In light of new legislation, survivors and educators stress importance of Holocaust, genocide education
The eighth-graders gathered in the gymnasium at William J. Johnston Middle School Tuesday morning were silent as they leaned in to hear the soft voice of Rabbi Philip Lazowski.
The Colchester students listened to him talk about Germans burning three-quarters of his town in Poland and taking 36 hostages. They listened to him talk about hiding from Nazis — first in a cave, then in a bush under barbed wire and then in the woods. They listened to him talk about how, at age 11, he had to convince a 9-year-old distraught by the killing of his parents to not just let himself be killed as well.
A Holocaust survivor, Lazowski came to the United States in 1947. In several years, he noted, no survivors of the Holocaust will be alive.
"When you go through such an ordeal, you suffer quite a bit, and when you suffer quite a bit, you remember," Lazowski said. "And that's what I want you to do: remember."
About 12 years ago, Lazowski began advocating for legislation mandating the teaching of Holocaust and genocide education in Connecticut public schools.
He saw this effort come to fruition on May 10, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a bill requiring each local and regional board of education in Connecticut to "include Holocaust and genocide education and awareness as part of the social studies curriculum for the school district."
The bill passed 147-0 in the state House and 36-0 in the Senate.
'It's important for students to understand the potential for evil'
Sharon Portnoff, Elie Wiesel professor of Judaic studies at Connecticut College, was alarmed at hearing recent statistics that two-thirds of American millennials surveyed could not identify what Auschwitz is, and that a fifth hadn't heard of the Holocaust or were unsure if they had.
Portnoff teaches about Holocaust and post-Holocaust responses, Jewish traditions and religious ethics.
She feels that Holocaust denial "has really made a lot of inroads" and she cites the violence in Charlottesville — with marchers holding signs reading "Jews will not replace us" — as a modern example of the necessity for Holocaust and genocide education.
"To my mind, the primary problem is thinking that history is a series of events that passes exclusively, not sort of understanding the persistence of the kinds of hatred," Portnoff said.
Like Lazowski, Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut Executive Director Jerry Fischer has been trying for 12 years to get a bill like this one passed.
Fischer noted that through the Jewish Federation's Encountering Survivors program, nearly every high school in eastern Connecticut, at one time or another, has had students meet with Holocaust survivors or the children of Holocaust survivors.
He explained that the program involves three sessions: one about life in Europe before the war, one about the war and how they survived, and one about life in America.
"It's hard to believe that nearly 11 million people are selected to be killed because the Nazis considered them 'Untermenschen,' subhuman," Fischer said. "It's an impossible thing to believe, so when students get to hear it from the mouth of a survivor, or child of a survivor, it becomes much more real, and that makes their education much more meaningful."
Fischer said that considering the new law, the Jewish Federation is ready to help any school district in eastern Connecticut with curriculum or resources.
"I think it's important for students to understand the potential for evil that's in probably every society, and how that evil can actually be realized and come to fruition," he said, "so they need to learn the warning signs, and learn the consequences of ignoring the warning signs."
For some local schools, Holocaust curriculum is nothing new
But it seems many schools don't need assistance; Holocaust and genocide have long been a staple in the curriculum.
Karen Cook, head of the social studies department at Norwich Free Academy, said ninth-graders look at the origins of the Holocaust while studying modern world history, while 11th-graders look at the U.S. response to the Holocaust while taking a U.S. world history course.
The guidance from state social studies frameworks is to teach the Holocaust as part of both a world history course and a U.S. history course, she said. The school also has a genocide studies elective.
Cook noted that including the Holocaust in ninth-grade curriculum and offering the elective are both developments that began only three years ago.
Likewise, Ledyard High School began offering a Modern Genocide Studies elective about three years ago, humanities teacher Jennifer O'Brien said.
Along with the Holocaust, she said the course focuses on the Armenian, Cambodian, Rwandan, Bosnian and Darfur genocides. O'Brien noted that freshmen also learn about the Rwandan genocide in their world history class.
When talking about the Holocaust, O'Brien has a piece focused on examples of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.
At Fitch High School, social studies department Chair Carmita Hodge said U.S. history and world history classes touch on the Holocaust but the English classes go more in-depth, reading Elie Wiesel's "Night" and Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus."
In 2014, the Lyme-Old Lyme High School fall play was "Letters to Sala," focused on a Holocaust survivor sharing her story with her family. In 2015, East Lyme High School held a celebration for the 100th birthday of Holocaust survivor Ray Gawendo.
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