Holocaust teaching is Fegan's 'life's calling'

August 11, 2006|by KATE S. ALEXANDER/Staff Correspondent

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - An English teacher at Greencastle-Antrim High School has dedicated her life to teaching her students civil responsibility through a curriculum that centers on the Holocaust.

"We don't live in a world of isolation," Martina Fegan said. "Everything we do affects others, even what we don't do."

Fegan, who also is an adjunct professor at Hagerstown Community College, teaches the course out of her passion for the subject.

"It is my life's calling," she said.

Fegan first became interested in the Holocaust through her daughter.

"My daughter was reading the book 'Night' by Elie Wiesel in high school," Fegan said. "She said that she couldn't read anymore in class because it was so emotional."


Wanting to understand her daughter, Fegan read the book. After reading Wiesel's account of surviving the Nazi death camps, she quickly understood.

"The Holocaust is raw, emotional material," she said.

Despite what she calls the "doom and gloom" that surrounds the subject, Fegan cannot seem to get enough.

"I've been to Auschwitz, Treblinka, the Warsaw ghetto and even Yah Vashem (Martyrs and Heroes Memorial of the Holocaust) in Israel" she said.

For Fegan, visiting the death camps and ghettos touched her deeply, especially Treblinka.

"All that is left are 17,000 stones," she said. The stones, she adds, represent each community that was eliminated in the murders at Treblinka.

Fegan recently attended the annual Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Hosted by Zev Weiss, a Holocaust survivor, the institute was an intensive two weeks aimed at further educating Holocaust educators. According to Fegan, she was the only high school teacher at the institute.

During the two weeks, she went to lectures, engaged in discussions and networked with professors, survivors and fellow scholars of the Holocaust.

"It was phenomenal," she said. "I gained some new perspectives, and am already making changes to my curriculum."

Fegan said that the Holocaust is "difficult to teach." Not only is the material raw, but she points out that each student will react differently to the images and accounts of the survivors and liberator.

"Potentially, someone could do a lot of damage teaching this," she said.

Even though the material is sensitive, Fegan said her students have come to love her courses, which the students choose to take.

Unlike other states, Pennsylvania does not require that the Holocaust be taught in high school, Fegan said.

As a board member of the Pennsylvania Council of Holocaust Education, Fegan further explained that the council does not plan to make the subject mandatory for Pennsylvania. The sensitivity of the subject can be lost if a teacher is forced to teach it, she said.

While Fegan teaches the past, she emphasizes that her goal is to shape the future. In addition to teaching the Holocaust, she also teaches other genocides in her unit, including the Armenian genocide and Rwanda.

Fegan hopes to show her students that they can make a difference and work to prevent genocide from happening again.

In addition to teaching, she also is working on a book. A compilation of the work of her students on the subject of the Holocaust, she hopes to soon publish the book and donate the proceeds.

Her goal is to donate to the Clara Issacman Trunk Fund, a fund that provides schools with a trunk full of material to begin a Holocaust education program.

Fegan always is looking for new opportunities to teach her courses. She currently has a Women in the Holocaust course drafted, which she would love to teach at either the high school or at a college.

"Ideally, I would like to have my course at the high school be two parts," she said. "The students want more."

For now, Fegan will continue teaching her 18-week unit at the high school and her course at HCC.

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