NEW BETHLEHEM — Issac Herzog wrote, “Auschwitz will forever remain the black hole of the entire human history.” One local history teacher was part of a group who recently returned from visiting that black hole and other equally notorious sites from this bleak time in history.
Dr. Joe Harmon, a history teacher at Redbank Valley High School, was one of 20 teachers from across the United States who spent five days visiting sites of the Holocaust in Poland.
According to Harmon, the all-expense-paid trip — sponsored by Yad Vashem, a world Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, Israel and Echoes and Reflections, a resource organization for Holocaust educators — was designed to deepen the educators’ understanding of the Holocaust.
“This was the first-ever trip of its kind through Yad Vashem,” Harmon said last week, explaining that he first heard about and applied for the trip last winter through Echoes and Reflections, which he uses extensively in his Holocaust studies class at Redbank.
In the ensuing months, Harmon learned that he was selected from a pool of more than 180 applicants as one of the final 20 educators who met in Warsaw, Poland on July 14 to begin the fully-guided excursion.
“When I received the email [that] I was chosen, I could not believe it. I have never been outside North America,” Harmon added. “I felt the responsibility to ensure I learned all I could and bring it back to my community and ultimately anyone that is willing to hear from me.”
The group traveled to several cities and saw multiple sites at each stop, such as the Lodz and Warsaw ghettos, the Treblinka and Chelmno extermination camps, the cities of Kielce and Tarnow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz I. While Harmon said all of the historical landmarks were powerful, two of the most memorable locations included Auschwitz and the Kielce Cemetery.
While at Auschwitz, Harmon and four other teachers from the group led a remembrance ceremony at the camp’s Ash Pond, where Nazi soldiers dumped the ashes of thousands of people murdered at the camp.
“I couldn’t respond fast enough when I heard about the opportunity to lead a ceremony at Auschwitz,” Harmon said of the once-in-a-lifetime experience. The ceremony featured a selection of Holocaust music, and the Jewish custom of leaving a rock behind as a way of remembrance — a task Harmon completed with stones brought from Red Bank Creek for the occasion.
“Auschwitz was the most impactful location,” he continued, noting that more than one million Jews were murdered within the camp walls. “It was eight hours of pure sadness.”
Another incredibly sad but memorable stop, Harmon said, was the day the group traveled to the city of Kielce and visited the Pakosz Cemetery where 45 Jewish children were murdered during a massacre on May 23, 1943.
“I knew what to expect at Auschwitz, and I knew what to expect when I saw the crematories; but it was unreal to see the mass graves and know that this is where 45 children were killed,” Harmon said. He added that while at the cemetery each of the educators presented the story of one of the young victims — many of whom were the same ages as his own children. “It was the most emotional day yet.”
Harmon said that experiencing the Polish landmarks first hand and learning about the lives of those involved definitely humanized the events of the Holocaust. He credited many of the one-of-a-kind experiences to the knowledge and understanding of Yad Vashem trip coordinator and guide Sheryl Ochayon, a native of Israel whose family survived the Holocaust.
“Sheryl was phenomenal,” he noted. “She guided us in a way that really put it all together.”
In fact, Harmon hopes to carry the human aspect of his trip back to the classroom in his Holocaust class by focusing more on the individual stories of the victims, heroes and even the perpetrators.
“I would like to humanize the individuals more. They all had their own lives but just happened to be affected by a horrible event,” he said, explaining that he would like to have his students research and tell the life stories of some victims in class.
Additionally, Harmon said that being able to see so many different Holocaust sites and learn what happened at each location offered a new perspective on how he hopes to teach in the future.
“The reality of the Holocaust is death, so that’s typically where our focus goes,” he said. “I don’t want to generalize the events. I can now tell individual stories to hopefully make students realize that the Holocaust was not just one mass murder.”
“I’ll definitely have a more emotional attachment to the Holocaust while I’m teaching it because I’ve seen it,” he continued.
Harmon will share his photos and experiences from his Poland trip on Wednesday, Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. at Redbank Valley High School. The event is open to the public, and donations will be accepted to fund a class trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.