For years, students all over the world have learned about the Holocaust. Whether it was from history books or autobiographical accounts, such as “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, the words and images of the people facing the wrath of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis are powerful and emotional.
Earlier this month at Basalt Middle School, through the use of Skype, more than 100 eighth-graders had the opportunity to watch, listen and ask questions to 84-year-old Holocaust survivor Simone Liebster from her home in Alsace, France.
Liebster wrote an autobiography, “Facing the Lion,” that offers a glimpse into the life and trials of a girl and her family who found themselves facing the fury of Hitler and his regime. Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the family refused to support Hitler’s war machine. Persecuted for their beliefs, not for their ethnicity, the story is a testament to both Nazi atrocity and the endurance of the human spirit.
Skype is a Microsoft product that allows users to communicate with peers by voice using a microphone, video by using a webcam and instant messaging over the Internet.
The Skype conference with Liebster coincided with the beginning of an eight-grade literacy unit on the Holocaust taught by Allyson Bella-Dobbs at the middle school.
Instead of relying on their own interpretations of her words in print, students at Basalt could see and hear Liebster communicate live. They not only could listen to her words and the tonal influctuations, they could see her subtle facial expressions, hear the intensity of her speech and interpret for themselves her gestures and body language.
“I don’t want our students to just learn about the Holocaust,” Bella-Dobbs said. “I want them to understand as best they can through authentic experience from the voices of primary sources, like Simone Liebster.”
The eighth-graders prepared 18 questions for Liebster and didn’t pull any punches with the topics they inquired about. For example, they asked her why she thought Hitler targeted Jewish people, if she ever wished she wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, what it was like to be bullied by her peers and what lessons she still carries from her challenging childhood experiences.
Much of the wisdom Liebster shared with the students centered on being true to your beliefs and learning the principles of love, two areas that helped her survive her ordeals with the Nazis.
“The greatest value in life is a good conscience,” Liebster said. “Conscience is about strength. Learn the principle of love, of never hurting your neighbor and live up to the principles you know are right. A person doesn’t need much to be happy; you need to be at peace with yourself.”
As students listened to Liebster, their facial expressions reflected the amazement at the words they were hearing. Several said they never expected Liebster to be so honest and revealing about her fears and the actions she took to survive.
“She really opened up to us way more than I thought she would,” eighth-grader Michell Cabrera said. “She was so strong. We got to see and hear her real emotions from speaking to her live. She really unveiled her fears and vulnerability.”
Student Abraham Hernandez wrote a telling piece about how Liebster’s words moved him personally. He said the chance to hear a real survivor explain her feelings took learning to a new level.
“You could tell her memories were still vivid,” Hernandez said. “She included so much detail in the stories she shared. Watching and listening to her made her words much more compelling and believable.”
After the Skype conference, students were required to read at least one more book on the Holocaust. They also wrote a personal reflection on what Liebster’s words meant to them in several different formats, from acrostic poetry to dramatic interpretation.
Student Annie O’Keefe wrote a moving poem about Liebster from the voice of Death.
“It’s obvious she carries a strong passion about her ordeal,” O’Keefe said. “She still shows a lot of emotion when she tells her stories. You could really hear it in her voice.”
The Skype conference was the second Liebster held with Basalt students. The first occurred in 2012. Bella-Dodds is hoping to offer a chance for her students to speak with Liebster again in the future, a thought the current group of eighth-graders agreed with.
“I hope the seventh-graders get a chance to hear Simone Liebster like we did,” Hernandez said. “It was a powerful learning moment for us.”
There’s a Web page set up where the writings and poetry from several eighth-graders from Basalt are posted about Liebster. To read their words, go to: http://bms.rfsd.k12.co.us/9- uncategorised/1268-student- learning-highlights.html.