In 1973, Doug Cervi, then a senior at Penn Military College in Chester, Pa. (now Widener University), was in a class on teaching methods when the professor showed “Night and Fog,” a short French film from 1956 and one of the first documentaries about the Holocaust.
“The professor called on me randomly and asked me what the film was about,” said Cervi, who is Catholic. He told NJJN in a phone conversation that until then, he had neither studied nor discussed the Shoah with anyone. “I had no idea what was being referred to. The professor really castigated me as a history major for not knowing about the film and its subject matter.”
When the professor put the question to the rest of the class, the lone Jewish student raised his hand and gave the correct answer.
“I was stunned,” said Cervi. “I told my classmate, who was a friend from Toms River, that we needed to get pizza and discuss this so I could learn. We talked into the middle of the night.”
Despite the late start, Cervi, now 68, has made up for lost time learning about the Shoah, so much so that he was recently tapped as the new executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, succeeding Larry Glaser, who retired at the end of 2019.
Cervi’s first hands-on experience in Holocaust education came early in his 41-year career as a teacher at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing, when several students told him the Shoah was made up. Their comments convinced him to take part in a four-week training unit on Holocaust education, which then turned into a trip with other educators to Auschwitz. The experience helped Cervi and three other faculty members establish the Holocaust education program at Oakcrest.
About his new position, under the auspices of the state’s Department of Education in Trenton, Cervi said, “I am honored, and I know New Jersey is one of the premier states in Holocaust education.”
He told NJJN he’s committed to making “our communities safe and nurturing,” adding that his goal is for every student in New Jersey to understand that “being a bystander only allows bullies on any level to advance their agenda.”
New Jersey is one of a dozen states that mandate Holocaust education in schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, and the commission’s role is to assist all schools, organizations, elected officials, and others with the study of the Holocaust and genocide.
During his more than four decades at Oakcrest, where Cervi taught social studies and coached three sports, he brought Holocaust survivors from the area to his classes as living examples. For the last six years Cervi has served as adjunct professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton University in Galloway Township, and he plans to continue in that position.
“Doug will help ensure that educators have the resources needed to teach students about the Holocaust and genocide, and he will serve as a resource for communities and organizations to promote awareness of the work of the commission,” said Education Commissioner Dr. Lamont Repollet in a statement.
Cervi has a bachelor’s degree in history education from Widener and a master’s in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Stockton. He is a captain in the New Jersey National Guard and lives in Mays Landing with his wife, Kelly, and son.
In his new role Cervi said teachers need to implement multiple approaches to teach the Holocaust to different age groups.
“In younger grades, we do ‘Sesame Street’-type stuff; then later, we’ll explain what genocide is and even later the Holocaust and all that was involved and why,” he said. “There are so many students who are unaware. We have to teach them.”
Because Covid-19 forced an end to in-person instruction for one of his spring-semester Stockton courses, Cervi created an online curriculum to close out the semester virtually. It was successful, he said, and he plans to use that and similar presentations to help teachers prepare for the upcoming academic year.
“We’re having Zoom meetings with teachers all over the state this summer,” he said. “We want to fit the curriculum to what the teachers need.”
An additional challenge for the commission is that it will have to figure out how to provide teachers with what they will need to teach the Holocaust when the start of the next school year is uncertain.
“We will be working with teachers this summer to make sure they have all the materials they need,” said Cervi. “This will be a learning curve for everyone.… We’ll do what we have to.”
They will have to, because Holocaust education is always relevant, as Cervi noted in the wake of the release of ADL’s annual report on anti-Semitism, which found a 73 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in New Jersey from 2018 to 2019. “Anti-Semitism always rears its ugly head, even more with Covid and what goes on with social media,” he said. “We always need to educate.”