahan said.
The women told their stories, but spent time cheering up the people who heard them.
“She’s just happy,” Trahan said. “She says ‘I’m okay now. I’m wonderful.’
“That helps.”
Both, Laughlin said, expressed a lot of gratitude to the United States for allowing them to emigrate after the war. Their previous countries, she said, had taken everything away from them.
“They were very happy to be here in America,” Laughlin said. “I think people take that for granted when you were born here.”
One of the women thanked the teachers for taking the course.
“She said she was grateful to us that we were there to learn about it and then would go out and teach about it,” Trahan said.
Laughlin said, “I think that’s what she wants and why she does this, so people will speak about it.”
The survivor, Trahan said, told them she hadn’t told anyone about what had happened to her, not even her husband.
“She wasn’t in a camp, so she didn’t have a tattoo,” Trahan said. “She hadn’t spoken about it for years and then she heard something on the news about neo Nazis.
“She heard that and she thought she had to say something, so people would understand why we don’t want there to be neo Nazis.”
The teachers took the class at the museum and learned not only about the Holocaust and what happened, but also about resources to use in their classes.
On Friday night, the teachers all went to a synagogue to see a service where they were warmly welcomed.
“They say they start with life and they end with life,” Trahan said. “We want to do that with the class.
“We want to have a buffer at the end, maybe 10 minutes, so the kids can decompress.”
The teachers intend to tie in the lessons to present-day.
“We’re going to approach it looking at the difference between a bystander and an up stander,” Laughlin said.
She also plans to discuss contemporary discrimination and things happening, for instance the recent incident near South Haven where three teens are accused of painting a swastika on a Jewish summer camp.
“We’ll be bringing in examples as we go and asking kids ‘What do you see happening out there?’” Laughlin said. “What can you do about it?
“Not doing something is doing something. It’s what can we take from that and apply today?”
Laughlin singled out something  she learned about the people who ran the Nazi’s death camps.
“The people were so highly educated,” she said. “That was an eye-opener for me.
“I’ve always thought the more educated you are, the less likely you’d be to do that, but that is not the case.”
One thing she plans to do is maintain a strict rule of trust within the classroom.
“The safety and what happens in the classroom stays in the classroom,” Laughlin said. “If you read something that makes you break down and cry, no one can mention it outside the class.
“I’ll tell them, ‘I hope you all break down in tears. Not that I want you to feel bad, but I want you to feel.’”
The students will read two novels, “Night” by Elie Weisel and a second of their choice.

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