Illinois teacher receives national fellowship


In Nashville, Ill., a small town about 50 miles east of St. Louis, there is no synagogue. In fact, so few Jews live there, Nashville High School teacher Sara Kollbaum is not sure she has taught any at all.

Yet, on April 27, the Nashville community played host to an event entitled Death of Many, Death of One: Individuals of the Holocaust, which attracted an audience of more than 160 people.

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For Kollbaum, who has spent the past seven years of her career teaching students about the Holocaust, it represented the beginning of a more interactive and community-based teaching, which has earned her one of only 14 Museum Teacher Fellowships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C.

The event, planned and run by students in Kollbaum’s senior Honors class, featured the first-hand account of Mary Lou Ruhe, a survivor of Aushwitz, and information on the recent genocides around the world. By the end of the evening, the class had raised almost $600, which they sent to

“This year was the culminating year for me. We went to the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis, and we met Rudy Oppenheim, who was a survivor who escaped to Shanghai, China. He challenged my kids to want to do something. I remember it was a nice afternoon in November and they said ‘Mrs. Kollbaum, we want to do something.'”

“My students worked on it from November to April,” Kollbaum said. “We had 21 readings from two accounts. We had accounts from perpetrators and bystanders — my kids really thought the people who stood by and did nothing were responsible. We had seven stories from survivors. It was more like dramatic readings — the lights were down and everything. We allowed a 45-minute slot for Mary Lou Ruhe to tell her story. Then we dedicated the final part of our program to stopping modern genocide, specifically in Darfur,” Kollbaum said.

Over the course of the school year, her focus has extended from the classroom to the broader community. She worked with educators in the St. Louis region, including Lolle Boettcher, a former USHHM Fellow, who provided resources and support.

When Boettcher encouraged her to apply for the program, Kollbaum spent hours filling out the long and comprehensive application. She will join secondary school teachers from all over the country who have proven their dedication and interest in Holocaust education.

Kollbaum left for Washington in July for the five-day, intensive training. Programming began at 8:30 every morning and lasted well into the evening. Museum trainers warned participants not to plan on having time touring D.C.

Kollbaum will share her own experiences with teachers from around the country, interact with survivors, become familiar with the media available from the museum, and ultimately begin work on an independent project to increase Holocaust awareness and information in southern Illinois. Next summer, the museum will fly her back for follow-up analysis.

“In Nashville, we’re close to St. Louis and the museum there, but there’s a lot of Illinois below us. What does someone in Carbondale do? I would like to create a resource center in Nashville High School, and become a resource person other teachers could contact. To provide them with assistance, to help them find online resources, and to just answer questions, especially now that I’ll have some training,” Kollbaum said.

An avid reader, Kollbaum knew the facts of the Holocaust before she began including survivors’ stories in her lesson plans to fulfill Illinois’ state requirement. As a teacher in a faith-based community, her students’ reactions have encouraged her to develop the curriculum. She now includes more personalized activities, such as building “identity bags,” in which students choose meaningful objects in their own lives, and compare them to Elie Wiesel’s. Through first-person narratives, Kollbaum demonstrates the common humanity between her students and Holocaust victims before World War II.

“I started teaching about the Holocaust in 2001 when I was pregnant with my first daughter. I knew about the Holocaust, and I’d read about it. But somehow teaching about it, being pregnant especially, I just had this sense of responsibility,” Kollbaum said. “I know it sounds corny, but I needed to tell the story for people who couldn’t tell the story, or had their story ripped from them.”