A simple bench helps teach Mother of Sorrows students about the Holocaust
Teaching sixth-graders about the Holocaust is not an easy task.
“At the sixth-grade level, you have to be very careful in what you expose kids to,” said Patty Weisser of Murrysville, a teacher at Mother of Sorrows School. “My spin on it is to focus on the tolerance we should have for one another and the perseverance and courage of the survivors.”
In preparation to read Lois Lowry’s novel, “Number the Stars,” students learned some background about the treatment of European Jews during the Holocaust.
When the discussion turned to how students could create a tribute to those who suffered, Weisser had an idea.
“There was this old bench I had at my house,” she said. “In another book (set in Nazi Germany), ‘Friedrich,’ I read that Jews could only sit on yellow benches.”
Weisser was doubly inspired during a Teachers Without Borders trip she took in July 2018 to Poland. During the trip, she learned about the “Places of Remembrance” memorial created by artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock. It is a series of seemingly-innocuous signs posted throughout Berlin’s Bavarian Quarter, a former Jewish district in the city.
The signs appear simple and harmless on the front; on the back, however, each one bears the language of laws created in Nazi Germany to dehumanize Jews, restricting what goods they could purchase, what groups they could join and even when they were allowed out in public.
Weisser contacted Stih to obtain a copy of the Bavarian Quarter map and the 80 symbols posted throughout its streets. She worked with fellow teacher Laurie German’s project-based art class to paint the bench yellow, and each student chose one of the sign symbols to paint on the bench, as a reminder that each represented a way of robbing German Jews of their freedom and way of life.
Weisser said the late-October mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue only reinforced the need for both the Holocaust unit and the bench project.
“We started working on the unit the night before (the anniversary) of Kristallnacht, (“the Night of Broken Glass,” on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, in which nearly 100 Jews were killed and German paramilitary forces and civilians torched synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes and businesses),” she said.
Weisser hopes the bench can serve as an inspiration to others.
“This bench needs to travel places, rather than just stay at the school,” she said.
Weisser plans to reach out to local synagogues and places like the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh to discuss how the bench can be used as a teaching tool and to spark discussion, and said she hopes it made a difference for her students.
“If I can help these kids become more tolerant of other people, that’s the goal,” she said.
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.