By Mary Helen Kelly
It started with frustration. But from that frustration has come understanding, empathy and a newfound desire to do good in the world for many students at the Marist School.
Brendan Murphy, a high school history teacher at Marist, a Catholic school in Brookhaven, has for nearly 20 years organized a seminar to study the Holocaust, the slaughter of millions of Jews and others by the Nazis during World War II.
“It was out of frustration in having to teach the Holocaust in the context of World History,” he said. “The lessons of that history are too important and too myriad. There are too many things that kids need to learn. So I just felt like it required a careful analysis, more careful study.”
For the past seven years, Murphy also has put together Spring Break trips to Europe during which Marist students visit Holocaust sites. He sees the trips as an extension of the class. Highlights of the trip include sight-seeing in historic European cities, visiting one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe and experiencing places the Holocaust occurred.
“The utter brutality of the murderous machine that was the Holocaust challenges us in a variety of arenas — faith, trust, the propensity to good or evil, and the effects of ultra-nationalism and perverted leadership,” said Father Joel Konzen, principal at Marist School.
“I want to continue to support this opportunity that Marist students have experienced through the direction and insight of Brendan Murphy,” Konzen said. “I hope many, many more students will have the chance to see what took place in the Holocaust and what will be required of them in order to steer us away from any repeat of that hideous era.”
Murphy started teaching at Marist in 1994 and proposed the Holocaust class two years later. The Holocaust seminar has become a sought-after class that draws about 100 students each year.
From the 70 to 80 students that apply for the trip, about 32 are able to take part. “There’s nothing that compares with travel when it comes to education, especially history,” Murphy said.
During the spring trip, the travelers make three stops in Europe: Munich, Prague and Krakow. Murphy picked these spots for their proximity to one another, the places to see in each city and their connections to the Holocaust.
While Murphy says he tries to make the trip “not all Holocaust all the time,” by adding sight-seeing in Munich and nights spent exploring the streets of Prague, he says the trip really centers around the visits to the concentration camps.
Murphy says he grounds his class, as well as the trip, in a mission statement that provides direction and reminds students what they are trying to accomplish.
The statement reads: “Bearing witness is a humanizing endeavor, a journey through the past that helps us reconsider how we understand ourselves as human beings. It’s a subject that should engage the heart, help develop better judgment and teach empathy.”
Students do a lot of preparation for the trip. They research and make presentations on sites they will see to share with the group. They visit the Breman Jewish and Holocaust Museum in downtown Atlanta, where a Holocaust survivor shares his story.
“These stories are really important so that when we get to a place like Auschwitz, the kids can then put a name and a face and an experience to that terrible place,” Murphy said.
To help these students understand the importance of the sites they are seeing, Murphy asks various people to write letters to the students to be read to them as they are on the journey. Konzen, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, and even President Obama have written letters to the students.
Kyle Coughlin, a member of the class of 2017, said the letters added to the importance of the trip. “The whole idea of the trip is to bear witness, because shortly there will be no living survivors. My favorite one was probably from Archbishop [Wilton] Gregory [of Atlanta] because he wrote a very inspirational letter about questioning where God was during this time,” Kyle said.
Throughout the journey, particularly while visiting concentration camps, students are asked to keep track of their thoughts in a journal.
The goal each year, Murphy said, is to have students return with a new view of the Holocaust. “They come back different,” he said, “changed, with a greater understanding about their own potential for good — or for evil — for that matter.”
One thing that is consistent from year to year is a “bearing witness promise” students create toward the end of their trip. Murphy asks students to consider one thing that they can do differently upon their return to Atlanta to make the world a better place.
“I like the idea of the ‘bearing witness promise’ because it makes me feel confident that the trip was worthwhile,” Murphy said.