Educator spotlight: Sonja Vilicic

Educator spotlight: Sonja Vilicic

18 Apr 2016

How does one go about introducing the entirety of Jewish existence and experience - the past as well as the present, periods of prosperity as much as those of great adversity - to elementary and high-school students who most likely have no personal experience with either Jews or anything Jewish-related?

That was the feat that befell Sonja Viličić and her team from Haver Serbia - NGO founded in 2013 and inspired and mentored by Haver Foundation (Budapest, Hungary).

Haver Serbia aims at fostering inter-cultural dialog among Serbian Jews and non-Jews and training Jewish youth to run tolerance-building informal education workshops. While working to introduce the local non-Jewish population to Jewish culture, history and tradition, Haver is also contributing towards building a more democratic and diverse society in Serbia.

Sonja worked closely with the exhibition's curator and designer, Andrea Palašti, on creating a holistic unit that not only referred to the Holocaust, but also examined questions of tolerance, dignity, equality and human rights. Andrea points out that 'the curatorial concept to tell the history of prewar Jewish community through the history of photography in 19 thematic units, as well as the design of the exhibition itself, made it possible for this educational part to inspire empathy among the students' and add that it also helped foster a discussion on the ways of reading and analyzing private, family photographs, and what role they have in the wider societal context.

What did the educational component of the “Portraits and Memories” exhibit consist of?

The educational activities were structured around three thematic units:

  • Educational materials and training for volunteers (volunteers who helped lead guided tours of the exhibition in all of the cities visited)
  • Educational manual for teachers that consist of: historical facts about Jews and Jewish community prior, during, and after the Holocaust, as well as the contemporary community; section about how to teach Holocaust; educational workshops; suggested reading material for both teachers and school children; and suggested movies appropriate for different student age-groups
  • Workshops during the exhibition for elementary and high-school students. During the exhibition 4000 school children around Serbia attended the workshops.

The workshop activities covered 3 topics:

  • Jewish tradition and customs (introduction to symbols, holidays, and life cycle)
  • The Holocaust
  • Holocaust with relationship to discrimination (where we discussed current situation in Serbia and who are the victims of discrimination today)

Who was your target audience and how did you go about defining the educational goals of the programme?

The programme aimed at school pupils between the ages of 12 to 18, but indirectly also at the teachers, as we hoped to increase their interest and empower them by means of the workshops and the teacher manual, so that they could deal with this topics in their own classrooms.

The educational goals of the programme were set in line with the exhibition itself, and were based on our previous experience in working in schools. It was there, through our regular work as Haver Serbia, that we realised that school-aged children (as well as their teachers, to a certain extent) do not have any knowledge about Jews in general, and more specifically, about the Holocaust. Because of this, we decided that our approach to the workshops should also include specific aims, such as discussing prejudice and discrimination and their consequences, the notion of integration and the importance of preservation of individual and collective identity.

Additionally, it was important for us that children connect on personal level with the photographs and the people depicted on them. One of the ways of achieving this was through the first task - after they had seen the exhibition, we asked them to choose one picture that was most interesting, one that reminded them of their own family, had an aspect of commonality with their own lives, etc.

What were some of the common student reactions to the photographs and stories presented in the exhibition?

Even though prior to the workshop itself, student groups spent time exploring the exhibition as part of a guided tour that introduced them to the context and the personal stories, some stereotypical comments could, at times, be heard. These would fall in the group of classical prejudice towards Jews - commenting on big noses, or that they look rich, etc. This meant that one of our tasks during the subsequent workshop was to “uncover” each of those stereotypes.

The majority of reactions, however, boiled down to kids realising that they have similar photographs of their own family back home, and that they could not spot any differences if we don’t take particular family names into consideration. This made for a good starting point for asking the question: why then were these people taken out of society, isolated, discriminated against both psychologically and physically, and in the end sent to their deaths.

The reactions to the workshop segment on Jewish culture were subsequently overwhelmingly positive, and kids have stated that they found it very interesting.

What would you say - or hope - that the participants took away from the experience?

What was of primary importance for us was to introduce them to Jews and Judaism as a way to combat stereotypes due to lack of knowledge and ignorance, but also to create alternatives for the association so that they would not see or remember Jews solely through the eyes of the Holocaust.

Since we also focused on discrimination, we hope to have raised their awareness and understanding of the effects and consequences of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping in any society.

We wanted them to understand that Holocaust was no 'accident' - choices were made by individuals, organizations and governments that legalized discrimination and allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately, mass murder to occur.

And we wanted them to realize what happens when we are silent and indifferent to the suffering of others.

And… did it ‘work’?

I can just believe and hope that one day it will work :)

For more information about the work of Haver Serbia visit

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