Since 1995, Michelle Chavez has taught English at her alma mater, Weiser High School. But 16 years ago, she also started a class devoted to studying the Holocaust. For her efforts, the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights honored her as the Human Rights Educator of the Year in 2017. Chavez spoke with BW contributing writer Marcia Franklin about her passion.
Did you ever meet a Jewish person growing up?
When was the first time you met a Jewish person?
In person? Literally Rose Beal. [A Holocaust survivor who lived in Boise and died in 2014.]
When did you first learn about the Holocaust?
I don't remember in high school really learning about the Holocaust. I do remember when I was at BSU I took a class that talked a little bit about the Holocaust and it really piqued my interest. That people could do that to other people was just kind of astounding to me, and then to just hear survivors' stories has always been just so interesting to me.
Then when I started teaching at Weiser we did a Holocaust unit in an English class, and that's when I really started to see that the kids would really connect to it. And I just thought, "You know what, I want to just expand on this," and decided to create the class.
Meeting Amy Herzfeld [the former director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center, now the Wassmuth Center] was a key moment, wasn't it?
Yes, [in 2006] she was at the Weiser High School doing a history of human rights. I didn't know anything about her—she was just a stranger in the coffee room. We got to just kind of visiting and she said, "What do you teach?"
And I was telling her...and she said, "Oh, my gosh—you should come to Europe with us." And that's kind of when it all began. Meeting Amy changed my life forever.
We went to the Anne Frank House...and then we traveled through Berlin and we went to the Stasi prison and we were just able to see so many sites that were human rights violations. And then [on] the last leg of our trip we were in Poland at the Auschwitz camp, and it was just, oh—there's no words. It's just so powerful.
That was truly the defining moment when I decided, "I'm going to share what I learned here and I'm going to make sure everybody I come into contact with knows about this."
Part of that effort was "Remembrance Camp." How would you describe it? [First staged at Weiser High, the exhibit is now the Holocaust Room at the Snake River Heritage Center in Weiser.]
The idea was just a visual representation of what went on in the camps. I wanted people for remembrance purposes to never forget what happened in the Holocaust. But I wanted them to have a visual representation through pictures, and through—obviously we didn't have relics, but we re-created relics, of the "Arbeit macht frei" sign; we did the bunks, we did the shooting wall.
And then I had students who dressed in stripes who would tell the story. And then we also had interviews from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel that he did with Oprah Winfrey that would also tell the story. And so it was a very moving experience, for sure.
I noticed that in one of the pictures of the exhibit there's a Nazi flag.
Oh, yes. I've got a couple of those now. That's interesting. One of them was donated to me by a man who served in World War II, and he donated it to the museum.
I recently acquired another one from a prisoner of war who served in World War II. He recently passed away, and at his estate sale my husband...got into a bidding war for it for me and ended up winning it from some people who I think wanted it—this is all conjecture—but basically, they wanted it maybe to fly it.
Why is having the flags important to you?
I want it to be as realistic as it can be. I want people to be able to make a connection to it. I want people to be able to understand the history. I don't want this time period to be forgotten.
Of course there are always those cultural nuances. You don't want to do anything that will cheapen the experience.
Absolutely. You can never say to people, "Imagine what this was like," because you can't compare levels of pain, because we will never be able to understand that. I think I want it to just be a visual representation of what it sort of looked like and the experience itself, and then hopefully it will kind of spark an interest.
Has there been any pushback?
I've had pushback from deniers, but never from anybody that kind of understands the concept of what I was trying to do.
What kind of pushback from deniers?
When we did Remembrance Camp I did receive a letter and it was really actually quite sad because it was from a very educated person. He called it the "Holohoax," and then just sent all this literature about why it was fake and how the pictures had been faked and the testimonies were fake. And it was very sad to see that an educated person would feel that way. But for the most part I've had very positive feedback.
Do you still take your students to the Anne Frank Memorial?
Every year. It's just a wonderful day. I have so many kids that'll come back and go, "Oh my gosh, I loved that field trip."
Why do you choose to teach in Weiser?
My administration is so supportive of me. I go to them and say, "Hey, I want to start a Holocaust literature class," and they just basically let me run with it. I love the hometown feeling of it.
What was it like winning the Educator of the Year award from the Wassmuth Center?
Probably one of the greatest things that's ever happened. I was just very proud. I say I'm an English teacher, and I am. But if I could only teach one thing all day, every day, it would be the Holocaust.
You know, the Holocaust didn't start with camps; it started with words. I just always want people to understand that the little things we do—that backbiting and that stereotyping, that discrimination—that leads somewhere. That isn't just innocuous. It isn't just in passing. Those words make an impact.