“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Today, Wilde’s words resonate as the mission statement of the Bundesrealgymnasium (BRG) in der Au, the middle school and high school in Innsbruck, Austria where Nadine Ulsess-Schurda incorporates Holocaust education into her teaching of English and German.
“I’ve always tried to teach it,” Nadine says of the Holocaust. “It has been a part of my curriculum from the very beginning.” But, she adds, “I have to admit that I changed my way of teaching the Holocaust after reading Sondra Perl’s On Austrian Soil. It made me focus on social responsibility and social justice, on our own identities, and on dialogue with my students.”
The capital of western Austria’s Tyrol region and its cultural and economic hub, Innsbruck sits in the broad valley between the Karwendel Alps and the Patscherkofel and Serles mountains. The city boasts an internationally renowned winter sports center, host to both the 1964 and the 1976 Winter Olympics. Founded in 2007, BRG is the youngest of Innsbruck’s five public schools, the oldest of which dates to 1562. BRG’s diverse student body numbers more than 800, representing 22 nationalities speaking as many languages as well as 15 religions. Nadine, who teaches every grade at the school, joined the faculty in 2009, one year after completing her degree.
Nadine dreamed of becoming a teacher as a child, but she did not pursue pedagogy when she first began her studies. It was only while working as a private tutor during her second year at Innsbruck University that she decided to follow her calling. It took her a while, however, to find a mentor whose style of teaching she admired, though she long idealized the teachers portrayed in films like Dangerous Minds and Dead Poet’s Society.
She is now blessed with two real-life role models: Margret Fessler, BRG’s principal, and Adeline Heim, a colleague. These two women have shown her how meaningful learning is the fruit of meaningful relationships. “Both of them are courageous and strong women I’ve sought to emulate in my own position as an educator,” Nadine observes. She also finds inspiration in the educational philosophy espoused by expert Max van Manen to teach what you are.
In the spring of 2016, Nadine attended The Olga Lengyel Institute’s first-ever bi-national seminar, held in Innsbruck for American and Austrian educators. She wanted to know more and to work with survivor testimonies in order to develop methodologies for presenting them to her students. The international discourse that anchored the seminar gave her the opportunity to achieve these goals in a profound way and to learn more about “how our own stories are intertwined with one another.”
“I felt so connected to the other participants,” she notes. “We share a vision and mission for our teaching and this continues to give me strength.” Nadine also participated in the Memorial Library’s New York City Summer Seminar in June 2016, where she met a group of educators from around the United States and Bulgaria. She could not have imagined how close they would become. “We met in New York City as strangers and left as Holocaust educators, human rights advocates, and friends,” she says.
Nadine believes that each moment she focuses on injustice and Holocaust studies is important. “Everything we do as teachers and human beings is about human rights. This is what forms the basis for being together and this is what I want my students to realize.”