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Finding Hope by Studying the Holocaust

Finding Hope by Studying the Holocaust

For 19 days in July, Dr. Liesl Ward Harris attended the International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem for the seminar, “Teaching about the Shoah and Antisemitism.” She also floated in the Dead Sea, dined with a family in Bethlehem, and met the youngest female member of Schindler’s List.

It was an experience made possible when she received the 2017 Marshall Award, which provides financial support for the completion of a project that leads to personal leadership growth. It carries a $5,000 stipend and was established in 2012.

Liesl, advisor to the Beta Lambda Delta Chapter at Jefferson State Community College’s Shelby Campus in Alabama, is developing a special leadership symposium to teach both as a stand-alone seminar and as part of her Phi Theta Kappa Leadership Development course. She also conducted an intensive study of the leadership failures that ultimately produced the Holocaust.

“It truly was a life-changing experience and would not have been possible without my Marshall Award grant,” she said.

Liesl recently submitted a final report of her experience. Below is an excerpt from that report, including 10 lessons she learned.

Describe the steps you took to complete your Marshall Award project.

While online, I found a course for educators in English at Yad Vshem, the International Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The course involved listening to lectures from world-renowned scholars.

The lectures ranged from the historical perspective to the religious perspective to representations of the Holocaust in film. The lectures also dealt with the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict. A highlight of the course was meeting and talking with Holocaust survivors, including the youngest female member of Schindler’s List.

My class was made up of scholars from around the world. There were representatives from the United States, Canada, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, and Italy. The class very much reminded me of a faculty group at a Phi Theta Kappa Honors Institute. We became close very quickly, and I know I developed lifelong friendships through my brief time in Israel.

We also had time for excursions. We went to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, Tel Aviv, Masada, and the Dead Sea. We even spent one night at a Kibbutz in northern Israel. One of my favorite excursions was to Bethlehem, which is in the Palestinian territory of the country. Yad Vashem personnel were upfront about presenting us with the “Israeli narrative” of the ongoing conflict. They made many good points, but traveling to Bethlehem brought a much-needed counter narrative.

What did you learn, and what did you achieve by completing your project?

I could write pages in answer to this question! Here is some of what I learned:

  • Antisemitism runs deep. The tendency to label people and groups as “other” and to scapegoat them is an ugly reality that we see again and again.
  • Humans are capable of unfathomable evil.
  • Humans are also capable of stunning courage and goodness.
  • Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Indifference is as — if not more — insidious than the acts of evil themselves.
  • Going through a trauma can cause some people to lash out and become the oppressor.
  • Geo-political conflicts such as the one between the Israelis and the Palestinians are deep-seated. They cannot be divorced from history or emotions.
  • Listening is crucial.
  • Seeing multiple perspectives is non-negotiable.
  • Never giving up hope takes courage.
  • “Never Again” must be more than a slogan. That the Holocaust happened once means that human beings are capable of unspeakable atrocities; it can happen again. We must be ever vigilant to fight evil, especially the evil within ourselves.

How did you share what you learned by completing your project?

I am scheduled to be a speaker for the Holocaust Education Center in Birmingham. I am also working on a presentation that I am going to give at my home college. I would also love to share about my journey at future regional and international PTK events.

Currently, my chapter is studying non-violent resistance as a mechanism for change. They completed so much valuable research while I was away, but I feel that I can augment their research through what I learned this summer. For example, in Bethlehem, I saw a very ugly concrete wall that separates the city from the rest of Jerusalem proper. The wall has barbed wire at the top and also has stations for armed snipers to watch the residents of Bethlehem.

However, this ugly wall has been made beautiful by graffiti artists ranging from the elusive Banksy to regular people. They have covered the wall with art that expresses their demands for justice and longing for peace. Until my trip, I had thought of non-violent resistance as marches, boycotts, and sit-ins. I had never thought of art as creative/non-violent resistance, but it makes sense! I will definitely use this lesson as I work with my chapter this year.

What was the most significant outcome of the personal leadership development project you completed in fulfillment of your Marshall Award?

My answer to this question also reminds me of my Phi Theta Kappa experience. I learned such valuable information about the Holocaust. I learned about how so many people participated or looked away; but a few brave souls decided to fight these atrocities, even though they often paid with their lives. Two phrases from the summer will always resonate with me. The first is, “There is always a choice.” We can always say no to evil. The second is, “A conspiracy of goodness.” That is what I want my life to be.

Where PTK similarities come in, however, is this. While I will remember the academic lessons I learned, the most significant outcome came through the personal relationships I built over the summer. I learned from friends from around the world. These friends held a multitude of religious and political perspectives. I am keeping in touch with them and hope to work with them and their students through future PTK projects.

I also have Jewish/Israeli and Palestinian friends now. Some of my favorite friends are a beautiful family who live in Bethlehem. When I spent the day there, they truly took me in and treated me as one of their own. I ate lunch in their store, visited their home, and even got to help bathe their beautiful infant daughter! What I am saying is that when I now think of “the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,” I don’t think of just a political and geographical disagreement; instead, I think of faces. These are real people with hopes and dreams that live this conflict on a daily basis. This makes me want to commit myself all the more to the struggle for peace and justice, knowing that this struggle is difficult. I will not, however, throw up my hands and say that there will never be peace. We can’t stop hoping, and we can’t stop loving.

I will also carry with me the importance of individual action in the face of injustice. One person truly can make a difference. I want to live my life as a conspiracy of love. This trip and the lessons I learned have made me, I hope, a more sensitive and brave advocate for justice and truth.

I will end with a quote from Elie Wiesel: “Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.” This trip gave me hope, and that is everything.

Applications for the 2019 Marshall and Mosal Awards are due February 13, 2019.



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