Maddison Webb has always found the Holocaust an interesting topic, one she wished she could learn more about. So when the opportunity arose to take the biennial Holocaust and Genocide Studies class at Chautauqua Lake Central School, Webb was intrigued and excited to learn more.
“It’s one of those topics that’s so hard to believe something like that happened,” said Webb, who just graduated from CLCS. “I just felt like there was more that I didn’t know.”
The course ended up teaching Webb more than she ever anticipated, thanks largely to a trip sponsored by the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua.
From March 17 to 19 this year, 16 students accompanied by teacher Leigh-Anne Hendrick and two other chaperones traveled to Washington, D.C., where they visited the National Mall and its museums and monuments, including the World War II Memorial and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They also toured the Capitol and the Library of Congress, and saw a show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The students will be speaking about their trip at 8 p.m. Sunday at Hurlbut Church.
One of the most eye-opening experiences of the trip was a stop the group made at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, where the class sat down with Holocaust survivor and senior Rabbi Laszlo Berkowits. Webb said listening to Berkowits’ personal story was completely mentality-changing for her.
“(For) me sitting there, I felt like he was a true hero,” Webb said. “He didn’t want sympathy. … The amount of hope and faith that he kept in himself was so incredibly moving.”
Although he was initially scheduled to talk for an hour followed by a short Q-and-A session, Berkowits spent close to two hours with the group.
“It left us all speechless,” Webb said. “None of us wanted to get up and leave. We all just wanted to sit there and interpret what was happening.”
Berkowits grew up in rural Hungary, and, in 1944, at the age of 16, was taken to Auschwitz with his parents and two younger siblings. He was the only one of his family to survive. He is currently the rabbi emeritus at Temple Rodef Shalom.
“Rabbi Berkowits’ message was not ‘These are the horrible things that happened to me,’ ” said Renee Andrews, president of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua. “His message was, ‘Through anything that happened, I had my group of friends and we stayed together and we prayed together; because we knew that by praying and by having hope, we could beat them. If we didn’t, they would beat us.’ ”
Andrews is one of four members in the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua’s designated committee that raised the funds to support the trip to Washington. She also facilitated and attended, along with her husband, the meeting with Berkowits at Temple Rodef Shalom.
“(His message was) to always have hope (and) to always find good in any situation,” Andrews said. “As his congregate for all these years, I can tell you he’s done a wonderful job of just that.”
Andrews has a personal connection to the Holocaust herself, as she lost a great-uncle in Auschwitz.
“I was very lucky,” Andrews said. “My family on both sides came (to the United States) from Germany.”
This personal connection made Andrews particularly enthusiastic to support the class and raise the necessary funds to sponsor the trip to Washington.
“We have always felt … that it is important to educate our children about the Holocaust and about what can happen if we don’t guard our freedoms,” Andrews said. “We were so impressed that in an area like western New York, that doesn’t really have much of a Jewish population at all … there was a Holocaust studies class being taught. We wanted to support this effort.”
The partnership between the Hebrew Congregation and Chautauqua Lake Central School began after Hendrick spoke in 2014 at a the Shirley Lazarus Speakers Series sponsored by the congregation.
K. Sidney “Casey” Neuman spearheaded the campaign to raise the funds to sponsor the trip following Hendrick’s talk. These funds were separate from the congregation’s annual operating fund, and the committee raised enough money to cover nearly all expenses on the trip.
(Rabbi Berkowits’ message was) to always have hope (and) to always find good in any situation,”Renee Andrews, president of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, said. “As his congregate for all these years, I can tell you he’s done a wonderful job of just that.”
“When I read their comments about the trip, it just brings tears to (my) eyes, it’s so moving,” Neuman said. “My hope as chairman of this committee is that we are able to raise enough funds to make it a continuing program.”
For Webb, the trip didn’t just teach her about the Holocaust; it taught her to open her mind.
“It encouraged me to go out and read more and talk to people and learn their stories, instead of just going by what’s in the textbooks and what’s shown to me on the news,” Webb said.
Hendrick believes these lessons make the CLCS Holocaust and genocide class especially relevant.
“Since they’ve taken this class, they see the history everywhere,” Hendrick said. “Lessons from the Holocaust have huge significance in today’s world. ”
Although initially advertised as a history class, Hendrick said the experience turned into so much more for the students.
“It turned into, really listening to people’s stories, and learning about people and developing empathy … and respect for them,” Hendrick said. “Between the election this fall and the refugee situation this year, they (now) approach those topics with a different mindset than they would have if they had not taken the class.”