Hallie Potter easily recalls the moment when the Holocaust shifted from an academic pursuit of World War II history to a desire to better understand the daily suffering endured by millions trapped in Nazi concentration camps.
"One of the activities we had to do at Birkenau was get on opposite sides of the barbed wire around the camp, so one of us was inside looking at the other person on the outside," the Stallings Island Middle School teacher said of her two-week trip in July to Germany and Poland to study the Jewish plight during the war. "We had to keep eye contact with somebody through barbed wire.
"That was surprisingly difficult. It really showed the impact of what those little things can do to you psychologically."
Potter and 10 other educators from around the country took part in the 2010 European Study Program at the behest of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an international organization created to lend financial aid to non-Jewish rescuers of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and to preserve the history of the Holocaust.
During her visit, Potter visited concentration camps, ghettos, Holocaust memorials and the former Nazi party headquarters in Munich, Germany. She and her companions were led by Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt, a Dutch author, Holocaust historian and former curator of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
The small details Potter said she learned from her travels and van Pelt greatly added to her lessons on World War II history.
Last week, as Potter read The Devil's Arithmetic , a novel about a modern Jewish girl transported in time to a concentration camp in 1942, to her sixth-grade pupils, she incorporated a Powerpoint presentation of photos she took in Poland.
"They like seeing the pictures, and it's important to see it in color," Potter said. "All the photos they've seen from World War II were in black-and-white, but color photos add context for them. That takes it out of the past to make it more real for them."
One such photo was of a small pond. Potter explained that all the crematoriums, facilities used by Nazis to burn corpses, at Auschwitz were near ponds. Those ponds were used as disposal sites for the ashes.
"That was a very practical thing they (Nazis) had to deal with," Potter said. "To learn those little details you wouldn't normally think of was amazing."
Knowing those details -- the foresight the Nazis used to murder millions of Jews and other ethnic minorities -- only adds to the sense of sadness, Potter said.
"You can't go and see all this stuff and not be affected by it," she said.
Potter also discussed the psychological damage Nazis tried to inflict upon their prisoners.
"Buchenwald (a concentration camp in Germany) had a zoo put purposefully outside the camp so prisoners could see animals being treated better than they were," she said.
Despite the physical and mental tortures, Potter told her class, many prisoners refused to die quietly.
One of her pictures included the remains of a crematorium bombed by Birkenau prisoners in a suicide mission.
As a reminder for her pupils, posters advocating the acceptance of diversity hang on Potter's classroom walls. It is that same message Potter hopes students learn from studying the Holocaust.
"It's more important than ever to teach more than grammar and literature to achieve in a career," Potter said. "You need to teach them tolerance and character to make it in the world as a good person."
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