By Candace Kelley
Emily Bengels says she spends much of her day at Readington Middle School teaching about history, tolerance and kindness. She was chosen by the USC Shoah Foundation to visit Poland for the official observance of “Auschwitz: The Past is Present,” an event that commemorates the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. She says her students were very excited to learn she would be a part of history.
“They feel like they are going vicariously,” Bengels said.
The professional development program conducts interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. Bengels submitted a video as part of her application explaining how years before the Holocaust, her relatives in Moldava, Poland — who were farmers — would visit the train tracks.
“They would bring food to the Yeshiva Scholars that was Kosher food and the scholars would go to Warsaw,” Bengels said.
The train tracks where they met were the same tracks that took her grandfather out of Poland and saved him — and the same tracks used to carry people to their death.
“I as a teacher help children choose what train path they will go on — the path to kindness or the path to prejudice,” said Bengels.
Bobbie Downs was also selected. In her application, she explained how people in New Jersey are still rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, but it’s so easy for people to forget history.
“We don’t see every day the history and its impact on people until we choose to see it,” said Downs, a history teacher at Burlington County Alternative High School.
The teachers are a part of a select group of 25 from around the world. They will help preserve the history of the Holocaust.
While in Poland, they will attend a four-day workshop to deepen their understanding about Poland before, during and after the Holocaust.
“I want my students to see that it may have occurred 70 years ago but it really does affect us today,” Downs said.
Each year, Downs takes her students to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She says when they see history up close and personal, it always has an effect.
“As soon as we leave the Holocaust Museum, there is a silence and you can tell they are being reflective on the magnitude of it,” she said.
During their visit they will meet with a large number of Holocaust survivors. The educators plan to keep students connected by blogging about their experiences in Poland and then by bringing back everything they learned so students can experience it first hand.