December 10, 2019

Holocaust lessons brought live to classrooms

“When you see injustice, stand up.” 

That’s the message Paula Lebovics wants her audiences to remember. On May 13, the 81-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp shared her story in person with three young students at USC, but their discussion went much further — it was streamed live to 4,000 middle and high school classrooms worldwide, with students and teachers posing questions on Twitter using the hashtag #PastIsPresent.

The hashtag refers to the title of the event, “Auschwitz: The Past Is Present.” Hosted by Hall Davidson of Discovery Education, the program included Lucia Wiedeman, 15, a freshman at El Segundo High School; Anna Hackel, 15, a freshman at Polytechnic School in Pasadena; and Gabe Hackel, 11, a sixth-grader at Polytechnic. The three students had traveled to Poland in January as part of a group of 25 teachers and 10 students. Also on the panel were Arkansas teacher Karen Wells and Kori Street, USC Shoah Foundation’s director of education.

The program was designed to introduce students who have never met a Holocaust survivor to do so virtually, and to see themselves in the stories being told. Lebovics was an 11-year-old inmate at Auschwitz when the camp was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945. She lost her father and sister at the camp, and vividly remembers the cold January day when the Soviets marched into the abandoned complex, with only traumatized children remaining. 

“They have to know,” Lebovics said of today’s youth, “because our generation is on its way out. The next generation won’t have any more survivors taking them anywhere or telling them their stories. And they have to know, so maybe by them knowing, they can help the world to maybe eradicate those kind of crimes that took place.”

Co-sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education, the program also took students on virtual tours of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto. It is part of Discovery Ed’s Virtual Field Trip series, which in the past has included online visits to an egg farm in Illinois and a NASA space research laboratory in Maryland.

“Auschwitz: The Past Is Present” also included footage from the commemoration ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, held Jan. 27 at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Some of the older students in the group were allowed to attend because of the graphic nature of the atrocities. For Gabe Hackel, seeing even a few images from Auschwitz was frightening.

“It was intense. I know that was only just a glimpse of it, but I was still terrified of it, and I couldn’t imagine what it would actually be like for the actual people,” he said. 

Gabe said his most memorable stop on the Poland trip was the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, where he saw that many gravestones are now crooked or falling over, and realized it’s because the people who would have cared for the graves were killed in the Holocaust. 

“Standing in the cold, it kind of transported me back in time, and I still couldn’t imagine the terror they must have gone through in the Holocaust,” he said. 

When Lebovics and the students visited the recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, they found an image of her at Auschwitz — a gaunt 11-year-old girl standing in a group of identically dressed children; the photograph was taken a few days after the camp was liberated.

Lucia Wiedeman said she felt a “gravitational pull” toward Lebovics as she watched her testimony, and agreed that visiting Auschwitz with her had added an entirely new dimension to their trip.

“It’s a whole different feeling when you know someone is with you and you know someone, and then just going there and not knowing anyone,” Lucia said. “It’s as if you were at a funeral, and you don’t know the person, and it’s still saddening. And when you know the person who died, then it demonstrates a whole different type of emotion.”

Anna Hackel added that she was especially moved to hear Lebovics describe the big family dinners she’d had before the Holocaust, when she would sing at the top of her lungs to compete with a younger brother for their family’s attention. Anna said she could relate, because her own younger brother, Gabe, is also very energetic.

“Before I met Paula, I got a chance to listen to her testimony on iWitness [the USC Shoah Foundation’s online video testimonials], and being able to put a face to a Holocaust survivor made everything so much more real than the facts that were just taught in school,” Anna said.

Speaking with survivors or listening to their testimonies online helps make the stories of the Holocaust come to life, the Shoah Foundation’s Street said.

“The interaction with a survivor helps students develop their curiosity, their questions, their dialogue capacities, but it also makes history human. It gives it a human face,” Street said. “And what we find is, whether it’s a connection with a survivor in person or a survivor on the screen through iWitness, we’re getting very similar results in terms of their developing respect, critical thinking and empathy.”

Among the questions sent in by students and teachers, some wanted to know how Wells would teach the Holocaust differently after the trip to Poland. Wells responded that she would teach students about their responsibility in a global society and incorporate more survivors’ testimonies into her lessons. She recalled telling Lebovics that she didn’t understand what she had gone through, and Lebovics responded that she didn’t have to, and that her responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students know to speak out against injustice. 

“Their responsibility is to stand up, because with knowing comes responsibility,” Wells said.

One middle-school teacher wrote in to ask about how the Holocaust compares to what’s happening today with the Middle East and the terror group ISIS. Street cautioned against comparing historic events to “things that are present, that are unfolding as we go.”

But, she said, one parallel between the Nazis and ISIS is their reimagining of ancient texts, religion and history to justify murder. Another is the use of hate to galvanize and scare their followers.

“When I listen to the testimonies at the USC Shoah Foundation, people like Paula remind me that hate isn’t something we should be cultivating,” Street said. 

Davidson gave Lebovics the final word in the broadcast, and her parting message to her international audience was: “Silence is not an option.”

The entire broadcast of “Auschwitz: Past Is Present” is available at