Parents were taught how to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to children at a workshop held March 22 at the East Brunswick Public Library, through a program developed by The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
“In Holocaust and genocide studies, we teach about it with our heart, head, and hands,” said Paul Winkler, executive director of the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education. “We may know something, but if we don’t feel it, it doesn’t do anything. If it’s more than facts, if it’s feelings, then you will do something about it.”
Spearheaded by the Jewish Federation, the workshop featured Winkler and four public school teachers specializing in Holocaust and genocide studies.
Peter Schild, chair of the federation’s Holocaust Commemoration Committee, reminded those gathered that over the 70 years since the end of the Holocaust, millions of others were murdered in genocidal campaigns in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Darfur “just because of evil.”
“The reason we in 2015 still need to hold these workshops is to remind the next generation: Never again,” he said.
New Jersey enacted the nation’s first Holocaust and genocide education program in 1994 through legislation and it remains the most comprehensive such program in the country, said Winkler.
As part of its mission, he said, the commission is seeing to it that every school is visited by a survivor.
Presenters emphasized the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling and the current generation of youngsters would be the last to hear a survivor describe their suffering at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.
“In 2045, 100 years after liberation, we hope these kids go out and speak to their families, their friends, their patients, their coworkers and say, ‘I know it’s true because I met a survivor,’” said Winkler.
He and the four teachers, Rachel Pasichow and Deborah Pecora, who teach elementary-age children in Highland Park, and Sara Fernandez and Danielle Burke, who teach middle-school youngsters in Cranbury, stressed the importance of depicting those who suffered and died in the Holocaust and other genocidal campaigns as people with lives and families rather than merely victims. Lessons should also emphasize the role of collaborators and rescuers as well as the eerily similar pattern — found in every genocide — of blaming one group for all of society’s ills.
“Our end goal is to teach our children to be more humane,” said Fernandez, “so we can all live in a better world.”
Pasichow, the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and member of the Middlesex County Holocaust Commission, said students too often can’t understand why the persecuted didn’t fight back.
“We show they were not victims by choice,” she said. “The choice was made for them by the Nazis, who took away their humanity.”
Pecora has an especially difficult task because she works with special education students, who themselves are often the target for bullying and segregation.
“Some of these kids turn into bullies because they feel like it’s the only course,” said Pecora, who said she stresses compassion for others and teaches methods for standing up to bullies.
Winkler noted that youngsters learn they can take a stand against bullying, or come to the aid of targeted minorities.
“They learn how easy it is to be an upstander,” said Winkler, “and a good person.”
Burke and Fernandez said they show the film Hotel Rwanda, about the 1994 Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis, as part of their Holocaust lessons. They juxtapose events and stories from the Holocaust, showing how both the Jews and Tutsis were systematically dehumanized.
“We have to believe there will be a generation where there will be no genocides,” said Burke.
Winkler urged parents and grandparents, especially Holocaust survivors, to speak to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren about their own experiences to ensure that eyewitness accounts are passed on.
“If we don’t do it in our own homes and families it’s not going to happen,” he said. “Nobody out there is going to do it.”
For a list of recommended books and other resources on talking to children about the Holocaust from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, see sidebar.