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Beacon profs travel abroad in Poland
Beacon educators Michael Fallon (blue shirt and sunglasses) and Dr. Michele Szydlowski (striped shirt and cap) travel abroad with the Classrooms Without Borders program.

By Richard Burnett

Shock and awe awaited a triad of Beacon College faculty members this summer as they encountered some of the most infamous places in history on an educational trip to Europe.

Dr. Michele Szydlowski, assistant professor of anthrozoology, and Michael Fallon, instructor/coordinator of business and technology, visited Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps in Poland. Vilma Ramirez, a business and technology instructor, visited the Jewish ghettos, Holocaust museums, and other historic sites of Italy.

They comprised Beacon’s “Class of 2022” for Classrooms Without Borders, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit program, which selects a group of educators and students from southwest Pennsylvania for travel abroad to learn about the history of the Jewish Holocaust.

Beacon’s connection to the yearly program came through Debbie Resnick, a Beacon trustee, career educator, and Classrooms Without Borders board member, who championed the idea of expanding the program to include Beacon faculty.

In this Q&A, Szydlowski, Fallon and Ramirez shared some of their experiences:

Q: What attracted your interest in this summer’s Classrooms Without Borders trip?

Vilma Ramirez Szydlowski: I travel a lot for the research I do as an anthrozoologist. As part of that, I study what is called social othering — how human beings set up “us-them” structures to separate themselves from others in different cultures. The Holocaust and the events that led up to it are a brutal example of that — how the Nazi used propaganda to target the Jews as an [inferior] “them.” In that context, I went on this trip to get more insight about this terrible episode in human history.

Fallon: I think we all wanted to better understand the Holocaust, the how and why it happened. By going there, it immerses you in the stories, landmarks, museums and people who experienced it. We had a Holocaust survivor with us during most of the trip. Howard Chandler was 12 years old when it happened, and he was invaluable to us. As a child, he survived Auschwitz. It was amazing to hear him talk about it. In preparation for the trip, I had studied Jewish culture, watched movies and read books about the Holocaust. But it just doesn’t come to life until you are there.

Ramirez: I had visited Italy 10 years ago and of course I fell in love with it then. So when the opportunity came to apply for the Classrooms Without Borders trip, there were two options and I chose Italy. I love the culture behind it, the history of it, and what Classrooms Without Borders does with their program in terms of bringing history to real life. That was especially meaningful in terms of learning more about the Jewish people and the Holocaust. It’s one thing, you know, to read about it in a textbook, but another thing to actually see it and walk through it. 

Q: What surprised you the most during your journey?

Szydlowski: Our trip started in Warsaw, where our guides talked about the history that preceded World War II, the setup of the Warsaw ghetto where Jews were interned and many were killed or deported to the concentration camps. The most shocking thing to me today about Warsaw is what a beautiful place it was. The people were so nice and helpful. It’s like the Holocaust is sort of hidden now; it’s not in your face. The memorial walls are difficult to find. The monuments are not labeled. You almost get a feeling like they’ve moved on — which is understandable if you actually lived in places where such horrible things happened so long ago.

Fallon: We spent a lot of time in Warsaw, Krakow and other cities, where they explained what led up to the Holocaust. We saw how more than three million Jews in Poland were killed, where they were killed and how the Nazis did it. It was just stunning to hear how Jews were taken prisoner and their communities were destroyed piece by piece. People always wonder how this could happen. But when you hear actual survivors talk about it, they know how it happened.

Ramirez: The most surprising thing was how our tours in Italy gave me such a better understanding of Jewish people, their culture and history. I grew up in New York City, and where I lived in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, there was a big Jewish population. Though we lived basically side by side, we had no clue or knowledge of one another. We lived together, but in isolation. On this trip, we learned so much about the Jewish people, what happened in the Holocaust, how they were segregated, persecuted, uprooted from their homes and killed. It was a real eye-opener for me. We had phenomenal tour guides, including a group of scholars, some of whom were Jewish, who were amazing and always open to sharing their knowledge with us.

Q: What impact will this trip have on you personally and professionally?

Szydlowski: On a personal level, the biggest takeaway is to be aware that some of the same sorts of things are happening today that led to the Nazis rise to power. We’re seeing the same mistreatment of certain people, political minorities and ethnic groups. Unfortunately, instead of fighting it, there’s too often a social acceptance that it’s okay to do these things. But we have to be vigilant not to let that happen. In my courses, I teach students about the dangers of setting up us-them barriers based on the concept that one group is somehow superior to another. The takeaways from our trip can help drive that point home.

Fallon: I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this program. In terms of my personal knowledge, this was a life-changing event. From the survivor stories to the overgrown cemeteries and gas chambers, the trip was unforgettable. It’s given me some great ideas about how I can integrate what I learned into courses to show how business changed across Europe because of the Holocaust. It’s an interesting approach that can really raise our students’ awareness about the impact of anti-Semitism on the business world.

Ramirez: It was so enlightening to me to really understand the atrocities the Jewish people had to endure, what they went through and the treatment they received. As I said, it’s one thing to read about it in a textbook, but this was a learning experience that I can take going forward and share with my students, colleagues and friends. I’m working on ways to tie that knowledge into my classes in business and technology. On a personal level, I think it gave me a greater appreciation for life itself. I know that we often hear that the times we’re living in are so difficult, but when we reflect back to another period in history [like the Holocaust], we realize how fortunate we really are and how we can learn from that.