MACHIAS — Mathy Terrill willingly acknowledges that the Holocaust is not exactly an uplifting topic. But it’s an important one, and one that needs to be taught in schools and studied by people of all ages.
This is part of the reason she started the Holocaust Book Club, which has been meeting in Machias since January.
“The Holocaust isn’t something that just happened immediately. It happened gradually,” said Terrill, who has taught at Washington Academy in East Machias for the past 11 years.
The Holocaust took place during World War II, when the Nazis systematically murdered 6 million Jews using mass shootings, concentration camps and gas chambers.
Prior to those atrocities, Jewish people gradually lost basic human rights. Hate was fueled by propaganda, said Terrill, a Holocaust educator and teaching fellow through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“A majority of people were willing to dehumanize Jewish people because they believed in the propaganda,” she said. “It’s very frightening.”
Sarah Craighead Dedmon said she was reluctant to join a book club on such a dark topic but did so because of Terrill’s positive personality. The two served together on the board of Porter Memorial Library in Machias.
“I thought that if she could steep herself in tragic stories and still go out into the world a happy person, she’s got something I’d like to have too,” said Dedmon, of Machiasport.
She described Terrill as “courageous” and able to create a safe space for discussing difficult topics.
“[Terrill] has a form of bravery that I think we could all benefit from, because she has this ability to look at hard, ugly things, and bring them to light for conversation,” Dedmon said.
Terrill said she first became interested in the Holocaust as an eighth-grader in her native New York state. The school had a program called “Great Books” for those in the highest reading level.
One of the first books they read was “Night” by Elie Wiesel, which tells the story of the author’s imprisonment in a German concentration camp at which his father was beaten to death while Wiesel lay on a bunk above, afraid to move for fear of being beaten himself.
“I took the book home, sat down, and I think I read it in three hours,” Terrill said. “I could not believe that this was a true story and that this had happened to real people.”
For the rest of the school, the entirety of Holocaust education was watching “Schindler’s List,” without any introduction or follow-up, she said.
“[The film] was horrifying,” Terrill said. “I really love this topic but I would hope that we could find a better way to deal with it.”
Her affiliation with the Holocaust museum began in 2017, when Terrill was one of 20 people accepted worldwide into the program.
“Being associated with the museum is incredible,” she said, adding it has led her to a number of other related opportunities.
“As part of your training you have to do a Holocaust outreach program,” she said.
This past fall, she did a presentation on introducing the Holocaust to classrooms at the annual Harvest of Ideas, a gathering of Washington County teachers.
When she launched the book club, she expected it to be a lonely endeavor. She has been pleased with a regular turnout of 8 to 15 people.
“It’s really great to have so many people want to come out and read and discuss for an hour,” she said. “It’s nice to sit down with intelligent people who are just interested.”
In June, she received the 2019 Ciembroniewicz Educator of the Year Award from the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.
The award is named for a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Julius Ciembroniewicz, who lived in Maine.
Accepting the award was bittersweet because it came at the end of the school year, which was Terrill’s last at Washington Academy. She is moving from Machias to Old Town to teach history, including a Holocaust class, at Orono High School.
She plans to keep running the Machias book club through the end of the summer. At this point, there are no plans for anyone else to take over the club.
Terrill said she hopes to start a similar club in the Old Town area because the lessons of the Holocaust continue to be important and relevant.
“Anti-Semitism is up,” she said. “There are lots of anti-Semitic attacks that have been happening.”
She will continue to teach students that hate speech is toxic and they can’t be complacent. That means they should not “like” anti-Semitic or hateful posts on social media.
“Kindness matters,” she said. “And what you say matters.”