At a time of rising concerns about racism and anti-Semitism, 38 educators from throughout New Jersey chose to spend part of their summer in a Rutgers University program whose aim is to enhance their knowledge of the Shoa and hone their methods of teaching the difficult subject.
The annual Master Teacher Institute in Holocaust Education, which has been running about 15 years, was held June 26-30 on the New Brunswick campus. It is offered through the Herbert & Leonard Littman Families Holocaust Resource Center at the university’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
This year’s theme was America and the Holocaust, tying into the institute’s fall professional development programming on the topic, said Bildner associate director Karen Small.
For the first time this year, a two-day advanced program was available for teachers who had previously attended the weeklong institute and wanted to build their knowledge of Shoa studies even further to serve as resource providers in their schools, districts, and communities.
The main course gives first-time attendees a chronological history of the Holocaust, Small said. “The returning teachers already have that background so we talk about more advanced issues.”
Such training is especially relevant in a state as ethnically diverse as New Jersey, she said, and gives educators tools to make the issue of victimization “relevant and relatable” in a classroom setting.
On June 29 NJJN sat in on sessions run by experts on Jewish resistance to the Nazis and on the upcoming exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington that explores American reaction to the Shoa.
Museum curator Rebecca Erbelding provided highlights of the exhibit, which is scheduled to open in April 2018 to celebrate the museum’s 25th anniversary.
When planning began five years ago, she said, the inclusion of the Roosevelt administration’s and the American public’s failure to offer a safe haven to Jewish refugees was “a safer topic.”
Now, she said, the concern is that people will make a connection between those attitudes and today’s issues regarding immigration. “We want people to understand this is not a referendum on the president,” she said, referring to Donald Trump’s executive order that many view as an “anti-Muslim” travel ban.
Erbelding said that initially, Americans generally viewed Hitler and the Nazis as a threat to democracy rather than as a threat to the Jews. Other forces fed the antipathy toward Jewish refugees, including the push to demilitarize after the “mistake” of American involvement in World War I and widespread xenophobia.
The effects of the Great Depression also led to fears that German-Jewish refugees, if allowed into the country, would take good jobs away from Americans, said Erbelding.
A 1939 Gallup poll found 94 percent of Americans disapproved of the Nazi treatment of Jews, but 70 percent opposed allowing in Jewish refugees, she said.
She also said there were fears that Jewish refugees would spy for Germany in exchange for release of relatives in Europe.
A myth that museum researchers have been able to debunk was the view that Nazi aggression and carnage against the Jews were “hidden in U.S. newspapers and relegated to the back pages of The New York Times.” Erbelding said the museum has collected more than 7,000 articles from newspapers from every state and national magazines focusing on Nazi atrocities.
In her session, historian Dr. Joanna Sliwa spoke about the Oneg Shabbat Archives, a collection of tens of thousands of documents, diaries, essays, photos, drawing, sermons, and artifacts chronicling life in the Warsaw Ghetto. The effort, organized by Emanuel Ringelblum — a Polish-Jewish historian, politician, and social worker who was killed by the Nazis in 1944 — also included documentation of the deportation and extermination of Polish Jewry. The cache was buried in large milk cans and tin boxes. Some were recovered after the war; another known can repository was never recovered and, said Sliwa, is likely lost forever.
The project was undertaken by the Jewish leaders in the ghetto “so that it wouldn’t be the Nazis writing history,” said Sliwa. “This archive is crucial in preserving the story from a Jewish perspective”; its significance is so great, she said, that it was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry.
The collection is housed at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and has been digitized by the Holocaust museum in Washington.
Taking Holocaust history to the present
NJJN spoke with several institute participants. William Smith, a history and special education teacher at South Brunswick High School, said his school offers Holocaust studies, but he “wasn’t satisfied” with the curriculum and “wanted more information and ideas to improve lessons.” He said he “definitely learned a lot” during the institute’s workshops and lectures.
Bradley Olman, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Memorial School in Union Beach, said he faces the challenge of trying to instill empathy for Shoa victims in a school without a large Jewish population.
“It’s hard to really get them emotionally into events like the Holocaust…. You don’t want to traumatize kids,” he said, “but you want them to feel compassion.”
Olman, a relatively new teacher who came to the profession after a 30-year career as a photographer, said he attended the program seeking resources and found the experience of being “immersed with a group of life learners” who have “a passion for teaching…renewing.”
Lauren Wells, a teacher of history, sociology, and Holocaust and genocide studies at Summit High School, said she got so many ideas for teaching the subject when she participated two years ago that she returned for the advanced program.
“I created the Holocaust and genocide unit at Summit high so I try to take as many classes as I can,” she said. “I’ve found so many ways to teach and restructure the course based on what I learned here.”
In the day’s closing session, Wells told colleagues she tries to “humanize” the Holocaust for her students by showing them photos and talking about “what’s lost” to emphasize what Jewish life was like before the war.
Wells said she also ties the lessons of the Shoa to current human rights issues; under her guidance, her students raised funds for an organization helping victims of the Syrian refugee crisis. Her aim is to make study of the Holocaust “relatable to real life,” said Wells. “This isn’t history. This is happening right now to somebody, somewhere.”
Michelle Eddelston, a history teacher at Neptune High School, told the gathering she tries “to make the world real to my students.” Through her teaching, she said, she tries to make her students realize victims weren’t “just some skinny bald guy in a striped uniform” but rather men, women, and children whose lives were tragically and brutally cut short.
In keeping with this goal, Eddelston said, she has students write a short biography of a child victim and then decorate a butterfly in memory of that child. Her students also select books from the library they think the youngsters who perished would have liked. Each student then “reads that book in honor of the child who never got to read it.”