GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Because they’ll see injustices both big and small in life, Melanie Smith tries to empower her South Greene High students with empathy — an approach that has won the 10th-grade English teacher recognition for her teaching on the Holocaust.
Smith was named one of three 2022 Belz-Lipman Holocaust Educators across the state last week. For a 20-year teaching veteran who’s integrated teaching about the Holocaust into every grade level she’s taught from elementary to middle to high school, it was a career highlight.
“I was elated,” Smith said. “I have taught this for so long, and it’s been a great passion of mine, so I feel like this has been the ultimate blessing in my career.”
The Tennessee Holocaust Commission sponsors the award, which was established by Memphis entrepreneurs and philanthropists Jack Belz and Ira Lipman. It comes with a $1,500 scholarship, which Smith said she’ll likely put toward additional art materials for the dioramas and other work her students create during their Holocaust unit.
That unit centers around the late Elie Wiesel’s novel “Night,” a memoir based on Wiesel’s 1944-45 experiences with his father at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, two Nazi concentration camps. Smith supplements that with non-fiction texts, speeches, and poetry that’s been written about the Holocaust.
“I will probably always use something to teach the Holocaust,” Smith said. “It’s just something I feel very passionately about that we need to continue teaching it, and we can look around the world today and see that it is very relevant.
“We still have evil in the world. We still have genocide in the world, and I think it has a place in our curriculum.”
Smith said it also resonates with children, just like it did with her when she became fascinated first with World War II and later with the Holocaust itself after listening to her grandfather’s World War II survivor stories. He lost a leg fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
“When I first heard people trying to dispel this as a myth, that it never happened, I vowed once I became a teacher I would always carry the voice of those who could no longer speak for themselves,” she said.
She said in addition to a good academic foundation — both from a historical and a literary standpoint — she has an even more important goal for her students. She wants them to develop empathy.
“Never again starts with you. That’s how I start each unit,” Smith said.
She said it works, because the subject matter is so compelling, so seemingly unbelievable and yet so real. She said that comes home when students watch one of Wiesel’s last interviews when he visited Auschwitz with Oprah Winfrey.
“There’s been tears, there’s been these looks on their faces,” Smith said.
“I’ve watched them watching this, and I see that connection now that they have with what they’re learning, and I know that this is something they’ll never forget learning about. I hope that I have at least sown some seeds of empathy toward each other.”
Smith said she tells her students they can be heroes to someone else without being important in the eyes of the world.
“You can be a hero to someone in the lunch room. You can be a hero to someone in this hall. Just stand up, you know, just be be an upstander to someone.”
This year has been particularly interesting for teaching the subject, she said, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, is accused by Russian President Vladimir Putin of leading a country that needs “denazification.”
She said the students learned about a Russian rocket misfire that struck near a memorial in Kyiv dedicated to Jewish victims of a two-day Nazi massacre that killed more than 33,000 people. A building the center was going to use for a new museum was damaged.
“That was very troublesome to them because they feel like a brotherhood now of some sort. They feel connected to the Holocaust survivors.”
The information out of Ukraine has her students wanting to learn more about parallels between that invasion and German aggression in 1938 and 1939. Smith said that level of passion and interest and empathy is what she strives to produce in her students.
“It’s really hard to fully comprehend that depth of evil. It’s really hard to fully comprehend that level of sorrow,” Smith said.
“The major success will be changing how they feel toward each other, toward themselves, that empathy toward each other. I’m wanting to change how they feel — if I can reach them through their heart, then I’ve had a success.”
Smith is the third South Greene teacher to win the Belz-Lipman award.