A long-time dream is coming true for a local Catholic professor whose passion is the Holocaust — learning about it, and helping people remember so that, in the words of noted survivor Elie Wiesel, they can "reject despair."
Amy Porche, a professor of English at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, leaves June 23 for a three-week course on the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. "Teaching About the Shoah and anti-Semitism" will feature premiere scholars on the subject, as well as survivors of the atrocity that claimed the lives of 6 million during World War II.
Yad Vashem is the "leading Holocaust museum and research center in the world," said Rabbi Tom Friedmann of Temple Israel (Reform) in Columbus. It is a sprawling complex of walkways leading to museums, exhibits, archives, monuments, sculptures and memorials. Translated from Hebrew, "yad va-shem" means "a memorial and a name," taken from the book of Isaiah: "And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name . . . that shall not be cut off."
Porche, a member of Holy Family Catholic Church on 12th Street, thought about applying for the course in Israel last year but let the deadline pass. Then when the information came to her again, she jumped at the chance.
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"This means so much to me at a core level," Porche said. "I never thought I would be able to go. I remember as a child wanting to go to Israel. My mother and the nuns would say, 'It's too dangerous,’ so I took it off my list. But people who go there tell me, 'Just go,’ and, 'Be careful.’ And some people say, 'Don't go to the market or ride buses.’ ’’
Lots of support
Porche is no stranger to Columbus' Jewish community. In 2004, she was the speaker for the annual Holocaust Remembrance Service. Earlier that year, she had created a display in the CVCC Learning Resource Center about the Holocaust, which included photographs of captives. Regularly in her literature classes, she brings in works about Holocaust, including Wiesel's prize-winning book "Night." She has also been a student at the Holocaust Institute at Florida State University, and sits on the Alabama Holocaust Commission.
Additionally, Porche has been in a study group in recent months led by Rabbi Max Roth of Shearith Israel Synagogue (Conservative). Upon hearing of her trip, Roth and Friedmann were able to raise about half of her funding for the course. The total for her trip is about $4,000; and $1,600 of that came from faculty at CVCC. Part of the aid from the Jewish community came from the National Jewish Federation, which "provides life-saving and life-enhancing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and translates Jewish values into social action on behalf of millions of Jews in hundreds of communities in North America, in towns and villages throughout Israel, in the former Soviet Union and 60 countries," according to its Web site.
"They said, 'We are so grateful you're doing this,’ ” Porche said of local Jewish leaders. For her part, Porche said she was "overwhelmed" by the assistance from her friends and colleagues. Her fellow faculty members at CVCC recently staged a "Send Amy to Israel" party at which they gave her their collected funds.
Porche is originally from Louisiana. She has a sister, Nancy, who's mentally retarded from a complicated birth that deprived her of oxygen. When Amy about 8 years old, her mother told her that Hitler also put to death those he deemed imperfect.
"I remember her saying to me, 'Your sister would have been among the first,’ and I knew then how unjust that would be," Porche told the Ledger-Enquirer in 2004. "I felt such a sense of rage and protection. All the emotions came through." Porche has degrees from Loyola University and the University of New Orleans.
In the fall, Porche will plan an elective humanities course on the Holocaust at CVCC for the following semester, based on what she learns this summer. Twenty other people from around the world are taking the course with her. With all her previous coursework on the subject, she's already gotten a solid basis for what awaits. For instance, "there are stories of people huddling in the latrines to pray on the Sabbath. That gives me a sense of the Jewish mindset. Not all the Jews were religious, or believed the same thing, so there is this huge, complex, amalgamated community," she said.
Her three weeks will be packed with 12-hour days, six days a week — which she'll record on a blog — but also contain some down time that will allow the group to explore the area. She plans to visit the Dead Sea, among other sites. Class titles include "How Was It Humanly Possible?" which focuses on the perpetrators; and "The Allies and the Holocaust." A museum that's part of Yad Vashem contains an exhibit dedicated to the 1.5 million children who died. It features mirrors and lighted candles, with the children's names repeated over a sound system.
Porche, being Catholic, is also interested in learning more about her own faith's response to the systematic killings. Like many Christian groups at the time, the Catholic Church had a complex relationship with the Nazis. Some Christians, while deemed silent when taken as a whole, had individual believers who gave shelter. Numbers vary about the numbers of Christians who were themselves targeted along with the Jews.
The Secretary of State to Pope Pius XI, who was later elevated to Pope Pius XII, was considered a foe by Nazi Germany; but beginning with Rolf Hocchuth's "The Deputy" in 1963, Pius XII was accused of being silent about, or even a co-conspirator to, the Nazi regime. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) denounced anti-Semitism; and Pope John Paul II apologized for the sins of the Church during the war when, visiting Yad Vashem in 2000, he said: ". . . I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place."
Meanwhile, Porche is shopping for a new suitcase and tying up loose ends on what she considers a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.
"This is the best I can possibly get," Porche said.