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Summer Travels Lead To ‘The Making Of A Holocaust Educator’



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Summer travels have led Newtown High School social studies teacher Rachel Torres to being excited for the 2019-20 school year: She documented traveling to Lithuania and Poland while learning about the Holocaust.

Ms Torres kept track of her travels through an online blog, torrestopia.blogspot.com.

On the first day of her trip, July 14, she announced she had arrived safely after a flight to Moscow, then Lithuania.

“I settled in and decided to venture out to the streets of Vilnius on my own. The hotel is located in the ‘Old Town,’ and the history and architecture is breathtaking,” the first day’s blog post reads. “I want time to slow down so I can take this all in. This feels so surreal to me. I have never been to Europe, and I am overwhelmed by the amazing opportunity I have been given. Tomorrow, the rest of the group arrives, and the work begins.”

Weeks later, while reviewing her memories from the trip at The Newtown Bee’s office, Ms Torres still seamed breath-taken with the experience.

She called her blog “The Making of a Holocaust Educator.”

While her travels began on July 14 with the first blog post, her adventure began months before. She was dedicated to helping NHS fulfill the Connecticut Holocaust and Genocide Education Awareness Act standards.

“I had become really interested in seeing how I could incorporate that mandate more fully into my classroom,” Ms Torres said, explaining that all public schools in Connecticut need to meet the new act’s standards since it was passed in 2018.

So in June, she attended a two-week seminar for educators at The Olga Lengyel Institute (TOLI) in New York City.

From there, as she documented in a post on July 12, she became “an unlikely Holocaust Educator,” as she is of Puerto Rican descent, born and raised in the Bronx.

“Fast forward 35 years, and now I’m a high school history teacher,” she wrote. “I’ve taught in several school districts, two of urban demographics. Where I teach now and will be the place I will eventually retire from, is at Newtown High School, in Sandy Hook, CT.”

Ms Torres said people do not need to be “of a particular culture to feel empathy... We all understand suffering, pain.”

The post further explains that after an anti-Semitic remark was made toward one of her students, Ms Torres became that student’s advocate. The incident led her to the University of Hartford’s “Teach for the Future: Holocaust and Genocide Education in the 21st Century” conference in October of 2018.

“With the new [Connecticut] state law mandating educators to teach about the Holocaust, I wanted to equip myself with the latest information on how to effectively implement this significant historical topic,” Ms Torres wrote.

After the conference, she learned about a then upcoming trip to Lithuania and Poland. From “Day 1” to “Day 13,” as she titled her blog posts, Ms Torres documented her travels and all she learned about on her journey.

“Often the Holocaust is reduced to a number... My experience taught me that it’s not a number. These are people who lived ordinary lives like you and me, had a culture, made contributions to society throughout Europe, had children, they were teenagers... They were just regular people,” Ms Torres said after the journey. “In order to understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, I want my students to have an appreciation for Yiddish culture and pre-war Jewish life, so they can have a context of the dramatic impact that the Holocaust had.”

To share that lesson, Ms Torres said it is important to her to first teach about the culture. She has big plans for the upcoming school year, including a potential trip for students to New York.

“For my students to develop empathy and compassion for what occurred to those Jews, they need to understand who they were before they were destroyed,” said Ms Torres. “It makes it more real, more palpable to them.”

The learning expedition in Lithuania and Poland was led by Trinity College’s Professor Samuel Kassow. The group visited former Jewish quarters, synagogues, sites of former ghettos, and concentration camps. A trained tour guide also led the group through sites. Ms Torres described it as “constant learning of information”

Many of her fellow travelers were visiting where their grandparents had lived or perished. Ms Torres said it was a humbling experience, and it was her first time traveling to Europe.

“It was an amazing experiential trip for me,” Ms Torres said. “It’s one thing to teach about a historical period, but to actually visit the places that you teach about — it adds a whole other dimension to your own learning and how you plan to teach it to your students.”

Ms Torres said she loves her job and she is passionate, so her lessons on the subject will now be on a “whole other level.”

Between the conferences, her recent trip, online webinars, and other lessons, Ms Torres estimates she has spent more than 200 hours of her own professional development on the subject of the Holocaust.

Ms Torres said a number of supports made her Holocaust Education possible: The Konover/Coppa Fund; the University of Hartford’s Greenberg Center; the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford; Trinity College; the University of Connecticut’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Life, Voices of Hope; the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford; the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut; Newtown Public Schools; and the trip was coordinated by the The Jewish Hartford European Roots Project and the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, where she will serve as an Educator Fellow.

According to Ms Torres, Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue and NHS Social Studies Department Chair Amy Deeb provided professional development and “invaluable support to equip me with the pedagogy and strategies for effective Holocaust instruction.”

“What I want my friends, my colleagues, my students to get from this experience that I got is that we have to challenge bias, we have to stand up for civil rights, and we have to make sure we are critically thinking about the things that we are seeing in our society so that we make sure it never happens again,” Ms Torres said, questioning whether society is watching for the signs — like an ideology that exploded and permeated through an entire continent — that led to the Holocaust.

NHS social studies teacher Rachel Torres stands in one of the many sites she visited while traveling through Poland and Lithuania in July.
NHS social studies teacher Rachel Torres touches one of three remaining ghetto walls in Poland. The site includes a map, pictured, of the Warsaw Ghetto and a memorial to those who perished.
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