Looking back, “the power of the word” was making fundamental and lasting transformation, in me and my community, all along. Four years ago, I was invited to give a TEDx talk in Hamburg, Germany about my work in Holocaust education. My first visit to Germany was in 1995 when I participated in a service-learning project in Dachau that gave my life clear direction.
My interest in human and civil rights and the Holocaust was sparked ten years earlier by Peter Wigmore, the son of a Czech woman who survived several concentration camps. It was the mid-eighties and I was fourteen. Peter told his mother’s story to my social studies class at a junior high in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. He was a teacher at my school and friends with my social studies teacher. They both wanted Peter to share his mother’s story with students. She did not know that he was speaking to students. It would be many years later that she would start publically talking about her life.
Peter’s talk inspired me to learn more and I started reading. I sometimes wrote to the authors, for example, Miep Gies and Howard Zinn – both who wrote back. When teachers gave the option to choose our own project topics, I usually chose an aspect of German history and dug deeper. Otherwise, I told no one. I was not sure how to explain the deep connection I felt.
In 1995, when I traveled to Europe to explore where the Holocaust happened, I did not know that I would spend three years living in the town of Dachau, working as a docent at the former camp, now called a memorial site. I did not know there was a tribe – others who cared about this, like me. I listened often and deeply to survivors and eye-witnesses. I learned that listening is healing and an act of compassion. I experienced the power of the word in all its diversity – conversation, diaries, letters, research, books, interviews, plays, film, and translation. I learned German.
I received the TEDx invitation nineteen years after that first project in Dachau and said yes to sharing my story. I had wondered for years, if Europeans and their societies had been more compassionate, would the Nazi genocide have been the way it was? My broader question was if humans were more compassionate to themselves and others, would our world be more peaceful? I was inspired by research that suggested humans can exercise and develop compassion, like muscles.
The question ‘what can we do?’ is a common one for visitors to former camps and Holocaust memorials. This reaction makes sense when we are confronted with overwhelming situations and information. Cultivating compassion is the most satisfying answer I’ve found so far.
I had several months to prepare the talk. I was based in Berlin and planned a trip to Dachau. The memorial site had changed since I last served there in 2004 and I wanted to take new pictures for the slides. There was a new visitor center and visitors used the same entrance the prisoners did – the Arbeit Macht Frei gate – a goal of the memorial site when I was there. Another change was the bicycle/walking path from the train station to the memorial was now marked with informational panels to teach and guide visitors.
Preparing the talk was reflection – what did I want to share? I sifted through old photographs, research, and my own writing. I was reminded that I am one of thousands who has participated in Dachau’s international youth meeting since it started in the mid-1980s. I studied our young faces in the photos, depicting our temporary summer world of remembrance and service. We worked in the memorial, hugged survivors, taught each other in peer-led workshops, documented our learning, talked with journalists, cooked and cleaned, took naps and swam in nearby lakes.
I reached out to the community to reflect and ask questions. Many of us now work for social change. We are an international network of lawyers, teachers, social workers, doctors, fundraisers, and professors – activists, ultimately. Our participation in the Dachau project was political. Initially, most local politicians and citizens did not support it, though this changed over time and many towns in Germany and Europe developed similar educational programs.
Our efforts to remember and reconcile changed individuals, townspeople, countries, even post-1989 Europe and beyond. Participants from Israel came each year, as well as the former eastern European countries; often it was their first visit to Germany. We carry the stories of the survivors, and eye-witnesses with us and a deep understanding of how Nazism took root, and spread, which affects how we relate to ourselves and the world today. As we experience the current political landscape, we question the tendency towards exclusion. These youth programs still exist today and it’s good that they do. The education they offer is based on inclusion, democracy and speaking out.
Another aspect of preparing the talk was working with teaching colleagues to formulate our pedagogical approach to teaching about the Holocaust in the authentic historical sites. Our model is to examine history, practice mindfulness, reflect and express, then take action. Two branches of work emerged as a result of this process – Holocaust education and cultivating compassion.
Since April 2014, when I gave the talk, my inquiry has been how we can practice and train compassion. After ten years of teaching, I now offer mindfulness training to teachers and caregivers. I was recently in Greece, training therapists who support refugees. Much of the work I did with survivors can be transferred to the refugees and their caregivers, including creative self-expression, storytelling, and listening.
By speaking my truth four years ago, to a live audience of five hundred and the digital record, I held myself accountable for what I believe to be true, that human beings can learn to be more compassionate and create a more peaceful world. I am living into this life of practice and the power of the word continues.
Jennifer Wood is an independent consultant, working worldwide, as a transitional coach, mindfulness trainer and language specialist. She coaches individuals making life changes, such as relocating, planning creative projects or pursuing a new vocation. Jennifer facilitates mindfulness and self-care workshops for educators and caregivers.
Jennifer has worked with adults, teens, and children in diverse contexts for almost 30 years as a workshop facilitator, coach, and public historian. A trained ESOL teacher (English for Speakers of Other Languages), she taught for 10 years in public, private and bilingual schools in Africa, Germany, and the United States.
Jennifer holds a M.Ed. in International Education and continues to instruct English speakers of all ages and backgrounds in developing reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.
Her approach includes compassionate listening, cultivating awareness and joy, stress reduction, movement, creative self-expression and secular mindfulness practices.