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'We must teach the teachers,' Holocaust survivor urges at seminar

Holocaust survivor Sophia Veffer has told her story many times.

She has spoken to 20 to 30 schools per year since retiring as a teacher about 25 years ago, telling students about how, as a young Jewish girl in Holland, she evaded the Nazi killing machine during World War II.

While she said that sharing the stories with young students was invaluable, she said it might be a better idea to concentrate on another segment of those schools:

"We should teach the teachers."

Veffer said that Tuesday morning at SUNY Buffalo State at an event designed to do just that.

The "SUNY Buffalo State Social Justice Fellowship: Sophia's Legacy," is a three-day conference that aims to assist teachers, students and administrators on how to bring the lessons of genocide into the classroom. The first-time project is a collaboration of Buffalo State's Anne Frank Project, the Buffalo State School of Education and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"This is how we get to the kids," said Buffalo State theater professor Drew Kahn, the director of the Anne Frank Project. "The kids will graduate. The teachers stay in those classrooms."

The Anne Frank Project's stated goal is to use "stories as vehicles for community building, conflict resolution and identity exploration." With Anne Frank as an inspiration, AFP "surfaces and shares stories stifled by oppression."

Veffer, who grew up in Amsterdam about five minutes from Anne Frank's family, hid in different homes for 2 1/2 years in a story that was very similar to Frank's. She managed to reunite with her family in 1945. She came to the United States in 1954 and moved to Buffalo in 1956, where she became a special education teacher.

Veffer's reflections have been at the center of the Anne Frank Project, which uses such stories to build active-learning techniques such performances, workshops, presentations and what it calls "story-based learning training."

"I think listening to her tell her story is extremely valuable," said Cassie Lipsitz, an 11th-year Buffalo Public Schools teacher in her seventh year at Lafayette International Community School, where she deals with many refugee and immigrant students. "My goal as an educator, particularly because I teach art, is to allow students the space to feel comfortable to tell their own story."

On Wednesday, teachers will discuss with Buffalo State faculty ideas about making the transition from the seminar to their school year. On Thursday, administrators from the teachers' districts will be on hand to learn what their teachers have learned with the aim of incorporating it during the school year.

"You have so much influence on the students, you don't know," Veffer told the teachers. "You have no idea how you impress them. You have so much power. You should use that power, you really should."

Veffer acknowledged that many teachers say they don't feel comfortable teaching the horrors of genocide, which is part of the goal of the program.

"It's not really that a teacher starts the day and says, 'Let's talk about the Holocaust,' " Kahn said. "My experience is that when we train them about the Holocaust and genocide, it creates that tent of trust, and you are now able to talk about anything.

"So if you can talk about genocide and we can help you navigate that complex bridge between your topic in your class and a discussion with your students, then when El Paso comes, when Dayton comes," Kahn said, referring to recent mass shootings, "you are dexterous enough to weave that into what's happening. Teachers can't ignore Dayton ... talking about it alleviates the fear, not talking about it extends fear."

In addition to about 20 area teachers, current Buffalo State students were also part of the seminar.

"If I learn how to speak up, and I can teach other people to speak up, and there's power in numbers," said Buffalo State senior Anjelica Wong, who will travel to Rwanda next year with the Anne Frank Project. "So if we could get a whole group of people to do it, we could make big changes. So that's my big hope for the future."

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