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60 Years After Liberation Teachers Go Back to School to Learn How to Teach the Holocaust

One by one, the seventh-graders entered the classroom, each telling a story about someone whose life had been touched by Kristallnacht. Next, one of the children read the order, signed by Heinrich Himmler, calling for the murder of Jews throughout Germany and the destruction of their property throughout Germany and Austria in 1938.

“It’s important for them to know that the Holocaust happened,” said Maureen Marullo, a teacher who assigned the exercise to her students at Loggers’ Run Middle School in Boca Raton, Fla., “and that some of the people who resisted — who hid Jews and others — were ordinary people.”

Marullo was among some 20 teachers chosen to attend a seminar over the weekend in Elizabeth, N.J., that offered in-depth study of the Holocaust and discussions about teaching the subject to middle and high school students. The advanced seminar was coordinated by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a nonprofit organization dedicated to identifying, honoring and supporting those non-Jews known as Righteous Gentiles, who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The foundation also partnered with New York City’s Department of Education to coordinate an intensive daylong seminar for 60 city public high school teachers, which was slated to take place on Tuesday.

The seminar comes slightly more than a week before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is commemorated on Jan. 27.

Although the centerpiece of the foundation’s mission is distributing more than $1.3 million to nearly 1,600 Righteous Gentiles, many of whom are poor and live in Europe, the organization also works with Holocaust centers across the United States and promotes Holocaust education, according to its executive vice president, Stanlee Stahl.

“We work to educate teachers about the Holocaust because that’s what we feel will make the most difference in terms of preventing such horrors from occurring in the future,” she said.

To be chosen by the foundation to participate in the advanced seminar in New Jersey, teachers must be recommended by Holocaust centers with which the foundation has a relationship. They also must have attended the Alfred Lerner Fellowship program, during which the foundation brings Holocaust scholars to Columbia University each June to instruct selected teachers during a weeklong intensive course of study.

Such professional development enables the foundation to “train a cadre of teachers who can work with Holocaust centers in their respective communities and with students in their respective schools,” Stahl says.

Scholarly in its approach, the seminar exposed teachers to several world-renowned Holocaust experts, Stahl said.

One of those experts, professor Deborah Dwork of Clark University in Worcester, Mass, taught about children’s lives during the Holocaust, and how some of them were rescued.

Coming from areas as diverse as Georgia, New Hampshire, Florida and Washington state, the teachers invited to participate in the advanced seminar work in a broad range of schools.

Dwork, who has lectured at many foundation seminars, said teachers have approached her with questions about teaching the Holocaust to various groups of students. They have asked her for help on teaching the Holocaust to African-American students and others not used to thinking of Jews as an oppressed group.

“The Germans saw Jews as a separate race, but today Americans don’t,”she said. “I’ve lectured in schools where black students have come to me and said, “Could those white people really have been that stupid?” in believing that Jews were subhuman.

“I tell them first of all, that yes, they were that stupid, and then branch out into discussion of how race is a made-up categorization. At different times over the centuries, people have different ways have defining categories, but these distinctions are always made up.”

Dwork also has helped teachers in Catholic schools face unique challenges in teaching the Holocaust.

Although she says she has “nothing good to say” about the role of the Vatican during the Holocaust, she discusses the role of individual priests and nuns among the Righteous Gentiles.

Glenda McFadden, who teaches theology to seventh- and eighth-graders at Nashua Catholic Regional Junior High School in Nashua, N.H., was among the teachers at the advanced seminar. Last summer, she participated in foundation’s semiannual European study program in Germany and Poland, an intensive two-week journey that includes visits to concentration camps, ghetto sites and meetings with Holocaust survivors and rescuers.

She incorporates slides of the places she saw, including Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, and the people she met into her teaching.

“The rescuers and survivors are primary sources,” McFadden said. “And instead of just reading about the Warsaw Ghetto, to see a photograph of me touching the wall brings this history alive for the kids.”

She does not sugarcoat the failure of leaders of the Catholic Church.

“I’m honest about how the Catholic Church promoted anti-Judaism, which led to anti-Semitism,” she said. Ultimately, she teaches from a humanitarian perspective.

“I don’t want the kids to just know a number, I want them to understand that there are generations of people who were lost,” she said.

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