Holocaust survivors offer educators teachable moments

Peter Krohn stood before a room of strangers and divulged deeply embarrassing behavior that was part of his complicated and traumatic history as a Holocaust survivor.

Krohn told how, during the years after fleeing his native Italy with his parents as a young child, he would try to hide his Jewish and German heritage from peers, sleep face down to flatten his “Jewish nose,” distance himself from his parents and try to blend in with his non-Jewish surroundings.

Olga Winkler photo/shoshana hebshi

Similarly, Elaine Leeder fled the darkness that enshrouded her family as soon as she could in order to escape the cloud of the Holocaust hanging over her father, who was the only member of his family to survive the Nazi execution of Lithuanian Jews.

Olga Winkler, now 90 and living in Santa Rosa, can transport herself immediately back to the last night she and her family stood together outside their home in Hungary before fleeing the Nazis and separating into small groups to hide. She is emotional when she tells the story because it’s still so vivid.

But she tells it, as do the others who make up the Story Project of Sonoma County, to reach young people and their teachers with the intention of creating a more empathethic, compassionate society where something as grotesque as the Holocaust could never again occur.

The Story Project, led by retired Rancho Cotate High School social studies teacher Flora Lee Ganzler, has been visiting Sonoma County schools for a year, bringing a speaker — a Holocaust survivor or child of a survivor — into classrooms to share their stories and connect with the students.

“We’re hoping to be a positive force to bolster the message of inclusivity schools are already working on,” Ganzler said. “Since the survivors are focused people who have experienced the other end of not being included in society, they are speaking with that authentic voice.”

The Story Project formed in September 2015 as an education committee from a larger group. Members include educators, health care professionals and Holocaust survivors who live in Sonoma County. They visit classrooms from fifth to 12th grade and are continually working to tweak their presentations to be most effective at getting their message across, Ganzler said.

Peter Krohn tells his story of survival to Sonoma teachers. photo/shoshana hebshi

“As somebody who taught U.S. history, some of the best experiences kids told me about was having a Pearl Harbor survivor, having someone who had been in Auschwitz, someone who had served in Vietnam, someone who had been interned in the Japanese camps during World War II. It helps to develop their compassion,” she said. “Teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic is good, but the other piece is creating compassionate citizens.”

To give area educators a taste of what the Story Project offers, several members hosted a panel at the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Equity at the Core conference on Nov. 1 in Santa Rosa. During two hour-long sessions, survivors delivered shortened stories, answered questions and encouraged teachers to bring the Story Project into their classrooms.

Kate McGerity, a social studies teacher at Rancho Cotate in Rohnert Park and a member of the Story Project, said through interactions with her colleagues at the conference she was reminded of the relevance of the speakers’ message.

“History is not inevitable, but instead is open-ended and we, as teachers, can continue to provide examples of lessons … to help develop conversations about tolerance, empathy, responsibility and valuing of diversity in our schools,” she said.

Bullying, alienation, assimilation and immigration are not novel topics regarding the American experience, but having open discussion about them on school campuses has become more prominent Conversations about these difficult     subjects need to be ongoing, said McGerity, and each member of the Story Project hopes to instill awareness in the students about how they can stand up to abuse of power, threatening behavior, indifference and bigotry.

“Our speakers remind the students — rather then treating one another indifferently, they need to take the responsibility to value the diversity in their school community,” McGerity said.

While the Greater Bay Area educational community has many available resources to enhance Holocaust education in schools, the Story Project is the only local resource in Sonoma County delivering this type of message directly to classrooms, according to organizers.

Ganzler said the group doesn’t have current plans to extend its reach beyond county lines, but in the future members could travel north to Mendocino or Lake counties where there is a shortage of this type of organized classroom enrichment.

As a self-funded and self-directed group, the Story Project is limited by resources, but hopes to expand its speakers to include representatives from other groups that have experienced genocide, including Cambodians, Rwandans and Armenians.

Last school year, the Story Project visited 10 schools. This year, especially after the warm response at the equity conference, members will visit more schools and deliver more presentations, including to the California Teachers Association. They will also visit many different kinds of classrooms, not just history and social studies, but life skills, English and psychology classes.

“I’m here to be a voice for those of us who were lucky enough to escape,” Krohn said. “The walls of our prison were fear, anxiety and the feeling of not belonging.”

Added Winkler: “It’s so important that we get to the children, to the students, to tell them what the world is about, to do away with all of this.”


The Story Project of Sonoma County
is online at storyprojectsite.wordpress.com.