Out of the Darkness

by David Ogul July 31, 2012


By David Ogul

It wasn’t long ago that lessons about the Holocaust at some Jewish education programs in the United States consisted of little more than showing the 1955 French documentary “Night and Fog.” Holocaust education at public schools? Beyond reading “The Diary of Anne Frank,” it didn’t much exist.

Not anymore.

Teaching both Jews and non-Jews about the Shoah has become a science that includes a curriculum far more comprehensive than it’s ever been. Educators from public and private campuses, both non-sectarian and religious, take part in an array of efforts that include sending Catholic school instructors to Israel and public school students to Auschwitz.

Lessons about the Holocaust are part of the California Department of Education’s standards for history and social sciences. The Shoah has become a key part of Christian classes. And every Hebrew school in San Diego County now has a formal Holocaust component in its program.

In short, comparing Holocaust education today to what existed just a generation ago is similar to comparing the engineering behind laptop computers and the iPhone to the technology that led to black-and-white television.

“The approach has changed in the fact that today it is much more in depth,” says Tina Malka, associate director at the San Diego office of the Anti-Defamation League, which works closely with public and private schools in implementing Holocaust curriculum. “It’s not a subject. It’s a multitude of subjects.”

How? Even cooking classes at Community Jewish High School in Del Cerro include the recipes and tasting of the “soups” and bread dished to concentration camp inmates.

No longer is the subject taught in a vacuum. Educators emphasize the context in which the Holocaust occurred. They focus on the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe leading up to World War II. They discuss the economic conditions and scapegoating that enabled Hitler’s rise to infamy. They detail the actions of the population at large, from righteous gentile to uninterested bystander and perpetrator.

“You don’t just talk about the camps,” says Marcia Tatz Wollner, director of literary arts and educational resources for the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture.

“You have to make sure people understand the Holocaust is not just relevant to Jews,” Malka says. “It is relevant to everyone.”

Theirs is a common theme among educators.

“The emphasis nowadays is less on the statistics and descriptions of atrocities and more on the choices people made during a tragic period in Jewish and world history,” the Cleveland Jewish News quoted Louise Freilich, director of the Face-to-Face Holocaust Education Program at Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in Beachwood, Ohio, as saying during an April conference on Holocaust education. “We are interested in what motivated the perpetrators, bystanders and those who resisted, to act as they did,” Freilich is quoted as saying. “We are interested in what the Holocaust teaches us about how we should act and not act today. We are interested in how to prevent a future Holocaust, how to prevent future genocides.”

That was the lesson Myra Rodriguez learned. The 17-year-old resident of southeastern San Diego and student at Lincoln High School took part in an ADL program that sent her and nine other local high school students to Washington, D.C., last November.

“One of the things we focused on is with what’s happening today around the world and how we could avoid hatred toward anyone, whether it’s toward the gay community, toward the black community, whatever,” Rodriguez says.

“In my opinion, you learn about the Holocaust not just to learn about how it affected the Jewish community, but how it relates to issues happening today. A lot of people were bystanders when the Holocaust happened. The biggest thing I learned is not to be a bystander. If you see people being mistreated, if you see someone become the target of hate, you have to raise your voice.”

Wollner is seen by many in the region as being among the preeminent education experts when it comes to the Holocaust. She coordinates the March of the Living program for San Diego-area 11th and 12th graders, which sends the teens to Poland, where they take part in a march from Auschwitz to Birkenau during Yom HaShoah, before heading to Israel to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s independence day. She also coordinates Holocaust education programs at San Diego’s Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center.

Wollner was with a group of a dozen San Diego County Hebrew school educators at a 10-day seminar last summer at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Educators came from Beth Am, San Diego Jewish Academy, Chabad Hebrew Academy, Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School, Temple Emanu-El, Temple Adat Shalom and the JCC.

Much of what they focused on was the science of teaching the Holocaust.

“It provided us with a very wide spectrum of information and guided us with taking that information and putting it into the classroom,” Wollner says.

Wollner says critical components in Holocaust education include teaching in an age-appropriate manner, making sure students understand the world prior to World War II, and ensuring lessons focus not only on the victims, but also on the perpetrators, the liberators and the bystanders.

“It is also important to note while teaching the Holocaust that there were not only six million Jewish victims, but a total of at least 11 million victims,” Wollner says.

The components Wollner alluded to are included in California state education standards. Tenth-grade students are taught to “analyze the Nazi policy of pursuing racial purity, especially against the European Jews; its transformation into the Final Solution; and the Holocaust that resulted in the murder of six million Jewish civilians,” state policy reads.

But there is more. Students studying the Shoah “should examine the highly developed Jewish culture that produced many artists, scientists and scholars…the Holocaust as a model for future despots such as Pol Pot in Cambodia…the failure of Western governments to offer refuge to those fleeing Nazism..and the moral courage of Christians who risked their lives to save Jews.”

Reading lists include “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Night” “to think about why one of the world’s most civilized nations participated in the systematic murder of millions of innocent people.”

During the unit on World War II in the 11th grade, “students are asked to look once more at the Holocaust and investigate the response of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews and other groups. At that time, they could also look at the U.S. response to the genocide of the Armenians by the government of the Ottoman Empire.

Much of how such lessons are taught in schools today has been guided by the Anti-Defamation League, which has developed three extensive education programs, Bearing Witness, Echoes and Reflections and the National Youth Leadership Mission.

Echoes and Reflections is the cornerstone of the ADL’s efforts in public schools. Since its launch in 2005, some 16,000 educators have participated in training programs complete with lesson plans and video discs that can be taken into the classroom.

“Echoes and Reflections supports study in United States and World history, English, Holocaust studies, fine arts, character education, and the social sciences, and meets or reinforces U.S. national standards in social studies, English/language arts, and viewing and media literacy,” states the Echoes and Reflections web site, EchoesAndReflections.org.

The program also supports a number of state standards in various subjects.

Lessons include sections on anti-Semitism, Nazi Germany, the Final Solution, rescuers and non-Jewish resistance and survivors and liberators.

“Before Echoes and Reflections, a multimedia curriculum on the Holocaust did not exist in public education,” Malka says.

The Bearing Witness Program is aimed at Catholic schools, and the program has trained more than 1,500 Catholic school educators since it was created by the ADL’s Washington, D.C., office in 1996. Its aim is not only to help Catholic educators with Holocaust lesson plans, but to help Catholic school students understand the historical relationship between Jewish and Catholic communities and the impact of that relationship on Catholic teaching, doctrine and liturgy.

The San Diego County branch of the ADL adopted the program in 2002. Up to 35 educators take part every other year, Malka says.

A small number of alumni continue into an advanced program that sends participants to Israel. Coordinated in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., it “begins with three days at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J., where participants hear lectures and take part in discussions that focus on such topics as the Holocaust, hermeneutics, reconciliation and repentance and the meaning of Israel to the Jewish people,” according to program literature.

Educators visit sites holy to Christians, celebrate Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and visit the Galilee.

“It’s an incredibly unique opportunity for Catholic educators to come to Israel,” Malka says.

The ADL’s National Youth Leadership Mission is a year-long project for high school students that culminates with a November trip to Washington, D.C., and the National Holocaust Museum. Discussions center around not just the Holocaust, but on intolerance, hate and how prejudices form. The National Youth Leadership Mission was the program in which Lincoln High’s Myra Rodriguez participated.

“At the end of the day, the student has to understand why the Holocaust is relevant to them,” Malka says. “What is profoundly relevant to human society is our ability to learn from our mistakes.”

Despite the evolution over the generations, a crucial element in Holocaust education remains the testimony of survivors. The USC Shoah Foundation Institute, which has a collection of 52,000 interviews with survivors and liberators, last year unveiled IWitness, a compilation of about 1,000 video testimonies from survivors that are now being used in all 50 states and 27 countries. The recordings can be downloaded by educators, and each interview comes with activities and a lesson plan. They are geared toward students in middle and high school.

Visits from survivors who belong to San Diego’s New Life Club can be even more profound. Just ask the kids at the Creative Performing and Media Arts Middle School in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. They recently entertained a visit from Auschwitz survivor Edith Eger, who later had a successful career as a clinical psychologist in La Jolla. Her appearance was part of San Diego Unified’s eighth grade Holocaust curriculum.

“Students who walked away from the assembly took with them a greater understanding of human perseverance and putting life into perspective,” said principal Scott Thomason. “Dr. Eger talked about how the choices we make define who we become.

“Students learned that even in the most dire of circumstances, a person can choose to ignore, choose to walk away, choose to survive,” Thomason said. “She also left them with the message of community in a story she told of how, though hungry beyond belief, her choice to share her meager loaf of bread with other starving prisoners later led to her very survival on the famed Death March, when these same women formed a human chair to carry her when to stop walking meant death.”


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