Southern Cayuga TA’s William Zimpfer, who helped bring a living piece of Holocaust history to his school community, has been honored by the Board of Regents for his outstanding teaching on human rights.
“In speaking of the holocaust, we often say, ‘never forget,’” said Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, as she presented Zimpfer with the 2018 Louis E. Yavner Teaching Award at the Regents May meeting. “Through his actions, Mr. Zimpfer brings those words to life. Because of his efforts, we will never forget.”
Zimpfer, an 18-year English teacher, helped the Southern Cayuga School campus become one of 11 sites nationwide to receive a sapling from the chestnut tree that grew outside the secret annex where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for two years. Anne Frank’s diary contains several references to the tree, which she could see from outside the attic window and considered a symbol of hope.
“You’ve transformed your community into a historic site for generations to come,” said Regent Wade Norwood, who represents the Finger Lakes area on the board. “It’s a living memorial, a symbol of tolerance and peace, a landmark for social justice … for students to see every day.”
Aside from the planting of the tree, the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Committee has provided high-quality programming throughout the school year to share lessons of understanding, tolerance and justice. Annual programming includes field trips, guest speakers and community service projects. The social justice lessons go well beyond the Holocaust. Later in the week, for example, the group is sponsoring a forum on immigration and agricultural labor.
Norwood read a letter from college student Monica Groth, who described the impact of Zimpfer’s teaching: “It was from Mr. Zimpfer in eighth grade that I first learned how systemic evil can morph the minds of millions into being ignorant of their roles as murderers and villains,” Groth wrote. She recalled how Zimpfer introduced her to the testimony of Nazi officers at the Nuremberg trials who said they were simply following orders — and how she continues to remember those powerful lessons today.
Zimpfer thanked the school community for its tremendous support of the tree project and the students who are so eager to learn about social injustice and what they can do to make a difference.
“There is nothing more gratifying than to have a student tell you years later they remember something positive from their experience in your classroom,” Zimpfer said. “It’s a very humbling recognition.”