History Lessons in Art of the Holocaust

In St. Mary’s Dominican High School teacher Mrs. Claudia Vallejo’s Spanish III class, pairs of students gather around laptops to view artwork by women and men in concentration camps, ghettos, or while in hiding. The class is connected via Skype with Ms. Laurie Garcia, Associate Director of Education – Outreach at Holocaust Museum Houston.

St. Mary’s Dominican High School students taking Spanish III, Caroline Blais (left) and Zoe Toups write their reflections about the work, Portrait of a Woman, Lodz Ghetto, 1941, by Sara Gliksman-Fajtlowicz.

Holocaust art and the perspective of the artists have a very important historical role. In their study of the Art of the Holocaust, students view and discuss various works of art and write their reflections about the art. One is Portrait of a Woman, Lodz Ghetto, 1941. The oil on canvas was by Sara Gliksman-Fajtlowicz who was born in Lodz, Poland in 1910. Gliksman-Fajtlowicz studied at the Academy of Arts in Warsaw. In 1930, she joined the Union of Polish Artists. Ten years later, she was deported to the Lodz ghetto, where she worked as a graphic artist. When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, Gliksman-Fajtlowicz was co-opted into a forced labor group to clean up the ghetto ruins. Despite the hunger and danger, she continued to draw. After liberation, she remained in Poland, where her works were exhibited in Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz. In 1957, she immigrated to Israel.         

“As a part of our educational programming, we wanted to offer students the opportunity to participate in a program that integrates the fine arts with Holocaust history,” explained Ms. Garcia. “Artwork plays a vital role in history, especially during periods of injustice, as it illuminates the stories of individuals and the societies in which they live. Artwork leaves behind an important historical record; deepens our understanding of historical events by exploring the personal experiences and messages of those impacted by violence; and highlights the transformative power of art to initiate change in our world today. We hope students will use the fine arts to discover the power of their voices and utilize this knowledge to become empowered Upstanders in their schools and in their community.”

The museum’s Art of the Holocaust program began in the fall of 2016 with the launch of Educator in Motion, a program that Vallejo’s classes have participated in for the past three years.

St. Mary’s Dominican High School Spanish teacher Mrs. Claudia Vallejo and her students connect via Skype with Ms. Laurie Garcia, Associate Director of Education – Outreach with Holocaust Museum Houston.

To date, the museum has delivered 110 sessions to five elementary schools, 10 middle schools, and nine high schools. More than 3,200 students in 24 schools across the Greater Houston region and the Gulf Coast have participated in the Art of the Holocaust program, while more than 94,500 students have been reached by the Educator in Motion programs in total.

Mrs. Vallejo, who approaches teaching with a global perspective, noted, My purpose is to take my class beyond the physical space of a classroom. I try to put my students in touch with different professionals and topics from our classroom to anywhere. As a Spanish teacher, I want my students to learn the language’s structure, but we also go deeper than that. I want my students to be globally aware.  I want them to realize that learning a language is to learn culture, social, political, and many other issues.  When you learn a language, you are opening your mind to knowledge, different views, and other realities of the world. It is a unique opportunity for the students to be able to connect with Holocaust Museum Houston, learn in Spanish about a topic such as this one that makes them think and connect this subject with a relevant issue that affects them today.”

For this class, each student created artwork about an issue that resonated with her. They presented their work to Mrs. Vallejo and Ms. Garcia. Many of the artworks dealt with deterioration of the earth due to human actions, pollution, and climate change.

Student artwork inspired current issues that resonated with the students.

This marked the third connection between Dominican and Holocaust Museum Houston: interviewing the hologram of Mr. Pinchas Gutter, a survivor of several concentration camps; discussing the book, Turning Pages: My Life Story about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and the ABC program – “All Behaviors Count: Stopping Hate. Starting Here.” that examines the five forms of social cruelty: taunting, rumoring, exclusion, ganging up, and bullying, and uses contemporary commercials, storytelling and poetry to highlight the negative impact.

Ms. Garcia called the interaction with Dominican students “an absolute pleasure. I always enjoy my time with the students and am so moved by their poignant response toward the material. It is incredible to have such engaging conversations with the students, to see the powerful connections they build between the past and the present, to hear their excellent ideas on ways they will be empowered Upstanders in their community and the world today.”

Virtual learning experiences increase the museum’s accessibility in schools and promote the creation of inclusive learning spaces for all students. “Holocaust Museum Houston uses the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides to teach about the dangers of prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and apathy and works to build a more humane society by promoting responsible individual behavior, cultivating civility and pursuing social justice,” she said. “Through our educational programming, exhibitions, and resources, we encourage visitors, students, and educators to examine the history of the Holocaust, as well as other periods of injustice, and to consider the role individuals played throughout this time.”      

“The poignant testimony of Pinchas Gutter highlights the choices individuals and communities made as Jews faced persecution and violence and the dangerous implications these decisions had on the lives of others. The story of Sonia Sotomayor examines choices from a different lens – it underscores how our choices and actions can be used to promote equality, justice, and respect for all in modern-day society. Whether exploring the narratives of Holocaust survivors or the stories of courageous Upstanders throughout history, we hope students will discover the power of their voices and the profound impact their actions can have in transforming our world today.”

Students in the Spanish III class at St. Mary’s Dominican High School with their artwork are Front Row (from left):  Caroline Blais, Kelsey Major, Victoria Duhe, Betsy Cao, and Rhea Bawa.

Second Row: Jayla Domino, Clare Gagnard, Isabella Paul, and Taelor Foret. Third Row: Gabriella Bonura, Madison Robichaux, and Avery Lirette. Standing: Zoe Toups, Rowan French, Jane Bostick, Chloe Tufts, Caroline Lavie, Erin Kramer, Corinne Lobell, Abigail Mandella, and Marisol Torres.