More than 70 years ago and half a world away, the unthinkable happened: because of their faith, an entire people were slated for extermination in Hitler’s Germany. Six million Jews, along with others Hitler deemed undesirable, lost their lives in what we now know as the Holocaust.
Remembering these atrocities — and ensuring they will never happen again — is the aim of one of the classes offered during a three-week camp for verbally and mathematically precocious youth (known as VAMPY) held each summer on the campus of Western Kentucky University.
Taught by educator Ron Skillern, the middle- and high-school students study Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, culminating in the creation of a mural that communicates an aspect of the tragedy the students found important.
“It’s really just magic,” said Skillern, who was named Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year in 2017. “Any student that is going to sign up for a three-week class likes to learn. I refer to it as a utopia for teachers. There’s nothing that’s off limits in our classes. There’s a lot of reading on their own, a lot of research and the classes.”
That environment, Skillern said, allows discussions to move unimpeded — no bells, no pep rallies or other distractions found in regular high-school classrooms. But the intensity of the subject matter, he found, needed a hands-on outlet for the students to process what they were discovering, so the idea of the murals was born.
“The murals are a great opportunity to show how you can utilize art to send a powerful message,” Skillern said. Students spend more than a week studying and formulating just what that message is. Often, it incorporates messages of social justice relevant today, such as the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter.
Last year, KET visited Skillern’s class at WKU and documented those students’ experiences, which included a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the creation of their mural. The resulting program, Murals of the Holocaust, features student reflections on what they’ve learned, the mural creation process and talks by Holocaust survivors and family members.
“The kids wanted a [program] that would tell the story of not only their class but the classes that came before them.”
The KET documentary revisits the art created in years past, now mounted and displayed in custom cases. The exhibit has traveled to Louisville’s Jewish Community Center, the Corvette Museum and the Kentucky Center for the Arts, and, Skillern says, the attention Murals of the Holocaust has drawn to the project has ensured bookings of the mural displays at schools and other locations all across the state.
Utilizing the documentary footage, KET is preparing materials for Kentucky teachers to use in lessons on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. With these resources, which are available to all teachers via PBS LearningMedia, students can hear the firsthand experiences of Fred Gross of Louisville, who survived World War II by fleeing Belgium for France, as well as Jeffrey Jamner, the child of Holocaust survivors. The materials provide teachers guidance on how to navigate the sensitive topic and how to approach it.
“As a teacher, I was aware of the good work that KET does, but in working with KET on this project, that respect has been multiplied several times over,” Skillern said.
“The creation of the project was such a pleasurable experience between crew and students. Their being there elevated what the kids wanted to do in terms of their performance in the class and the mural that they produced. They wanted to do a mural that would be outstanding for future viewers.”