Interview and Article by:
Megan Helberg, NE (MTF 2016)
Scott Auspelmyer (Columbia, DC; MTF 2015) is in his 17th year of teaching high school social studies in South Carolina. During his undergraduate studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY, he became interested in the topic of Holocaust education.
Overall, how have your students responded to learning more about the Holocaust in your classes?
While they think they have a good general idea about what happened, they are always surprised at how little they actually know and, more importantly, how much learning about the event is really learning about humanity as a whole.
The past few months have been somewhat tumultuous in South Carolina. As a teacher, have these events changed the way you approach your students? Have the discussions taken a different direction?
For several years SC has had its fair share of intrigue and unfortunate events, from natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes to atrocities such as the Charleston Church shooting and historical controversies including the removal of the Confederate battle flag from our state house grounds. I do not feel that these events change the way I teach, but they do serve to highlight the realities of the problems of race, discrimination, and historical issues that still hold significant relevance today. They clearly help to display that the issues often discussed when teaching about the Holocaust are still issues today in our own communities.
What have been some of your most reliable materials/resources regarding Holocaust education that you would recommend to other teachers?
Since I started teaching in the late 1990s there have been a plethora of material released regarding Holocaust education and with the ubiquity of accessible materials online now it is often overwhelming. I still prefer the USHMM website for much of my Holocaust web material, and I find that the Facing History organization also has great resources to prompt discussions related to Holocaust and genocide studies. I stray away from pre-packaged/all-inclusive Holocaust units and instead rely on a variety of texts that I have cultivated from my own reading library over the years. Most consistently I use Holocaust: A History by Deborah Dwork as one of my central texts as I feel it is concise, yet thorough, and therefore accessible for students (though I will say I teach mostly honors students). I also like engaging survivor memoirs such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and Leap Into Darkness by Leo Bretholz, both of which explore powerful themes and both are easily readable for virtually all high school students. I also like to include excerpts from Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 by Christopher Browning, Nazi Doctors by Robert Lifton, and I’m looking to add excerpts from Fear: AntiSemitism in Poland after Auschwitz by Jan Gross; all of these works help students gain a deeper understanding of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. I find that the challenge I most want to overcome is getting students to understand the complexity of the Holocaust. Too often their limited knowledge leads them to a belief of stark contrast: all Germans were evil and all victims were good. I want them to truly attempt to understand the variety of situations that the events of the 1930s and 1940s (Great Depression, World War II, Holocaust, etc.) put people in and how there simply were not many easy or obvious choices for them to make. Once they can truly comprehend this reality, then they come to better understand that the event is much more complex and they are forced to be more mindful about how they think about it and also how they think about current events, such as the recent events in Charlottesville, VA.
In addition to the MTF program, have you attended other conferences or programs that you found especially helpful in your mission as a Holocaust educator?
Yes, a multitude. The highlights are the Facing History and Ourselves week-long Holocaust workshop in 2004, Holocaust Remembrance Project in 2005 through the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous Alfred Lerner Teaching Fellowship in 2011, and of course the MTF Program in 2015-2016.
Do you have a funny or memorable moment you could share with us from your MTF years?
I cannot pinpoint one particular moment, but the time I spent getting to know and learn from my MTF colleagues will always be special to me and the sincerity with which Kristin Thompson approaches the program and all that she and her staff do for the teachers to make their experience worthwhile in a multitude of ways will always be held in immensely high regard by me for the future.
Outside of teaching, how do you spend your time?
I like to travel, though I do not get to do it enough, but I was fortunate enough to be a member of the National World War II Museum’s first summer teaching cohort focusing of the War in the Pacific and we went to New Orleans in July 2016 and then Hawaii in July 2017 for teaching training and to visit historical sites. It is a program similar in design to the MTF program and one I also recommend.
I also like to golf and attend live music events, and I have been known to travel hundreds of miles to see my favorite bands such as Metallica, as much as I can in addition to being a craft beer aficionado, so I try to find local breweries every time I travel to a new place. (PS: Hawaii has some great ones!)
You have inspired your students to not just learn about Holocaust and genocide studies, but to act, as well. Could you point out a few notable student projects?
In 2008 a student group of mine created “Save Darfur” at my high school to raise awareness about the genocide in Sudan. The group sponsored a “Save Darfur Week” at our school for two consecutive years and raised over $5000 in funds to donate to the Save Darfur Coalition. For our efforts we were recognized by the Save Darfur Coalition as one of the top ten schools in the nation in raising awareness two years in a row, the only school in the nation to be recognized twice by the organization.
Over the years I have become heavily involved in National History Day. I have been fortunate to have two students win top places in the regional and state competitions of National History Day each of the past three years. Notably, last year’s winners wrote papers on topics of human rights, including one paper on Paul Rusesabagina and his valorous efforts in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide and another paper on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar a politician and social reformer in India who campaigned against social discrimination.
This interview is about over, so how about sharing some Scott Auspelmyer words of wisdom or closing remarks to leave us with as we all continue our school years. I know you are waiting for the opportunity to say something about Metallica, so this might be your chance!
First and foremost, I believe that while we have one of the toughest occupations in the world, we also have an immense opportunity to make the world a better place by impacting each and every student we teach in a positive way. I think we have more than enough evidence to know that the work we do is needed now more than ever in recent history. The mark we leave on our students is indelible and irreplaceable, and we should approach our profession with a responsibility and attention to caring that we would approach our family.
And yes, I could imagine Metallica would echo my statements about the impact that we have from the perspective of our students with a statement maybe like, “Trust I seek and I find in you, every day for us something new, open mind for a different view, and nothing else matters.”