A belated L’shana Tovah to my friends and neighbors in the Jewish community. I am writing this piece as a follow up to an article that appeared earlier this year in the Journal, entitled “Essex North Shore students research the Holocaust.” To summarize, it described the experiences my students had in studying the Holocaust, and creating exhibits to teach the community about aspects of the Holocaust that aren’t the topics that are covered in the standard curriculum. On December 18, 2018, the 115 students turned the Media Center of the school into a museum where they acted as docents, teaching students, faculty, staff, and community members about the Holocaust.
It is this unique approach to the curriculum that led me to the experience I had on Monday at the State House in Boston.
Early in the school year I, along with my teaching partner, Justin Bilton and a former student, Casey, were contacted by the Anti-Defamation League in Boston about testifying in support of Senate Bill 327 and House Bill 566. These bills would mandate that genocide education is addressed in both middle and high school. These bills are not simply about the Holocaust either; they support educating the students of the Commonwealth about the concept of genocide. This approach is aimed to create a generation of young people equipped to fight against hate and prevent these crimes against humanity before they happen.
Testifying before the legislature is an amazing experience. To be part of the process that creates laws is humbling to say the least. Justin, Casey, and I took the opportunity very seriously. We testified in a specific order to maximize the impact of our collective nine minutes before the committee. Justin talked about the impetus behind the creation of the class, our pedagogy, and how we approach the content with our students. Casey spoke about how the class impacted her career path. Her vocational area was equine science and as she left school, she was heading off to become a vet. However, after taking our class, she decided that her time at Merrimack College would be spent studying human rights and international law, so that when she enters the world, she can fight injustice on the front lines.
My testimony focused on the human impact that genocide has had on my life, and why I teach my genocide studies class.
While I have been a member of the Congregation Shirat Hayam community since 2007, my family had been involved with the Jewish community of the North Shore for decades. My grandparents, Henry and Margaret Stark, were founders of Temple Beth El, with leadership roles in the Brotherhood and Sisterhood respectively. Many people also knew my grandmother as Ms. Haddassah; she helped run that store for almost 30 years. My testimony today told her story; here is a selection:
Nov. 9th and 10th, 1938, a pogrom, later to be known as Kristallnacht, is enacted by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels and paramilitary all over Germany destroyed Jewish stores, breaking their windows. Synagogues were burned, and some 30,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.
It is that point Margaret, at 18 years old, acted on her own to go to the American embassy and start the process of emmigration to America. Her older sister in New York was her sponsor and in April of 1939, she left on a ship, never to set foot in her homeland again.
Her parents and brother were not so lucky. They could not get out of Germany and were eventually deported to Sobibor where they were murdered by the Nazis along with 6 million other Jews and approximately 5 million members of other persecuted groups.
Why am I telling you about Margaret Elsberg? She would eventually marry another German immigrant, Hans Henry Stark, and find their way to the North Shore, where Henry owned Stark Sales, a leather business in Peabody, where I live today with my wife Rachel and daughter Liora.
It was a this point that I looked up from my notes to see the legislators in front of me, including Paul Tucker of Salem and Tom Walsh of Peabody, making the connection that genocide was a subject of not only educational, but personal importance. It is that importance, to myself, along with my community… our community, that drives me to make my genocide studies class a thorough, authentic experience that creates a new generation of what Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz would call “watchers of the sky.” These are the individuals that will be charged with preventing hate, bigotry, and genocide in the future.
Jason P. Stark is the History Content Facilitator at Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical High School. He is a member of Congregation Shirat Hayam and an educator in their Center of Jewish Education. Jason lives in Peabody with his wife Rachel and daughter Liora.