Photo by Brian Cohen
Profile by Helen Hickey
Almost 10 years ago when Baldwin teacher Daniel Shaner joined the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, he began his journey of teaching others about the Holocaust and the importance of understanding the event. From his trip to Poland, tours of Holocaust sites and over a thousand hours in Holocaust training, Shaner knew that he wanted to devote his time to teaching about this subject.
Since then, Shaner has gone on to lead several projects and vigils to honor those who were impacted by the tragedy that occurred at the Dor Hadash, Tree of Life, and New Light synagogues. It is these inspiring acts that have led to his nomination to be a Righteous Among the Neighbors recipient.
Shaner started his training with the Holocaust Center in July of 2015. The Center was established in 1980 and has honored survivors and those whose lives were lost in the Holocaust. At this time, Shaner had been a teacher for 24 years and had taught about the novels “Anne Frank” and “Night” in his English classes. According to Shaner, there were other teachers who knew more about the Holocaust than he did, but with his English classes that he taught, Shaner was able to easily reach the next generation and spread his message against hate. The tragedy that occurred on October 27th made him realize how much more work he had to do and how little time he had to do it.
“I have been driven since that day, and even when I retire, I’m going to keep doing that,” Shaner said. “I’m going to keep teaching about the Holocaust in some way, somewhere. As long as I’m around, I will be teaching about the Holocaust.”
From the moment Shaner returned to school after the tragedy, he led his students in creating an 8×8 foot tree of life with butterflies throughout its branches. Eleven of these butterflies stood for the 11 lives that were sacrificed during the attack on the synagogues. Shaner and his students presented this gift to the Tree of Life synagogue, and it became a very important piece of recognition.
Along with the tree that he and his students created, Shaner started the tradition of hosting a 24 hour vigil, where he reads out loud the names of victims of identity-based violence in North America.
“It’s that kind of outreach where we stand there and we say ‘the world has forgotten you, but we won’t,’” Shaner said. “Everybody’s name deserves honor and everybody’s name deserves to be read, so my kids do that.”
He has hosted three vigils so far since 2020, each of them on April 1, in honor of Genocide Awareness Month. Shaner’s students are a large part of this event, and he has had former students go on to college and start groups there that will participate in the vigils. What started as an idea turned into an inspiring event that will spread across the country for other schools to participate in.
“I already told them that once I retire, the one thing that I will still do with the school district is that I will still run the vigil,” Shaner said. “Working with kids that care is the most rewarding thing that I can do.”
Shaner’s great care and strive to stand up for others comes from his mother. After being a Roman Catholic nun for six years of her life, she taught Shaner the importance of caring for everyone.
“Only love can overcome hate, and shouldn’t we live that?” Shaner asked. “That’s my job to live that so my students see that. If they care about me, if they follow what I do, they see that love becomes more important than anything else, and that’s how we change the world.”
Shaner is a firm believer that if one chooses to stand up, more people will follow along. After the tragedy, people gathered around the synagogue in order to allow people to pray in peace. This occurrence was the single event that made Shaner most proud of Pittsburgh, because he saw his goal of people coming together to combat hate come to light.“You’re never going to be alone when you stand up for what is right,” Shaner said. “We can be quiet together, and we can achieve a little bit. When we are loud together, we can change the world.”