Thursday, July 16, 2009

An Interview with Dr. Karen Shawn, co-editor of PRISM

By Charles Fishman

I first became aware of Karen Shawn and PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators when I read a notice about her new journal on the Association of Holocaust Organizations list in June 2008. I sent Dr. Shawn an email to see if she might be interested in adding me to the journal’s editorial board, which did not appear to include a poetry editor. She replied immediately and I was soon appointed to that position for the journal. In the 13 months Karen Shawn and I have been debating the virtues of one poem or another, I have always found her to be among the wisest and most fair-minded of editors . . . and also among the most persistent. She has watched over her new journal with the careful attention of a beekeeper or a cultivator of rare orchids. Consequently, the slow-to-arrive first issue — scheduled for release in September — should prove to be aesthetically, as well as intellectually, engaging: a vital new affirmation of the importance of Holocaust Education in a world that seems to have lost its ethical compass.

About two months ago, I decided to interview Dr. Shawn. I thought it would be helpful to followers of this blog to know something about her background and her reasons for bringing a new scholarly journal into the world.

CF: You are co-creator and co-editor of Prism. Can you tell us a little about the other editor?

KS: My co-editor is Dr. Jeffrey Glanz, Professor of Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. He holds the Raine and Stanley Silverstein Chair in Professional Ethics and Values and is a specialist in the fields of curriculum and instruction and educational leadership.

CF: How do you and Jeffrey divide your responsibilities as editors of the journal?

KS: Dr. Glanz is the APA guru and the business person, as well as a reader, reviewer, and manuscript editor. Except in the case of poetry, I’m the person who makes contact with authors and reads and edits initial submissions; I edit the final manuscript, suggest the art and literature to be used and secure permissions; and I recommend the timetable for completing this work and organizing it. Together, Jeffrey and I read everything, edit everything, and plan the themes, design, layout, and publication dates.

CF: Is this sharing of obligations something each of you finds satisfying?

KS: We are happiest when we are working together!

CF: Was it you or Jeffrey who gave the journal its name?

KS: We thought of it more or less together; we were both searching for just the right word to crystallize and illustrate our pedagogical vision of offering readers a variety of viewpoints on the same theme or topic, and the word "prism," we felt, captured our concept beautifully and best.

CF: I realize that PRISM is a journal that has been designed to foster Holocaust education, but will it also have a political or religious dimension?

KS: No. Authors may, of course, choose to examine how the Holocaust is taught in Catholic vs. Jewish schools or discuss survivors’ religious beliefs after the Shoah; someone may analyze the American response to the Holocaust. That is the way politics and religion will be expressed.

CF: What is your background in Holocaust scholarship and teaching and what drew you to this field?

KS: I have been learning and teaching about this subject for 25 years, here and in Israel, where I studied at Yad Vashem, Beit Lohame HaGeta’ot (the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum), and Hebrew University. I taught the pedagogy of the Holocaust in the Yad Vashem Summer Study Fellowship Program for Educators from Abroad for 10 years and served as educational consultant to the American Friends of the Ghetto Fighters Museum for another decade. Survivors and the subject itself drew me, captured me, and continue to engage me on a daily basis.

CF: What were your goals in co-creating PRISM?

KS: One goal was to offer materials that allow and encourage a differentiated approach to Holocaust education; hence the poetry, art, and story amid the history and pedagogy. Another was to offer educators methods and materials that may help them identify and teach essential truths about this subject and examine, through a variety of lenses, its complex nature. Finally, we wanted to inspire and to reinforce the good work already being done in so many quarters of the educational community worldwide.

CF: Now that the editing of Issue #1 has been completed and Issue #2 is also in an advanced stage of development, are you confident that the journal will help you achieve those goals?

KS: We are, but of course we will be eager to hear readers’ responses.

CF: What changes or additions may be needed?

KS: We will probably need to include a “Letters” section.

CF: Please comment on the focus of the debut issue and on the thematic content of future issues that are currently planned.

KS: The debut issue, which is just about to go to press, examines the complex theme of trauma and resilience in children during the Shoah. We have expanded it to include what is called “secondary trauma,” that which occurs in those who are exposed over time to the trauma of others — people such as first responders, rape crisis counselors, and those who teach and learn about the Shoah for extended periods. Themes for future issues include the role of the bystander during the Shoah, the family unit during and after the Shoah, and heroism during the Shoah.

CF: What role do you see for poetry and other literary genres in this academic journal?

KS: Poetry will play a major role, as will art and story; these genres will allow teachers who are not historians to find a comfortable, fruitful, and legitimate way in to teaching the subject, a way that hopefully will lead to the necessary historical contextualization that other essays in our journal will help provide.

CF: Will the visual arts also have a distinctive presence in this journal?

KS: The premier issue includes color portraits of children painted during the Holocaust; art by a child of survivors; and examples of modern art as a reflection of the pervasive influence of the Holocaust on creative work done in its shadow.

CF: When do you expect the first few numbers of the journal to appear?

KS: We are planning publication for September 2009, April 2010, and January 2011; after that, we will see!

CF: Will PRISM have a web presence?

KS: Eventually!

CF: Can those interested in writing for the journal submit work for consideration?

KS: Writers should query first and include a brief bio.

CF: Is there anything you would like to add?

KS: Your work as our journal’s poetry editor has added to its power and its value, and we appreciate all that you contribute!

CF: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about this exciting new journal — and thanks, too, for the personal vote of confidence!


Karen Shawn, Ph.D., is a former English teacher, director of Holocaust education, and middle school assistant principal. She is Visiting Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration of Yeshiva University and Senior Fellow of Azrieli’s Institute–School Partnership.

With Dr. Jeffrey Glanz, she is co-editor of Azrieli’s publication PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators. Dr. Shawn taught for 10 years at the Yad Vashem Summer Institute for Educators from Abroad and at the same time served as educational consultant for the American Friends of the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum. The founder of the Holocaust Educators’ Consortium, an international, interreligious Community of Practice, she has written extensively on Holocaust education.

Her most recent edited volumes are an anthology of Holocaust narratives and an accompanying teacher’s guide, The Call of Memory: Learning about the Holocaust Through Narrative (Ben Yehuda Press, 2008).

The mailing address for PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators is Karen Shawn, Ph.D. / Azrieli Graduate School / 500 W. 185th St – BH 326 / NY, NY 10033. To subscribe to PRISM, or to query re submissions, send an email message to Dr. Shawn, or Dr. Glanz,


Information about Prism is available at the website of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Helen Degen Cohen's Habry

I first read Helen Degen Cohen's poems about her experiences and her parents' experiences during and after the Holocaust in the early 90s. At the time, I was writing about my parents and their experiences in the slave labor camps in Germany, and I found in Helen's poetry a voice that seemed to understand and speak of a world with a depth and complexity and compassion that I wished I could echo.

Helen wrote about her experiences as a child during the war. She was in the Lida Ghetto in Belorus, then in hiding with her parents in the town's little prison (where her father, a barber and jack-of-all-trades, created a flood only he could fix, in order to show the Gestapo how indispensable he was). Later, separated from her parents, she was in hiding again in a cabin surrounded by the farm fields she grew to love and the flowers that grew alongside them. The flowers were like habry, cornflowers. While she was in hiding, her parents were with the partisns in the resistance, as described in the new movie Defiance.

Her story and the way she told it touched me. I still can't relate what happened to her when she became separated from her parents and her mother gave her a tin cup without tears coming into my voice. I searched out her writing in little magazines like Spoon River Poetry Review and The Wire and anthologies like Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust and Concert at Chopin's House: A Collection of Polish-American Writing.

Her fiction and essays blew me away, but I found myself especially drawn to the voice in her poems. I re-read them and thought about them and wrote a scholarly article about them.

When I heard that Helen was finally gathering these poems together and publishing them along with more recent poems about her experiences, I looked forward to her book more than I can remember looking forward to any other book of poems.

That book Habry was everything I had hoped it to be.

Here is one of my favorite poems from Helen's new collection:

I remember coming into Warsaw, a child

out of a sheer, sunlit countryside,
where sometimes a goat made the only sound in
all the universe, and a car engine would certainly
tear the wing of an angel. Entering burnt Warsaw
and the Sound of the World, how strange, how lonely
the separate notes of Everything, lost in a smell of
spent shots still smoking, a ghost of bombs, a silence
of so many voices, the ruined city singing not only
a post-war song but an Everything hymn of dogs wailing,
a car, a horse, a droning plane, a slow, distant
demolition, hammers like rain, the hum, the hum,
bells and levers and voices leveled and absorbed
into the infinite hum in which the ruins
sat empty and low like well-behaved children,
the ruins, their holes, like eyes, secretly open,
passing on either side, as we entered Warsaw, an air
of lost worlds in a smoky sweet light ghosting
and willing their sounding and resounding remains


Helen Degen Cohen's book Habry is available from Puddin'head Press and Amazon.

I've also posted a blog about her earlier book On a Good Day One Discovers a Poet at the blog Writing the Polish Diaspora.

Helen's memoir about returning to Warsaw to find the Polish woman who helped save her appears at The Scream on Line along with a number of her poems and a short story based on her childhood experiences, "The Edge of the Field."