Stanly County Teacher of the Year discusses trip to Poland, teaching about Holocaust

When she is asked how she spent her summer vacation, Meredith Howell can tell her South Stanly High School students she kept learning.

The war in Ukraine may have postponed her trip to Poland for a year, but Howell was finally able to travel and study there this summer.

Howell, who this spring was named Stanly County Teacher of the Year, received a scholarship to attend through the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

The trip was led by Rabbi Fred Gutman of Greensboro and Lee Holder, a regional director for the N.C. Council on the Holocaust.

The group of 40 travelers included 28 educators from across North Carolina, four regional directors from the N.C. Council on the Holocaust, four rabbis and the director of the Greenspan Center from Queens University.

The trip took them on a living history lesson of the Holocaust, the genocide where Nazis killed nearly 6 million European Jews during World War II.

Howell toured Krakow, Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Jewish Community Center of Krakow (which has aided more than 220,000 Ukrainian refugees over the last year), Schindler’s Enamelware Factory in Krakow, Treblinka, Majdanek, Warsaw Ghetto, MILA 18 Bunker Excavation, Tykocin Forest Pogram Memorial, Kielce Pogram Site, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Jewish Historical Institute (site of the Ringelblum Archives) and synagogues. She also heard from two Polish educators.

“For the most part, people were welcoming and friendly,” Howell said. “On the plane over, my friend and I sat beside a young Polish man from Warsaw who had just visited the U.S. for the first time. He was friendly and earnest. Most people had a working knowledge of English and with Google Translate, traveling seemed fairly easy.”

Howell said she learned of so many things during her trip it is tough to touch on them all in a short summary. However, the Warsaw Ghetto site and archives and the Majdanek Extermination Camp were two of the biggest learning experiences for her.

“I would say one of the most intriguing things we experienced was the active excavation site at MILA 18 in the Warsaw Ghetto, the site of the underground bunker of the resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto,” she said. “We actually talked with a volunteer onsite who taught us about the artifacts that are being discovered daily. The artifacts at the excavation site give insight into life in the ghetto during the Holocaust, and it was amazing to see that this bunker had been buried under the city for over 70 years and is just now being excavated.”

Howell said the group also learned the story of Gizella Gross Abramson, a Holocaust survivor who settled with her husband in North Carolina in 1970.

“Because of Gizella, Holocaust education in North Carolina is active and growing,” Howell said.

Holder, with the N.C. Council on the Holocaust, spoke of Gizella while on a stop at Majdanek.

Majdanek was a Nazi concentration and extermination camp constructed near the edge of the city of Lublin during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland.

Gizella’s parents let her go from home in August 1939 to Lutsk to join her aunt and uncle.

“When she told her parents goodbye, she didn’t know she would never see her parents again or see her brother again,” Holder said at Majdanek, viewed through a video Howell shared with The Stanly News & Press.

For a short period, Gizella hid with her relatives at a farmhouse in the forest. As time elapsed, Gizella was forced to leave.

“On her own, Gizella wandered off into the forest, was lost there and did whatever she had to to survive,” Holder said.

When Soviets captured her, she convinced them how valuable she was because she spoke five languages. They turned her into a spy. After a trial run in a local home, Gizella was transferred to a job as a maid in the headquarters of the Gestapo, the secret police for the Nazis.

When the Nazis eventually learned she was a spy, all of her teeth were knocked out and she had chemicals put in her hair, Holder said.

“She was sent to the gas chamber twice and both times pulled at the last minute,” he said.

Howell said the biggest asset gained during the trip was “the exposure to so many resources and the network of people that aided in seeing the Holocaust from many perspectives.”

“Because we traveled with Jewish rabbis, we learned of Jewish traditions which aided in my own understanding of how Jewish culture was affected, yet still resilient, during the Holocaust,” she said. “Because we met with Polish educators, we were able to understand how Holocaust education is approached in Poland. Because we saw Auschwitz-Birkenau first hand, I will be able to teach the context of the camp when we learn about survivor stories. Because we experienced the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, I plan to teach my course in the context of how Jewish culture is still thriving today, despite the horrors and atrocities during the Holocaust. Because we went to Majdanek, I am able to teach about the namesake of the Gizella Abramson Holocaust Education Act and her experience at that camp. Because we visited the Kielce Pogram Site, I am able to teach about how Anti-Semitism continued after the Holocaust — and is still prevalent in today’s world. Because we met the director of the Jewish Historical Institute, I can teach about artifacts of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance fighters.

“All of these experiences were full of resources and knowledge that I will take back to my classroom. I am honored to have learned so much from so many different people and so many different sources.”

Howell just began her 19th year of teaching. She will teach 11th- and 12-grade English and the Holocaust Literature elective this year at South Stanly, where she has taught since 2005.

Besides students, Howell also plans to help other teachers learn what she learned on her trip.

“With the Gizella Abramson Holocaust Education Act to be implemented this year, I do plan to assist the NC Council on the Holocaust in disseminating information and helping teachers develop ways to incorporate Holocaust education into teacher classrooms,” Howell said. “This trip enabled me to make connections with many educators, Jewish rabbis and Holocaust content experts across North Carolina. These connections will prove valuable in providing others with access to resources, guest speakers, workshops — and information I gained through this experience, too.”