Classrooms Without Borders sends Plum teacher to Poland
For Plum High School teacher Rochelle Dunn, traveling to Poland to learn about the Holocaust was more than an educational trip.
“Just being able to be in the places where history happened was something that was meaningful to me as an educator,” Dunn said. “On a personal level, I’m Jewish, so just looking at that history from a personal perspective … I wanted to be able to visit those places.”
The trip was made possible through Classrooms Without Borders, a provider of experiential, extended-term professional development for teachers in association with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Dunn, along with 77 other educators from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio participated in an abroad study seminar July 1-9.
“Many of them don’t have a chance to travel,” Classrooms Without Borders founder Zipora Gur said of the participants. “We create a community for teaches and give them curriculum and teach them. It’s just a great program.”
The organization does three seminars a year in the summer, with Poland always on the list.
“We don’t only teach about the Holocaust,” Gur explained. “We teach about what life was like before the war and what Poland is like nowadays.”
Stops included three Nazi concentration camps: Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were built in occupied Poland during World War II between 1939 and 1945.
In the final months of World War II, guards moved camp inmates by trains or forced marches in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of prisoners. Allied forces included Britain, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, the Soviet Union, China and the United States.
According to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reports, the marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
Dunn said most of Majdanek was intact, including its gas chamber.
“You could walk in, and you’re in the place where people perished,” she said. “There were blueish stains on the walls from the chemical residue. You put yourself in that position and can almost feel the suffering of people.”
The group would have a memorial service after each visit to pay tribute to the victims. Howard Chandler, who was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944, returned to the site to share his experiences with the group. He spoke of how his family was imprisoned and killed by Nazis.
“I was just struck by the strength that he had to have,” Dunn said. “We kept asking him, ‘How did you survive?’ He said a lot of it was dumb luck. You were in the right place at the right time. Any time you got an advantage, somebody else didn’t get an advantage.”
Chandler emigrated to Canada and lives in Toronto.
Dunn observed the book of names housed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. It features the names of the victims of the Holocaust collected by the Yad Vashem Institute.
Dunn said she found dozens and dozens of Sharapans, her maiden name, and Kanterovitzs, her grandmother’s last name. Hannah Kanterovitz emigrated from Poland to Pittsburgh between World War I and II.
“It makes it real for you and more personal to see those names,” Dunn said.
Dunn, a 1984 Plum graduate, introduced the elective course, History of the Holocaust, at her alma mater last year. The class is open to juniors and seniors.
She hopes her experience in Poland and her many photos and video clips will help give more perspective to her students.
“I’m going to be able to talk more authentically about this topic because I’ve been there,” Dunn said.
Dunn was recently awarded $1,300 from DonorsChoose to purchase 30 new textbooks for her class this coming school year. She also started a paperclip project with her students last year with the goal of collecting at last 1.5 million clips to represent the number of children who perished in the Holocaust, then 5 million to represent the number of Jews who perished, and finally 11 million to represent all who died.
She said the classes have collected nearly 100,000 so far.
Classrooms Without Borders has supported more than 600 teachers affiliated with 89 schools in Western Pennsylvania since its inception in 2011.
Trips are funded through private and charitable donations. They cost about $6,000 individually with approximately $1,500 coming out the teacher’s pocket. No Plum School District funds were used for Dunn’s trip.
Educators who want to learn more about the study seminars can go to classroomswithoutborders.org.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, email@example.com or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.