There are few things more enjoyable for Ilana Weltman than throwing a birthday party for a Holocaust survivor or spending time with the grandchild of one. The 33-year old Washington resident is the project director of the Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts master’s program at The George Washington University.
Her educator role extends to a social group for grandchildren of survivors and other young professionals, called 3GDC. She wants people in their 20s and 30s to know that survivors aren’t just living memorials, but regular people who enjoy schmoozing and socializing with other generations.
How did you decide to go into Holocaust education?
I grew up in Metro Detroit. I went to a wonderful day school called Hillel Day School. I really loved it there, and that’s actually where I got inspired. I had to interview a survivor back in the eighth grade. I really gravitated toward that subject from that class. Then, in high school, they actually had a dual enrollment program where I could take Holocaust courses at a college, and that even inspired me further.
What’s the most powerful experience you’ve had?
It’s really the friendships I’ve made with the survivors that I’ve worked with. In Dallas [where she started a group], I had some survivors who I considered to be my best friends, and I think that I’ve been there for them, they’ve been there for me. I had one survivor who had no living relatives except for one grandson. Doing things for her like throwing her a birthday party when she turned 90 and just having this friendship with her was so important to me. We don’t even talk about the Holocaust. I have another survivor who I do that with too, and she’s so fun and gives me dating advice. So I really connect with them in that way. I think it’s important to engage them in everyday life. I love them. They’re really important to me, and I wish more people would befriend them.
How do you think that can happen?
I hope these birthday parties that I’m throwing for survivors locally will inspire people to follow up with survivors. It actually has worked with some people who have said, “I want to visit so and so.”
Do you worry about the day when Holocaust survivors are no longer alive?
Yes. That’s why this is time sensitive. We really need to be visiting them and doing more intergenerational events with them. We had a successful event with 60 young professionals for a survivor who turned 101 last summer. He actually hasn’t been feeling well the past few months, and I was concerned about him. But I was just at the intergenerational Holocaust survivor party in Rockville, and he got up to dance twice. He was going around in a circle with the other survivors with the Yiddish music playing in the background, and it was so touching and moving. He’s 101 years old and he’s still so full of life, and it was a really powerful moment to see that.
What is the biggest challenge of teaching the Holocaust to the current generation of students?
I think it’s making it relevant, since a lot of time has passed. There’s a lot of Holocaust fatigue where people are tired of hearing about it, especially in Jewish school. I try to home in on connecting the student with the subject, and I think teachers need to be aware of that, and how to do it in a pedagogically sound way. You can’t just read [‘The Diary of] Anne Frank.” You need to have other literature there supporting it. The  Pew study found one of the main ways Jews identify with their Judaism is through the Holocaust, and never forgetting. So I think there’s much to say about that and if we incorporate more experiential ways of teaching the Holocaust, rather than typical classroom instruction … I’m really a fan of museums and documentaries, trying to connect the students in different ways.
Do the events of the Holocaust have increased relevance today because of incidents like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville?
It’s always been relevant. Despite whatever happens, it’s always relevant. I actually don’t like when people are like, “Oh now we have to…” It should have been an issue before, too.
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