The systematic mass murder of approximately six million Jews during World War II, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, decimated the European population. Roughly eleven million civilians and prisoners of war perished in the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945.
Of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe before this time, approximately two-thirds were killed. The Nazis targeted not only Jews, but also people in other groups, including least 200,000 disabled, 10,000 homosexuals and other political and religious opponents.
The goal was total annihilation.
Such enormous evil is beyond human comprehension. We struggle to understand how it could take root – and how it can be prevented in the future.
“Human beings are not meant to see such atrocities,” says GCC professor Dr. Ruth Callahan of the unprecedented events of the Holocaust. “The subject is incomprehensibly enormous and complex.”
Callahan, who has a deep interest in this monumental subject, created and teaches a GCC humanities class, Introduction to Holocaust Studies. She also teaches the class in Prague as part of the Maricopa Community College District’s Education Abroad program, in which both students and community members take part.
She has participated in the annual Arizona Educators’ Conference on the Holocaust, spoken on the topic at the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale and invited survivors to speak in her classroom.
Recently, the Phoenix Holocaust Survivors’ Association (PHSA) acknowledged Dr. Callahan’s work by awarding her its Shofar Zakhor Award. The award is given annually, usually to an educator who has shown exceptional dedication in teaching the Holocaust and its lessons.
The words Shofar Zakhor mean “a call to remembrance.” The plaque’s engraving states, “For her work in bringing knowledge of the Holocaust to her students and implementing the experiences of survivors and their testimonies into her classroom and beyond.”
Kae Knight, PHSA president, praised Dr. Callahan’s intellect and teaching ability. “She is able to engage students so that they become intensely involved at a deep level of understanding of this history,” said Knight. “And not only the horrific outcomes; she also guides them in pursuing analysis from various perspectives.”
Most of the MCCD students who sign up for the in-depth class in Prague have never traveled abroad before. Choosing for their first European trip a specialized, intense course on the Holocaust – and not an entertainment-focused, “12 cities in 12 days” excursion – is a testament to their commitment to learning more about this sober topic.
Dr. Callahan says she does not know exactly what spurs interest, though many students who learn the basic facts in high school tell her that they are driven to understand more as they mature.
The overseas class is housed in academic facilities on the historic town square in Prague. Just beyond the classroom door, a trumpeter dressed in medieval garb stands over old town clock, one of the city’s most famous landmarks, blowing his horn to announce the hours.
Classes take place in a 16th-century building that holds deep memories. “When you walk across the threshold every day, you can’t help but think about those who came before you,” said Callahan. “Some of the Holocaust victims walked these very streets.”
Callahan says it’s a real privilege to teach the course in Prague. She’s impressed by the number of community college students who continue to invest in understanding this deep and serious topic, whether at GCC or in Prague.
Callahan has taught at GCC for 22 years, primarily teaching Fundamentals of Writing, Mythology, Modern Fiction, and Banned Books and Censorship, many of these being Honors Program courses.
The Holocaust class fills each time it’s offered. Dr. Callahan, on course to retire from full-time teaching after spring 2014, hopes to teach it again next spring at GCC and next summer in Prague and Poland.
She has big plans for retirement, including travel and teaching stints. For example, last summer she participated in a seminar in Auschwitz, site of the largest of the Nazi concentration camps.
“It’s unusual to receive formal recognition for talking about such great suffering,” she reflected. “It’s an honor, a privilege and a real responsibility.”
Callahan hopes the award will play a role in allowing her to reach more people. “Perhaps it’s an imprimatur,” she said, “And a way of saying, ‘It’s OK; you can speak on our behalf.’”
As part of the coursework for her doctorate, Callahan studied with the late Rabbi Albert Plotkin at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Phoenix. Her dissertation is on hope, linking Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” with themes of hope in Judaism and the Kabbalah, Jewish mystical thinking, including the ancient concept of tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.”
Tikkun olam suggests that humanity shares with God the responsibility to heal and transform the world. In more recent times, it has also come to connote social action and the pursuit of social justice.
“I think of this concept in conjunction with the Shofar award,” says Callahan, “because as people tell stories of the survivors – and understand what they went through – the idea of ‘Never again’ arises.”
Through understanding, suffering is transcended, humanity is healed and the world is rebuilt. A powerful, hopeful concept, on which we all can reflect.
The background image behind Dr. Callahan’s photo is one wall of the cemetery of the old Remuh synagogue in Krakow; this section of the wall was built from tombstones uprooted and destroyed by the Nazis.
The Shofar Zakhor award is given on Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Holocaust Day. Observed throughout the world in remembrance of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, the day is marked with lighting of candles, two minutes of silent commemoration, presentations on Holocaust history, music from that era and recognition of those who survived and those who work to ensure such a tragedy will never happen again.
PHSA promotes community awareness of the Holocaust and its survivors through monthly gatherings, a speakers’ bureau, the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration and educational programs, including Holocaust Awareness Week.