Students learn about the Holocaust from survivor's daughter

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Storrs - posted Wed., May. 18, 2011
Rachel Donnell, a special education teacher at E.O. Smith and the child of Holocaust survivors. Photo by Melanie Savage.
Rachel Donnell, a special education teacher at E.O. Smith and the child of Holocaust survivors. Photo by Melanie Savage.

Rachel Donnell never hesitated to share stories about the Holocaust with her children. “I do not want the deniers to be able to forget,” she said. With survivors passing away at an increasing rate, it’s important to keep telling the stories, “so people don’t forget,” said Donnell, whose mother was one of four sisters who survived Auschwitz.

With her own children growing up and passing on the stories to others, Donnell, a special education teacher at E.O. Smith High School, contacted her colleague James Loughead. Loughead is a social studies teacher who discusses the Holocaust as part of his curriculum in two different courses. “She offered to come in and talk to the classes, or help out in any way that she could,” said Loughead.

On May 12, Loughead, Donnell and two E.O. Smith juniors, Taylor Vonasek and Morgan Stewart, met in a conference room at the school. Joining them was Linda Christensen, the Holocaust resource coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Southeastern Connecticut. Christensen had recruited Loughead and his students for participation in an ongoing project that brings together Connecticut high school students and Holocaust survivors. This year, the third year of the project, there are six different schools involved. Students from each school, along with their teachers, participate in at least three interviews with a survivor. They then create a poster that describes their experience, which is presented at a culminating event bringing together the students, their teachers, and the survivors.

May 12 was Vonasek and Stewart’s third and final interview with Donnell. Donnell’s mother was one of four sisters who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and escaped at the end of the war into Czechoslovakia. All four sisters reacted very differently during their post-war years. One wanted to forget that the Holocaust had ever happened. Donnell’s mother shared her experiences with her children. And Donnell's aunt, Erna F. Rubinstein, made it her mission to share their stories with as many people as possible. Rubinstein penned two books: “The Survivors in Us All: Four Young Sisters in the Holocaust,” and “After the Holocaust: the Long Road to Freedom.”

Donnell shares her aunt’s philosophy - that there are lessons to be learned from the Holocaust, and that its stories should never be forgotten. “It’s important to remember what hate can do,” she said. “What scapegoating and blame and stereotyping can do. It’s important to remember what can happen if people don’t follow their own minds, if they follow the crowd.”

And a more positive lesson can be found in stories of people like Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews during the war. “One person can make a difference,” said Donnell. “Just look at ‘Schindler’s List.’”

Donnell’s mother was “living a normal life until the Germans came and took over Poland,” she said. The family was taken out of their home at gunpoint and taken to the Jewish ghetto. “[People] were often shot for no reason, other than that they were Jewish,” said Donnell. From the ghetto, the family was separated and taken to concentration camps. “My mom was taken to Auschwitz,” said Donnell. When they reached the camp, “my mom and her sisters were pointed in one direction, their mother in another,” said Donnell. The mother, considered in her 40s as too old to be an effective worker, was killed. “My mom never got over the guilt of that,” said Donnell. “I never really knew any of my grandparents; they all died during the Holocaust.”

Stewart and Vonasek said that their time with Donnell had brought the classroom curriculum to life for them. “We were really interested,” said Stewart. “We thought, since we were learning about it in class, it would be interesting to get first-hand knowledge.”

“There is really a different perspective between the classroom learning and talking to her,” said Vonasek. “Hearing the background stories behind their survival makes it seem less bleak.”

Christensen is interested in hearing from schools that might like to be involved in next year’s project. She is also seeking Holocaust survivors, or the children of survivors, who might be interested in sharing their stories with students. Contact her at the Jewish Federation of Southeastern Connecticut at 860-442-8062.

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