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As Society Changes, So Does Holocaust Education

As Society Changes, So Does Holocaust Education

On 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, classes in New York public schools focus on other genocides.

As Auschwitz survivors and their children this week commemorate the 70th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation and mourn the Shoah’s Six Million Jewish victims, Holocaust education in New York State, and elsewhere in the country, looks far different than it did a generation ago.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is still read by countless thousands of middle-school students, as is Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” his harrowing memoir of surviving the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. But more often than not, these iconic books have, over the years, become springboards to wider discussions about genocides in many other times, and many other settings. And the Jewish losses they so painfully document have merged with the losses suffered by African slaves during the Middle Passage, and those suffered by Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or by Armenians at the hands of the Turks.

For better or worse, the books have become metaphors, part of an effort to sync Holocaust education with the wider societal trends of multiculturalism and the emphasis on human rights.

“We feel it is imperative today to teach the lessons of the Holocaust rather than focus solely on the historic events of 1933-’45,” Millie Jasper, executive director of the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center in White Plains, said in an email interview.

The center sponsors educator trips to Germany and Poland and an annual Human Rights Institute for high school student leaders; it has also developed a Holocaust curriculum guide, which focuses on the Jewish experience during World War II but refers to the “contemporary connection” of such genocides as Rwanda’s in 1994. In a sign of the times, a few years ago the center changed its name from the Westchester Holocaust Education Center.

The emerging emphasis in Holocaust education answers the question, How do you make an event that took place in the middle of the previous century relevant to contemporary high school students?

Though it’s largely a question for schools in areas with few Jewish students, it also applies in New York City, where even the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of survivors often lack personal stories that they heard from their relatives and can share with their classmates.

Among the answers supplied by schools across the country are the following:

n the “Paper Clips Project” conducted by students at a rural Tennessee middle school who set out to collect six million paper clips and ended up with more than 30 million paper clips and an award-winning documentary made about their efforts;

n a play, “Life in a Jar,” about Warsaw Ghetto rescuer Irena Sendler, written and performed in rural Kansas by high school students who also collected funds for Sendler and other aging rescuers;

n and, at the Bronx High School of Science, a pioneer institution in Holocaust Education, a Holocaust curriculum that has expanded into an annual Tolerance Day, in which students in the Holocaust class play a prominent role is dispelling stereotypes, and into a permanent Holocaust Museum and Studies Center.

Like the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center in White Plains, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Manhattan, which also runs training programs for educators, has sponsored such programs as a Rwandan Genocide and Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a seminar on genocide in Darfur.

This more universalistic approach to Holocaust education is often a matter of controversy in parts of the Jewish community, especially in survivor circles, which work to preserve the Holocaust’s uniquely Jewish character.

To teach high school students in New York State the facts — and wider lessons — of the Nazis’ plan to annihilate Europe’s Jews, the state for two decades has ranked among five states in the country that make some education of the Holocaust a requirement at the high school level.

The others are New Jersey, Florida, Illinois and California, all of which have sizable Jewish populations, including many Holocaust survivors.

While New York State makes Holocaust education mandatory in the public schools, its Education Department does not provide an official curriculum. The quantity and emphasis of each school’s Holocaust education is left up to individual instructors and department heads of local schools.

“They must get some education” on the topic, usually from a few days to two weeks worth, said Alan Singer, a professor of secondary at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I., who is an expert on the Holocaust education in the state’s public schools. “It’s not just ancient history,” he added.

A former New York City high school social studies teacher, Singer is editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies.

He believes the main challenge for teachers presenting a Holocaust curriculum is generational; the Jewish experience in World War II seems far removed from contemporary lives, he said. “Today, it’s ancient history for students. It’s also ancient history for teachers,” few of whom have a personal connection with the Shoah or with Holocaust survivors.

The Holocaust is commonly taught in the schools’ eighth, ninth and 10th grades, alternating between English classes and social studies classes.

“There is no state-prescribed curriculum that school districts must follow,” said Jeanne Beattie, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. “Generally, school boards have the authority to prescribe the course of study in the schools of their districts.”

New Jersey, on the other hand, has produced extensive Holocaust curriculum guides; the high school level curriculum includes such topics as “The Nature of Human Behavior,” “Resistance, Intervention and Rescue,” and “Issues of Conscience and Moral Responsibility.”

Since New York state shifted from a multicultural focus in 1997 to an emphasis on human rights, the Holocaust, along with the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought millions of Africans to this country, and the mid-19th century Irish potato famine that led to widespread Irish immigration, have all played a central part in public schools’ social studies curricula, Singer said.

“Lots of schools have developed their own packages” of Holocaust education resources, said Singer, often turning to a variety of Jewish and civic organizations that have produced their own educational materials. Many of these organizations also sponsor extensive training seminars for teachers who teach about the Holocaust, as well as Holocaust-centered sensitivity programs.

Among these organizations are the Anti-Defamation League, the Anne Frank Center, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, Queensborough Community College’s Kupferberg Holocaust Center, and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

One sign of interest in this topic: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was to give a speech this week on “Teaching about the Holocaust after 70 years” at an international Conference on Holocaust Remembrance in Krakow, Poland.

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