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U.S. Teachers of the Holocaust Go Back to School over Summer

July 23, 2004
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Ronda Hassig remembers when the Holocaust became real for her — when a young Jewish boy in her Overland Park, Kan., classroom recognized a concentration camp survivors’ medal on her desk. ” ‘Ms. Hassig,’ he said, ‘I have one of those and it belongs to my grandfather,’ ” the teacher recalled. “I totally lost it because here was this little guy sitting in front of me and he was the product of someone who had survived a camp.”

Hassig, who had bought the medal at an antique store, is one of hundreds of educators across the United States teaching the Holocaust to their students.

As a result of legislation passed during the last decade, six states — California, New Jersey, Florida, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts — mandate that the Holocaust be taught in their public schools.

Another 11 state governments recommend that schools teach the Holocaust, though they haven’t passed laws requiring it.

Stanlee Stahl, execu! tive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, says that while instituting mandates is noble, it’s not enough.

“The states don’t come up with training money, so here you have a mandate to do something and there’s no training,” she said.

It’s this void that the foundation aims to fill by bringing 40 middle school and high school teachers to its Holocaust education program each summer at Columbia University in New York City.

The foundation sponsors the teachers through fellowships in memory of Alfred Lerner, former CEO of MBNA Corp. and a supporter of the foundation’s programs, particularly in Holocaust education.

The teachers are selected from areas in the United States where the foundation operates Holocaust training centers. Educators from Poland and Croatia also attended this year’s seminar.

Teachers say that before the program at Columbia, which was held June 27-July 1, they received their Holocaust education from the Internet, museums a! nd readings.

At the seminar, the teachers attended lectures by top scholars — including Nechama Tec, Henry Feingold, Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt — and then met in discussion groups to learn how to apply the lessons to their classrooms.

Kaysheila Mitchell, a high school teacher from Duluth, Ga., says she will be more confident teaching the Holocaust after the seminar at Columbia.

“I’m here because I know I can’t always run and ask the history teacher or get on the Internet,” said Mitchell, a language arts teacher. “I think it’s important for me to have the facts straight and know what I am talking about.”

Though the Internet can provide a quick fix to questions on the Holocaust, teachers say there’s nothing better than old-fashioned education to illuminate the past.

David Schwartz of the Randolph Township, N.J. public schools thinks the lectures he attended make him more qualified to teach the Holocaust.

“Some of these people are people I have read extensively, and to meet them, hear their voices and attach th! eir voices to their writings provides me with a lot more passion,” Schwartz said.

The foundation’s primary purpose is to highlight the role played by Holocaust rescuers. The group sends money to 1,600 individuals considered rescuers by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

As a result, the role of “Righteous Gentiles” — and the possibility of good in the face of evil — was emphasized during the seminar, now in its fifth year.

“The education program preserves the rights of the rescuers,” Stahl said. “We teach the history behind the Holocaust, and in that contextual setting we teach rescue.”

Ernesto Diaz from Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, N.J., believes the Holocaust is one of the most enriching subjects in his curriculum.

“I look forward every year to teach the section on the Holocaust because if there is any section that captivates my students’ attention, it’s when you talk about the issues related to humanity,” he said.

The Holocaus! t’s message also resonates in classrooms outside American.

Wojciech Laskowski, a high school teacher from Lochow, Poland, lives 12 miles from Treblinka. He thinks his students benefit from their proximity to the camp.

“I organize the lessons with people who remember that time, so it makes the students closer to that time of history,” Laskowski said. “The students realize that in this part of the earth what happened was such a tragic moment in history.”

Many of the teachers attending the seminar aren’t Jewish, nor are their students. But Paula Laurita, from a Catholic school in Madison, Ala., says her students still need to learn about the Holocaust.

“I need to be able to go to my students with the information that there aren’t always easy answers to this, but they have a continual challenge, just as I do, of becoming a better person and a better citizen to create a better world,” Laurita said. “It’s not a Jewish issue, it’s an issue of humanity.”

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