Making the Grade: High schoolers get up-close look at Holocaust

When it’s time to sign up for the next round of classes at the Marist School, there’s one course that generates significant conversation. And it’s always the same: If you can get into Brendan Murphy’s history seminar on the Holocaust, take it.

At first glance, spending a term studying such a serious topic wouldn’t seem like a priority for teenagers. But those who have taken the course attest that it goes well beyond being a history lesson. Senior Frank Pittman, who took the session as a sophomore, describes it as life-changing.

“You come out with a completely new world view,” he said. “I have to thank Mr. Murphy for shaping a whole part of who I am through that class.”

Murphy got the idea for a Holocaust course shortly after starting as a Marist teacher 22 years ago. “My first semester, I was assigned to teach world history and was really frustrated that in a class like that, the Holocaust came down to 15 minutes. I always felt it needed a greater amount of time, so I drew up a proposal to teach a seminar course on the subject.”

Since 1996, the story of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust has taken up the bulk of Murphy’s teaching. About 100 students take it as an elective each year. And it’s grown to be more than a classroom experience. Initially, Murphy expanded the curriculum by taking groups of students to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he became a fellow. Then 15 years ago, he designed a week-long field trip to Europe where students visit the locations where history took place.

“The Anti-Defamation League has a program called Bearing Witness that is designed for Catholic educators teaching about the Holocaust,” he said. “I went with them to Israel seven years ago and used that background to design this 8-day trip over spring break that takes students to Munich, Prague and Krakow to examine the Holocaust in a way we can’t in the classroom.”

On the first trip eight years ago, Murphy had 27 students, despite some misgivings from parents. “We held a meeting to explain why we’d consider a trip like this, and I remember one parent saying, ‘I’m not sure if my child is prepared to visit a place like Auschwitz.’ We do give them plenty of quiet time to absorb and reflect on what they’re seeing. I think the students have a desire to understand themselves and their own potential to do good, and they have an authentic sense of wanting to make sense of the world that makes the trip worth it.”

Murphy also offers a 3-night class for parents so they can learn in detail what the class and trip abroad are covering. He also has to hold a lottery to select participants for the limited-space excursion. This year, 76 students signed up for 32 spaces. One of those going is Pittman’s younger brother, Knox.

“When he was a freshman, I told him to take the class because it is literally life-changing,” he said. “The trip was moving; it evoked a broad spectrum of emotions. Visiting Krakow and Auschwitz was very heavy; it’s so hard to wrap your head around how many people were slaughtered when you’re walking through the same gas chambers. But there were fun parts, too, when we learned about German culture and saw all the usual touristy sites. It was the best trip I’ve ever been on.”

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