By Jennifer Goss, VA (MTF 2010)
& Corey Harbaugh, MI (MTF 2013)

The energy and enthusiasm was palpable at the Museum Teacher Fellowship 20th Anniversary Event last July. Ideas flowed within every meeting regarding the state of Holocaust education at-large and connections between individual classrooms. The post-reunion challenge facing the Museum was how to continue providing opportunities for MTFs that would foster this enthusiasm and learning, even when miles apart. Certainly, social media helps to facilitate some of these interactions but it was evident that there was also a desire for more structured interactions and conversations; thus the idea for an MTF Book Club was born.

The book that was chosen for the inaugural discussion was the fictional work, Train, authored by Holocaust educator and Northwestern University professor, Danny M. Cohen. Kim Klett (MTF 2003) from Arizona and Jennifer Goss (MTF 2010) from VA, facilitated the discussion. Both Kim and Jen had participated in a book talk with Cohen the previous spring and Kim’s post-talk relationship with Danny encouraged her to reach out to see if Cohen, himself, would like to be part of the MTF conversation. Cohen’s agreement to do so solidified the choice of Train for the initial book club gathering. Even though it is a fictional work, both Kim and Jen felt that it was important for educators to be exposed to books our students, themselves, are reading and they were excited by the fact that Danny would be on-hand to include additional insight into the book’s research process.

The first MTF Book Club discussion took place on November 20 and was well attended, with 20 MTFs checking in to participate. Each participant had positive reactions to Train, viewed through a variety of different lenses. Matthew Good (MTF 2014) shared, “ I was not familiar with the Rosenstrasse protests when I read the book…after reading, I was inspired to find out more. I think the novel can drive students to investigate topics further.” Cohen pointed out that one avenue for further exploration is, the official website for his non-profit, Unsilence, that published Train. One activity on the site leads students through a webquest puzzle connected to the book that helps them learn additional information about the experiences of the various victim groups introduced in Train.

Katie Prange (MTF 2014) noted, “I loved…the fact that people fell into many different categories (not just one). It reminded me of many things we learned throughout our Fellowship training.” The book’s inclusion of several groups persecuted during the Holocaust, often with “overlapping triangles” was seen as a possible avenue for introducing students to the stories of “other” victim groups, particularly for those in a high school setting.  Additionally, the concept of protest within the book inspired Meghan McNeeley (MTF 2006) who stated, “I LOVED that this can be used to teach PROTEST.  Not just Rosenstrasse, but the protest of Jewish Americans!  Again, especially relevant today…

Relevant connections to today is a theme that continued with the second book chosen for the MTF Book Club, for which the discussion took place on February 20, 2017. The day was chosen because it is also a day identified by the United Nations as a “World Day of Social Justice”, and was the theme of the book for discussion, Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, by Eyal Press. This discussion was facilitated by Corey Harbaugh (MTF 2013) and John Farris (MTF 2015). Both are educators in Michigan and co-direct a Holocaust education seminar for teachers every summer.

The focus of the book took participants down a very different path in discussion, and they reported that they enjoyed the opportunity to delve into a different kind of book, and a different kind of book talk. Many MTFs use terms like
perpetrator, victim, and bystander when teaching about the Holocaust, and much of the literature of Holocaust studies addresses the choices and behaviors of those three categories of people. This, in part, is what made the second book selected for the MTF book study a departure. Beautiful Souls presents case studies of individuals who acted differently than so many around them during troubling times, from the genocide of the Holocaust, to the banking fraud of the early 21st century. Press was interested in the question of what made ordinary people act with what he called “courage and conscience” rather than violence, or the violence of indifference.

The book is not the normal kind of text an MTF might choose to read, as it was written by a journalist rather than a historian, and it raises a question about individuals who acted against the norm, with courage and compassion, when the norm was to look away or be complicit in acts of evil, all the way up to genocide. As Joshua Levy points out in his essay “The Necessity of Darkness: The Pedagogic Benefit of Teaching the Horrors of the Camps”, the study of the Holocaust must be a very dark study, and to teach about rare examples of individuals of conscious runs the risk of distorting the history with examples of goodness. Still, Beautiful Souls asks readers to confront questions and historical case studies of courage in conscience, and then, by extension, in our own times. It can be helpful in our study of the darkest of times to occasionally light a candle and look to points of light, singular as they may be. Beautiful Souls did just that for our network of educators who joined the reading and the discussion.

Soon, both book club discussion and their transcripts will be accessible via the MTF WordPress site. According to MTF Program Coordinator, Kristin Thompson, 53 MTFs are currently signed up to be part of the Book Club and any MTF is welcome to join and participate as their calendars and schedules allow. If you’re not already part of the book club, but would like to facilitate a discussion or join the conversation as a participant, please fill out this form. Those interested in facilitating will have a brief meeting with Kristin to go over technical aspects and discussion guidelines, so don’t feel hesitant to take on this role. According to Kristin, “In order to eventually meet everyone’s interests and needs, all genres are welcome including scholarship, historical fiction, history, memoir, poetry, etc.”

The next book club discussion will take place in July, 2017. It will focus on the book, Born Survivors, and we are honored that author Wendy Holden and one of the Holocaust survivors, Hana Berger Moran, who is featured in the book, will be present for the discussion. They will also be the Keynote speakers at Belfer this year and have graciously agreed to be part of our MTF Book Club discussion while here in DC. At this point, Kristin notes, “We have book club facilitators for November, 2017 and January, 2018 – but titles have not been selected nor confirmed yet.”

She concludes, “I’m grateful for the enthusiasm and conversations the book club has already generated within the MTF community.  The level of discourse and questions being asked, along with the collegial spirit I have already witnessed, are inspiring and gratifying.  Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to purchase and read the selected works, contribute to the conversation, and facilitate the discussions.  It’s great to see MTFs engaging with one another and being introduced to people within the community that they may not have previously known.  I believe this is a positive step in strengthening our network of educators and increasing our opportunities for engagement.” As MTFs, we too are grateful for this opportunity and look forward to future talks!

Train video recording of  MTF Book Club Discussion
Train transcript of MTF Book Club Discussion

Beautiful Souls
 video recording of  MTF Book Club Discussion
Beautiful Souls transcript of MTF Book Club Discussion

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