For years, Meg Pankiewicz brought in Holocaust survivors to relay the horrors of weaponized hatred to her classes at Canon-McMillan High School.
Those opportunities have occurred less frequently in recent years, though, as many survivors have died or have difficulties making speaking engagements.
But antisemitism didn’t end with the Holocaust, and Pankiewicz now has another group of people she can call on to explain the impact of hatred: survivors and relatives of the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
“My goal always as a teacher is to show the parallels and patterns between the past and the present,” Pankiewicz said. “I used Holocaust survivors in my classes for almost 20 years, and now, victims of hate crimes experience the same hatred but only in a different time period. But the message is still there, the hatred is still there, and it continues to happen because there are people who let it happen and do nothing.”
Pankiewicz, who teaches a Holocaust and genocide studies elective class at Canon-McMillan, organized an event that took place Friday at the Frank Sarris Library in Canonsburg called “A Day of Reflection on the Dangers of Hatred, Community Trauma and Resilience.”
About 50 students and others from the community watched “Repairing the World,” a documentary about the synagogue massacre in which 11 people were killed among the three congregations — Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash — that shared the building. They then had a question and answer session with Audrey Glickman and Carol Black, who both survived the attack, and Jodi Kart, whose father, Melvin Wax, was murdered.
The women shared stories about their experience with antisemitism before the massacre, as well as their recollections of the day of the mass shooting. They talked about the horrors of losing friends and loved ones. They spoke about practical lessons they learned, such as keeping a cellphone close by at all times and knowing where all of the exits are in buildings.
But they also discussed overcoming the hatred they experienced and, perhaps, preventing it in the future.
“It would be very easy to hide away, because then maybe you think you’ll be safe. But then you’re not living,” said Black, who also lost her brother, Richard Gottfried, in the attack. “You want to live your life, to do whatever you feel your purpose is. I wasn’t giving up my life to that piece of garbage. He wasn’t going to take my life away from me.”
Of course, becoming truly stronger than hate involves more than just oneself, Kant said.
“Celebrate your differences,” she said. “Celebrate diversity, because that’s what this world is. We’re all diverse, we’re all different. We all have a different story. Embrace it, celebrate it, share it.”
Glickman said it’s important to be a part of different communities so that you get to know people who have different perspectives and experiences. Truthfully, she said, it’s easy to live without hate.
“Life is joyous. We’re given this wonderful life, and we know how to live it well,” Glickman said. “We know what we’re supposed to do. Peace and love and tending the Earth and taking care of each other. We know what we’re supposed to do, and we’re given the opportunity to do it.”
Keira Corbett, a Canon-McMillan senior in Pankiewicz’s class, said she never had the opportunity to talk to a Holocaust survivor, so she recognized the value in being able to hear from victims of hate crimes.
“To be able to say that we met these people, we talked to these people is quite big for us and I think quite important,” Corbett said. “We’ll never get to understand or meet people who were in the Holocaust. But for [the synagogue shooting], we get to talk to the survivors and actually meet them and understand what they went through and how they’re getting through it currently.”
Pankiewicz told her students that hatred and bigotry come in many forms, and it’s impossible to fight against one without fighting the others. She said one cannot be against antisemitism while simultaneously hating the LGBT community.
She encouraged her students to think about the kind of lives they want to lead and to continue educating themselves on the dangers of hate.
“I am often kept awake at night wondering if we have learned anything from the past,” Pankiewicz said. “I tell my students quite frequently that I am not here to coddle or comfort them, but to tell them the truth. And the truth is hatred is a poison destroying us. It is a poison that annihilates human dignity, civility and decency, yet one of the strongest antidotes to this poison is education.”