Interview and Article by:
Megan Helberg, NE (MTF 2016)
Karen Levine (Succasunna, NJ; MTF 2006) is a retired middle school social studies teacher who now serves as a docent at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.
How and when did you become interested in learning more about the Holocaust, and then, eventually, make the decision to teach about the Holocaust?
Growing up, the Holocaust was never a part of any history class or even mentioned in Hebrew School. Of course we knew certain things about it but it was never discussed. When I started teaching about the Holocaust it was not part of the curriculum and a principal once criticized me for speaking of “what happened in Germany during the war” – that’s how he put it.
I started going to conferences and hearing about the Holocaust and about how it should be integrated into the curriculum. When New Jersey published their first Holocaust curriculum I started using parts of it realizing that this wasn’t just a Jewish issue but was a human issue that had to be part of any meaningful study of history.
The past several months have been quite tumultuous in our country, what advice do you have for current teachers on how to approach these difficult topics in the classroom?
I have said many times that I’m happy I don’t have to teach because of what is happening but I often think of the marvelous opportunities to have students investigate issues and form opinions. Students should be given the tools to do this by the teacher using reputable sources and then have students engage in discussions and debates based on FACTS. Yes, this opens the door to a lot of uncomfortable areas, but I believe it will also help students become citizens who think critically in a democratic society.
How did your involvement with the USHMM begin? What motivated you to apply for the MTF program?
In 2000 I went on the NJ Holocaust Commission’s trip to Europe and Israel and from there I knew I had to learn more in order to teach more effectively. When I came back I volunteered to work on the second NJ Holocaust Curriculum and while there I heard about the MTF program and realized that’s what I needed and wanted. I had visited the Museum before but had not taken part in any other programs there.
In what ways did the MTF program change your approach to teaching about the Holocaust?
I became an MTF late in my teaching career but this program impacted all of my teaching, not just my teaching of the Holocaust. I started designing my lessons using more critical thinking skills, more individual research, and more student-centered activities. It’s not that I didn’t use them before, but now I felt they were more integral to my program. My teaching of the Holocaust spent more time on diverse topics and a lot more time on life for people both before and after the Holocaust.
Do you have a funny or memorable moment that has occurred around fellow MTFs?
The memorable moments with MTFs is simply being with these educators. I have formed new friendships that go well beyond the scope of just teaching about the Holocaust. I look forward to spending time with other MTFs in both virtual and real time.
You have been a docent for the National September 11th Memorial and Museum. Can you tell us about the unique connection this museum has with the USHMM in relation to teaching about traumatic events?
That is a thread that weaves together the USHMM and the National 9/11 Memorial Museum. In both instances a part of that answer is by exploring choices people made in these horrific situations. At the USHMM the exhibit on Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity focused on these choices. At the 9/11 Museum that story is interwoven with everything else.
I know a project dear to your heart is the Man in the Red Bandana. Could you please tell us why this particular story is important to you.
I believe that the story of Welles Crowther, the Man in the Red Bandana, helps to discuss choices in a positive way. I am still, in my heart, a teacher and I want students of all ages to think not just about the horror of these events, but about how people reacted. Welles didn’t wake up that day and suddenly know he had to help others. During his entire life he had made decisions based on helping. This is a story that needs to be told.
Outside of your volunteer work with the USHMM and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, how do you spend your time?
I am an avid reader and belong to three book clubs. I also enjoy working out (yup I do), traveling and playing golf. Here, in the interest of full disclosure, I must say I am one of the worst golfers ever but love the game.
You have inspired your former students to not just learn about Holocaust and genocide studies, but to act, as well. Could you point out a few notable student projects?
Tweaking a USHMM lesson, I asked students to bring in any picture of themselves. From these they worked with the online picture archives and found similar pictures. I know that sounds unlikely but everyone was able to do that. They then did research on the countries that were shown and created a diary for these people using facts and their imagination.
I worked with Drew University in Madison, NJ on a project I am very proud of. They had a writing symposium for survivors and wanted to create a CD in which those survivors were interviewed by students. Since this came up in the fall, I reached out to former students who were now in high school to see if they would be willing to help. No grade, no credit, and I had to choose only 5 from the 15 or so who wanted to be involved. I worked with the students using the written words of the survivors to create questions. They then put it all together and even chose backgrounds and some music. These are students I am still in touch with and I’m so so proud to say that they are all involved in various human rights issues.