2017-06-21 / Local News

Teacher’s passion for Holocaust education inspires student art


FAMILY: Husband Pete; sons, Daniel, 31, and Matthew, 30

HOMETOWN: Mount Laurel

SYNAGOGUE: Cong. M’kor Shalom


CURRENT AUDIO BOOK: “D-Day” by Stephen Ambrose

Visibly inspired by the mixed media projects her eighth-grade students have created, Rosa Middle School teacher Lillian Halden gives a visitor back stories for each of the Holocaust-related works. Among the most intriguing: A mixed-media picture of German children instructed to identify the so-called traits and characteristics of a Jew and a hauntingly minimalist sculpture of a solitary figure on a hard, cold, quartzite pedestal.

“We’ve done this for 16 years and it’s been so rewarding,” said Halden, 63, an English Language Arts teacher who curates an annual show for the Joel & Linda Appel Art Gallery at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. “We’ve gotten the most amazing projects but I’ve also grown over that time to appreciate more and more just the depth of the sacrifice of the people who got caught up in Holocaust.”

For Halden, a Jew by choice who was a journalist before switching careers, it was beshert to land a job out of teaching college attached to the grade in which New Jersey public schools require Holocaust education.

“I love to delve deeply into topics; that has always been my thing, and I love words,” said Halden, who was raised in Camden’s Polish Whitman Park neighborhood. “The Holocaust is such an amazing example of the power of words.”

There are personal investments too. Both she and her husband Pete, also a former journalist, are children of Holocaust survivors. While Pete’s story is more conventional—his Jewish parents narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in the late 1930s by pretending to go on vacation—her family history is a powerful and teachable example that Jews were far from the only victims of Hitler’s evil reign.

When Eastern Europe fell to the Nazis, both her Polish-born father and Ukrainian mother were forced to become slave laborers. They met working in kitchens at various locations supporting the Nazi war machine.

The last place was Dachau concentration camp. Halden has a photograph from the day they were liberated by U.S. soldiers. Her father is posed on the shoulders of an American soldier smiling broadly.

Although her parents, like many of that generation, talked little of their horrific experiences, she has an early recollection of her mother’s torment. Halden was five years old in 1959 when her mother received her first letter from relatives back in The Ukraine.

“My mother read that letter and fell to the ground like someone shot her,” she said. “She crawled under the dining room table of our house in Camden. I remember getting onto the ground, speaking to her in Polish and asking her what was the matter. She was crying and I started crying.”

What had happened was her mother learned that her own mother had passed away just months earlier without ever knowing whatever happened to her daughter. The grandmother she never knew died clutching her mother’s long discarded braids.

Having always been fascinated by World War II history, literature and—most of all— the stories of struggles and resilience of those who both lived and perished during the Nazi regime, Halden does not just have her students read seminal books like “Night” by Elie Wiesel. She preps them with history lessons that set up the economic and political conditions that turned Germany, an advanced culture, into a hellhole. They read primary texts used in public schools as examples of how words can be manipulated into propaganda and people turned against one another. Towards the end of the unit, after a visit to the JCRC’s Raab/Goodwin Holocaust Museum and hearing from survivors, the students are tasked to come up with a project to express their learning in a personal way. The results have been stunning. Students have done poetry projects, plays, sculpture, choreographed ballet, and even a short symphony.

Helen Kirschbaum, Raab/Goodwin museum director, noted that Halden’s ability to make the Holocaust personal for her students is exemplary.

“Lillian’s passion for the importance of Holocaust education is contagious,” Kirschbaum said. “Her students show real insight and compassion in their work. Lillian inspires them to delve into the deeper meanings of the lessons that we must all learn of acceptance of diversity and the resilience of those who have faced life-altering experiences and rebuilt their lives.”

(The student works are on display at the Raab/Goodwin Museum at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill at least until Oct. 1's March of Remembrance event.) 

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