Local educators return from Austria, grapple with teaching its lessons of history
EducationWrestling with history

Local educators return from Austria, grapple with teaching its lessons of history

Classrooms Without Borders takes teachers to the 'place of history' so students learn facts and 'what comes from the heart'

Educators listen to Michaela Vidlakova, a survivor of the Terezin concentration camp. Photo courtesy of Kate Lukaszewicz
Educators listen to Michaela Vidlakova, a survivor of the Terezin concentration camp. Photo courtesy of Kate Lukaszewicz

There’s confusion about the Holocaust: Some people think it only occurred in Poland and Germany. Others don’t even know it happened. Young Pennsylvanians are particularly ignorant about World War II.

When asked to name a single concentration camp or ghetto, 45% of millennials and Gen Z adults can’t do so. Thirty-three percent of young Pennsylvanians, according to the same 2020 study by the Claims Conference, erroneously believe 2 million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

For decades, James Lucot Jr. has used his classrooms — both at Butler County Community College and Seneca Valley High School — to counter fallacy and oblivion. Apart from myriad facts, photographs and films about the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, Lucot often speaks about his late friend, Jack Sittsamer, who survived six concentration camps and later built a life in Pittsburgh.

Lucot said he used to regularly walk with Sittsamer and discuss the survivor’s earlier years.

Those conversations, and Sittsamer’s recollection of imprisonment at the Mauthausen concentration camp, served a critical purpose.

In a post-survivor world, one way educators hope to reach students is by preserving narratives, Lucot said.

A recent trip should bolster that approach.

Austria up close

Between July 2-13, Lucot and 18 other teachers traveled to Austria with Classrooms Without Borders, a Pittsburgh-based organization that its officials say combats “discrimination, injustice and hate” with educational tactics.

While focusing on Austro-Hungarian Jewry, the travelers toured memorials, museums and other Holocaust-related sites.

“We often take teachers to Poland and Germany. What we learned is that many educators don’t know about Austria’s role in the Holocaust,” CWB’s founder and Executive Director Tsipy Gur said.

For almost 50 years, Austria had a “clouded” view of its past. Seeing the country, and speaking with people there, showed Austria’s regard for its responsibility, Winchester Thurston School’s Joshua Andy said.

Historians point to the Anschluss (Germany’s annexation of Austria) and a period spanning the late 1930s and early 1940s as enabling Austria’s sense of “victimhood.”

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-028-14 / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

On March 12, 1938, German troops entered Austria to gain territory. One day later, Austria was incorporated into Germany. A subsequent vote — in which Jews and Roma were barred from participating — demonstrated that about 99% of Austrians approved the annexation, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Throughout the early 1940s, journalists and politicians described the country’s relationship with Nazi Germany as one of “victimhood.”

On Feb. 18, 1942, The Times published a statement by Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “We can never forget here in this island that Austria was the first victim of Nazi aggression … We remember the charm, beauty, and historic splendour of Vienna, the grace of life; the dignity of the individual; all the links of past generations are associated in our minds with Austria and with Vienna.”

The sense that Austria was a victim rather than a collaborator remained the status quo for decades after World War II, former Sewickley Academy civics teacher Kate Lukaszewicz told the Chronicle: “Austria didn’t see itself as having to reconcile itself with the past.” Beginning in the 1980s, and especially during the last few years, however, the country has “tried to lean into doing some reconciliation regarding their complicity in treating the country’s Jews.”

Two structures tell that story.

Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial. Photo by Joshua Andy

The first, Andy said, is Vienna’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial.

Unveiled on Oct. 25, 2000, the steel and concrete structure depicts a series of outward-turned books.

“You can see the names of the places where the Jews went to die or were exiled, but it doesn’t say who they were,” Andy said. The other striking feature is the text “solely blames the Nazis.”

Engraved on the memorial are German, Hebrew and English words stating, “In memory of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were murdered between 1938-45 by the National Socialist criminals, may their names be obliterated.”

The second structure, Vienna’s Shoah Wall of Names Memorial, was dedicated on Nov. 9, 2021, (83 years after Kristallnacht) near the Austrian National Bank. The memorial’s nearly 160 granite slabs bear the names of approximately 65,000 Austrian Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Shoah Wall of Names Memorial. Photo by Joshua Andy

“As they learn more, they are adding more names,” Andy said of Vienna and the National Fund’s commitment to preserving history. When the Austrian monuments are viewed collectively they demonstrate “a trajectory of how a country grapples with its past.”

Expanding the classroom

“For educators who teach not only about the Holocaust, but about hate, antisemitism and European history, there’s no substitute for being where it happened,” Gur said.

Lucot agreed and said that since returning from Austria last week, he is still trying to articulate his observations: “It’s hard to process.”

Two sites stuck out, he said.

The first was Hartheim Castle.

Between May 1940 and September 1941, doctors, police, nurses and other Hartheim staff administered the involuntary euthanization of 18,269 people deemed medically or physically unfit. Before the final gassing on Dec. 11, 1944, another 12,000 people were murdered there, according to USHMM.

Lucot said he’d spent years reading about Hartheim and how the former home for disabled children became a “killing center.”

“I knew the geography, the topography, the situation, but there was a supermarket and coffee shop 75 yards from the gas chamber,” he said. “How do you put this into perspective?”

The other site on Lucot’s mind is Mauthausen.

Between August 1938 and May 1945, 197,464 prisoners entered Mauthausen’s camp system. Of the nearly 95,000 people who died there, more than 14,000 were Jews, according to USHMM.

Before traversing the Austrian area, Lucot already knew the numbers. He also had another point of reference: his friendship with Sittsamer.

Lucot’s former walking buddy — who told his Holocaust narrative to 100,000 listeners before his 2008 death — survived Mauthausen.

“I kept thinking about his transfer there,” Lucot said. The monuments and museums tell a story, yet all the while “we’re having catered lunches in these places where all this happened. It’s just hard to process.”

Tsipy Gur stands at the Lidice Memorial for Children. Photo courtesy of Kate Lukaszewicz

Lucot said his observations in Austria will “tremendously” change the way he teaches. “They’re going to empower me. I’m going to emphasize things I didn’t emphasize before. I’m going to reduce the scholarship and academic side, but it will probably benefit my students.”

The pedagogical shift “will make it more real,” for his students, Lucot said. “In class, we will talk more about the parallels today.”

Witnessing history

Lucot, who also teaches AP U.S. history and AP U.S. government, said he’s “frightened” by what he’s seen.

Days before boarding a plane to Austria, he traveled to downtown Pittsburgh. He walked along Grant Street and entered the Joseph F. Weis, Jr. U.S. Courthouse. Once inside the building, Lucot passed through security, rode an elevator and made his way into Judge Robert J. Colville’s courtroom.

As lawyers in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial described the defendant’s digital promotion of swastikas, Adolf Hitler and Holocaust references, Lucot said he sat beside SWAT officer Timothy Matson — the first officer to confront the man responsible for murdering 11 Jews during Shabbat services.

“I had full intention to go back the day [Matson] testified, but I couldn’t go back,” Lucot said. The “difficulty” of hearing everything surrounding Oct. 27, 2018, precluded a return.

Lucot said he initially felt an “obligation” to attend the trial “for myself, for my students, for my community,” but he isn’t sure about the reasoning anymore. “I don’t know why I went. I have some friends who went to Tree of Life, but I don’t know any of the victims.”

The horror conveyed inside that courtroom depicts the unimaginable, he said.

“It used to be that I could always discuss Holocaust denial and antisemitism in the United States, but this — now that Pittsburgh is the site of the greatest antisemitic attack in the U.S. — the names and the faces connected to it. You see these fascist statements and elements happening in our country and there’s no answers,” Lucot continued. “I can’t even begin to introduce a concept that would be remotely acceptable to my students.”

“The whole purpose of taking teachers somewhere is that it gives them a different perspective,” Gur said. “It’s very important for them to be at the place of history. They understand that what needs to be shared are not just the facts they studied or what they read about, but what comes from the heart. When teachers do that, it makes learning all the more interesting.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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