“A Teacher’s Reflection: 2017 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour” by Lisa Wiater, English Teacher at Ridgewood High School, Ridgewood, NJ*

The 2017 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour [1] was a two-week immersion program created to learn about WWII history in Asia.  It allowed me to gain knowledge that I could have never obtained by reading a book.  As a public high school teacher, I firmly believe that study tours are an invaluable way to educate teachers, for the knowledge that is gained is spread to family, friends, colleagues, and of course, students.

Additionally, as the daughter of a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific Theater, it meant a great deal to go on this trip.  My home contains many photographs and pieces of memorabilia from my father and many uncles who all fought in the War.  Visiting the World War II museum, the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, was quite moving for me.  It contained many war scene reenactments, including details regarding the savagery that took place.  Interestingly, one of the newspapers on display contained the front page story from a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, a town very near to where I was raised.

Even though I had learned about World War II in school, I knew very little about the Nanking Massacre, slave labor, sex slaves, and biological and chemical warfare. Now, due to this study tour, I believe I know more than the average person.

The visits to the various museums and historical sites, including Unit 731, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, as well as the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul, South Korea, left an unforgettable impression regarding the atrocities perpetrated at that time. Further, spending time with scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying, in some cases, the worst in humanity, is inspiring.  The trips to the many cities in China, as well as the visit to South Korea allowed me to not only learn about the various histories, but to experience some of their modern day cultures.

Moreover, after meeting with curators, researchers, authors and survivors, I was once again reminded that regardless of the historical event, all of history is a human story. I found it humbling to hear the stories of survivors who courageously agreed to recount their most harrowing times, all so that we could learn from them.   At the Nanking Museum, we heard the first-hand account of a survivor, Yi-Ying Ai, 89 years old.  I audio recorded her story, which was translated into English by a young college student.  Beyond reading testimonies, I believe it is important to hear the emotions that are so raw and honest, because even if one does not understand the language, one cannot mistake the sorrow and heartache that is heard.  One action that will not be heard on the recording, however, will be the tears that fell repeatedly during her testimony.  The survivor would speak and then pause, allowing the translator to tell her story.  I always watched the survivor’s actions.  While everyone was looking and listening to the translator, the survivor was wiping tears from her eye.  This happened numerous times.  She was telling us a story that happened 80 years ago, and yet she remembered it like it was yesterday; she was reliving all the pain right before our eyes.  As she recounted her story to us, she shared something her mother told her, “Do not be terrified of the corpses. You should only be terrified of live persons.”  How sad and yet, how profound.

As a public school teacher, I believe it is important for students to be exposed to the impact of people’s actions; this includes the perpetrators and victims, but also the upstanders–those who make a positive difference through their involvement. History seems to focus on those who commit heinous acts, but students should also learn about individuals such as John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin and John Magee.  I was not aware of these people, or their courage, prior to this trip.  These people risked their own lives to help innocent victims during the Nanking Massacre.   By teaching students about moral courage, we are all reminded that one person can make a difference.  This is an important lesson that needs to be taught and reinforced.

To that end, as a result of this study tour, various initiatives will take place at my school, Ridgewood High School, in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

  • Making a Difference Speaker Series:  This is a Speaker Series that offers high school students the opportunity to hear 5 different individuals speak about their life in the context of a key historical event.  The general premise is that speakers provide a personal story–not a history presentation, per se–but rather, show how they or their family was impacted by a key event in history.  As the creator of this program, my goal has been to help students see the personal side of history and how an individual’s decision can impact another.  Prior to a speaker’s arrival, the teachers/classes that attend are obligated to be prepared by reading and discussing materials disseminated weeks in advance of the survivor’s testimony.  Following a speaker, teachers/classes also hold a whole class discussion.  I am pleased that Don Tow (President of NJ-ALPHA) and Mr. Chu-Yeh Chang, a survivor of the Nanking Massacre will be two of our speakers.  Since it is the 80th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre, I believe it is essential that we have a representative from the Massacre speak this year.
  • Shared folders with colleagues:  On the trip, I bought numerous books, DVDS, and postcard books.  I have taken these items, along with any other materials related to the atrocities that occurred in Asia during World War II and created a “Google Folder,” to share with other teachers, namely in the Humanities areas.  This includes, at a minimum, History, English, and Psychology teachers.
  • Professional Development Presentations/Collaboration:  As a result of this trip, I have been discussing various aspects of the tour with my colleagues.  Additionally, when appropriate, I will also speak at future Social Studies and English department meetings, as well as providing a PowerPoint presentation on the three Upstanders mentioned earlier.  I may also present to students in various History classes.  From other presentations I have done, I have learned that students greatly appreciate seeing pictures taken by a teacher, not by someone else.  Students have stated that it makes the topic more “real” to them.  Therefore, by not only speaking about my study tour, it will make a greater impact if I also show them some of my numerous photographs.
  • Documentary by Tamaki Matsuoka, “Torn Memories of Nanjing”:  The school is considering showing this documentary.  I believe the showing of this film will once again show students and staff that horrific crimes can be perpetrated by “ordinary” people. Further, it will highlight the dedication shown by Ms. Matsuoka of Osaka, Japan, once a school teacher, who now devotes her life to learning and educating others about the Nanking Massacre.  I am honored to say that I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Matsuoka when she came to Nanjing to speak to us and show her award-winning documentary.
  • Student trip to China:  The school is considering a student trip to China where the focus would be on learning about the history related to the Nanking Massacre.  Mr. Tow has been generous in offering to assist me in this endeavor, should it go forward.

Whether it is the Nanking Massacre, the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide or another mass killing, all of these terrible times in history share similar characteristics. Unfortunately, some of these common themes can also be seen in the world today. The 2017 Peace & Reconciliation Asia Study Tour helped me to further solidify these commonalities. It also provided me with the necessary information and materials that can be utilized with my students, colleagues and administration, thus working to ensure that the events that occurred in Asia during World War II will not be forgotten.  It is vital that we teach about history; it is our only hope for a better future.


* I thank Lisa Wiater for giving me permission to post her article on my website.

[1] The 2017 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour was organized by the “New Jersey Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia” (NJ-ALPHA).

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