The town of Tykocin in western Poland is home to only 2,014 people. In the 1930s and 1940s the population was over 4,000.
Nearly two thousand residents of Tykocin were Jewish and over the course of two days, August 25th and August 26th, 1941 the population was cut in half by Nazi death squads.
The once thriving synagogue in the town square is no longer home to weekly Sabbath services. It now stands as a memorial to those lost and serves as a symbol those who were lost.
Alongside the death camps, mass grave sites and ghettos that are all over Poland.
It was these sights that Alston Middle School history teacher Pren Woods visited while traveling across Poland as part of a program made possible by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem, also involved in the program was Echoes and Reflections which is a joint program of the other three organizations.
During the course of nine days Woods traveled across Poland visiting sites from the Holocaust and the Nazi-occupation of the country.
“You feel the evil and human depravity at these sights,” Woods said.
Woods was one of 25 other educators selected to take part in this study. Each person involved was assigned a victim of the the Holocaust to research and study before the trip began, and they were then able to follow in their assigned person’s footsteps through the Holocaust.
Woods was assigned to research Shmuel Chaluta, a ritual slaughterer from Amstivave, Poland.
Woods said that through studying Chaluta, the Holocaust became a lot more humanized. The experience helped him to realize that there was life for the victims before the Holocaust and Nazi-occupation. Woods spoke about seeing photos of families at parties, on vacations and school photos.
“The image of the Holocaust is ovens and gas chambers and that’s it,” said Woods. “We want to humanize the victims and survivors.”
When Woods came to the city of Tykocin he was able to see the mass grave in which Chaluta was buried and was able to honor his memory. Woods discussed the importance of burials and funerals in many cultures and how these people in a mass grave were not given proper funerals.
“I gave him the funeral he never had,” Woods explained. “Here I was 70 years later bearing witness to him.”
Woods said that the trip taught him the importance of being a witness. He explained that the one of the most important things that he learned was to make sure that these stories are carried on throughout history.
“The idea of witnessing is very important,” Woods said.
The trip also taught Woods about how he can use history to teach his students about important life lessons like standing up to adversity, resilience and fighting for your beliefs. He talked about the passive resistance to Nazi oppression that existed in the ghettos. This was through maintaining their culture through the Holocaust and Nazi-occupation. Woods said that the trip challenged him to bring these stories back to his students and teach them the important lessons that can be taught through this tragedy. He said that being a witness to all of these places where these tragedies took place filled him with a desire to work more in the classroom.
“It challenges you,” Woods said.
Woods said that the trip also affected the way that he will teach about the history of and the country of Poland. Woods said that he will no longer view Poland as a country that only existed from 1939 to 1945. He said that the country’s history and culture is very rich. Woods said that the classroom is a great place to bring about the lessons that he has learned from this trip and bring about change in the world. He said that the classroom is a great place for debate and to help students learn that disagreement can be good as long as it is accompanied with respect and healthy debate.
“Teachers are on the front line of combating intolerance and bigotry,” Woods explained.
Woods said that it is the job of past generations to teach the younger generations about the past and the importance of learning from it. Woods said that he was emboldened to help his students learn to think about the big picture and fight for what they believe is right.