Why Holocaust studies matter
In 1927, a boy named Elek was born in Belsko, Poland. He was born to an upper middle-class family, had two younger siblings, dozens of cousins, and enjoyed accompanying his mother, Deborah, to Vienna to see concerts and the opera. He had a very happy childhood. He spoke German at home and Polish in school, and he liked to play catch with his friends. He had a good arm. On the holidays, he went to synagogue and always remembered that his mother made the best gefilte fish. For his bar mitzvah, he received a potato. It was 1940 and the Germans had already invaded, World War II had broken out, and the Holocaust had begun. At that time, he did not know that he would never see his mother again. This was something that he never got over. He never forgot his mother, I would know. He was my grandfather.
As I write this, a photo of my great-grandmother is on my desk at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. It is the only photo my grandfather ever had of her, and this photo and the story behind it has tremendously shaped my personal and professional life.
While completing my undergraduate studies at the University of Vermont in International Relations and Holocaust History, I had the opportunity of studying my passion and interest in the Holocaust in an academic setting. After my graduation from the University of Vermont, I was hired as an account manager at a technology company, but I slowly realized that I was not truly satisfied with a simple office job and yearned for more satisfaction out of my work. Following countless hours of contemplation and self-reflection, I discovered that I would benefit both personally and academically from going back to school and pursuing a Master’s degree in a field that I was passionate about, which was without question Holocaust studies. With a little help from Google, I discovered the Weiss-Livnat International MA Holocaust studies program at the University of Haifa in Haifa, Israel. I was immediately drawn to their assortment of classes, ranging from History of the Final Solution to Psychological Perspectives of the Holocaust. My cohort was made up of 29 students who not only covered a wide age range, but also came from numerous countries, which added a blended diversity in ideas, thoughts, and practices. I thoroughly appreciated the different opinions and analysis that came from students from across the globe with the same drive and interest that I shared.
Despite the difficulties in uprooting and moving to another country and culture, I truly enjoyed my unique experience studying the Holocaust in Israel and all the opportunities that were afforded to be by the University of Haifa program and exemplar location. Through the program, I interned in the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem where I analyzed, collected, and organize data and evidence in order to initiate potential righteous candidacy files. This research highlights the few but remarkable benevolent moments that took place during the Holocaust; at such a horrific and abhorrent time in human history, people were somehow able to muster the courage and exhibit true heroism. This reminder is never lost on me. In addition to my internship, I had the opportunity to volunteer with Amcha, an Israeli organization for Holocaust Survivors and would meet with a charming lady named Yehudit once a week. She spoke four languages without formal education and had an ardent passion for books. Despite her being legally blind, she continued her fervor for literature through audio books. Yehudit also happened to have survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, yet her past hardships did not seem to have had any negative effect on her humor and generosity.
One of the most moving experiences I encountered as a University of Haifa student occurred while I was working on my final paper for the course, Qualitative Research Techniques for Historians. We were instructed to interview someone as part of our final, and I chose to interview a Survivor named Esther, whose life story I knew had never been officially documented. I was extremely nervous in the days leading up to my interview, terrified that I would somehow upset Esther or cause her pain. I ended up spending hours with Esther talking about everything from her Holocaust experience to my future plans. We both opened up and engaged in an incredibly deep, intimate conversation. She gave me advice that I will always carry with me, and we shared a bond during those hours that will never be replicated. My time with Esther personified the importance of documentation and interaction with Holocaust Survivors.
My tremendous experience at the University of Haifa not only provided me with sentimental satisfaction and intellectual growth, but have furthermore affirmed my desire to work in the Holocaust field. Continuing dissection of the actions and subsequent consequences of the Holocaust is imperative to both maintain remembrance of the past and continue future education.
In my current role as Director of Education at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, I oversee the Education and Archival Departments, ensuring that every program and all our galleries include the full historical narrative in an engaging way while staying true to our mission of commemoration and education. As the Director of Education, I design customized education materials and programs for students in sixth grade through college. I work with teachers to create transformative tours that support their work in the classroom. In addition, I instruct and supervise Interns and Fellows engaged in artifact-based research and curriculum development. Along with managing the Education and Archival Departments, I work with other departments within the Museum to accomplish various program goals, including the Grant Department to write and submit specialized education grants as well as the Executive team. I also represent and speak on behalf of the Museum at commemoration and education events throughout Southern California. The Museum’s mission to commemorate, educate, and inspire, reflects the founding Survivors’ desire to remember those who perished, honor those who survived, and provide free Holocaust education to the public. As the Director of Education, I ensure that this important history engages and resonates with students from different background, experiences, families, and communities.
At Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, I oversee a program called “Share Our Stories,” which connects students from under-resourced schools with Holocaust Survivors for conversation, learning, and exploration. We believe that connecting Holocaust Survivors with young people facing their own extraordinary and unique circumstances can inspire and affirm. In addition, the program provides students with an opportunity to discuss the most pressing concerns of their own lives and to find common ground in their personal histories and mutual hope for a better future.
Two years ago, while working on “Share Our Stories,” I received a call from a teacher who noticed that his students were nervous for their visit. They had never been to a Museum before and did not know what to expect on a field trip. Holocaust history can be heavy enough, I would never want students to also be anxious to visit a Museum. I offered to drive to the school in South Central Los Angeles to speak with the students. Standing in front of the classroom, I explained what they would see in a Museum, showed them pictures of the gallery space and artifacts, and introduced them to Holocaust history. I talked about my grandfather and his experience during the Holocaust and how his dignity and devotion to family inspired me. At the end, when I asked if any of the students had questions, one boy raised his hand and asked if my grandfather was ever scared. I realized in that moment that this student was personally connecting to my grandfather. He was understanding himself and the world through this interpersonal dialogue and connection.
Several weeks later, I received a thank you letter from this student in which he wrote: “I appreciated when you shared your story with me about your grandfather. I’m really sorry about your loss. You’re such a strong, brave lady for sharing your grandfather’s story because people don’t really have the courage to talk about their family and what they went though. I really am thankful to have met you and learned this.”
I am the co-chair of a group of grandchildren of Survivors We are a community for grandchildren of Survivors who are helping to shape the future of Holocaust remembrance and education. Our mission is based on memory, education, community, and social action, drawing on our own personal connections as stewards of our grandparents’ legacies. We are all committed to ensuring that there is a future for Holocaust education and remembrance. It is our responsibility to remember, it is our responsibility to educate, and it is our responsibility to inspire. As a 3G group, we stand for commemorating our past, changing the future, and creating a world of mutual respect.
My grandfather passed away in 2008, and I may not be able to detail his exact experience, and he did give oral testimony that I could use. But I am a person who knew him. I remember him. I remember what he taught me. This I can share with other people. There is something personal in this form of engagement and learning, and I truly believe that the generations born from Survivors can and will steward this history.
My experience as a student at the University of Haifa provided me with the tools to ensure the continuation of Holocaust remembrance and education. Through my work, I bridge the differences between diverse groups of people and bring them together by teaching them how hate, discrimination, and prejudices led to the worst part of human history. The Holocaust was a Jewish tragedy, as well as a tragedy for all of humanity. What we do matters, and education helps us to close the gaps that divide us.
Jordanna Gessler was raised in New York City, and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. After completing her B.A. from the University of Vermont in International Relations and Holocaust History, she continued her studies in the field by pursuing an M.A. in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa. She currently works as the Director of Education at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and serves as Co-Chair of the 3G at LAMOTH Executive Board.