Educators grapple with Shoah lessons

Students on a field trip to the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

BALTIMORE – Every year, Esther and Howard Kadinow and Edith Cord, all in their 80s, receive numerous notes from grateful students.

The three are getting on in years, but they still answer what they feel is an important call — to share their stories of survival in one of the world’s greatest atrocities, the Holocaust. It will never be easy, but that doesn’t stop them.

“Even after all this time, I’m not calm about it,” Esther said. “I still get nervous and emotional. But I think it’s important, and I will keep doing it as long as I can.”

The Holocaust was one of the defining events of the 20th century. But as the distance between its horrors and the present day increases, it stands to lose its relevance, especially with the young. It doesn’t help that estimates put the remaining number of survivors — their collective testimonies being the single most powerful learning tool for the Shoah — at around 100,000. The youngest of those, children at the time, are now in their 70s.
Martha Weiman, whose father was taken to Buchenwald during Kristallnacht, with students from John Carroll School in 2012. Courtesy of Jeanette Parmigiani.

And so, Holocaust education has had to change with the times, incorporating technology and cultivating second- and even third-generation survivor speakers. Organizations, local and national, have been working to provide resources that adapt to what educators need.

“I do think it’s evolving, certainly, all the time,” said Kristine Donly, interim director of the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington. “And trying to stay on top of it is a challenge. But we, and other institutions, are very focused [on providing up-to-date resources].”

The museum is a major provider of some of these resources, of course. Of the museum’s 1.7 million visitors a year, half a million are school-age students who come from all over the country, especially from Greater Washington and around Maryland. The museum also provides numerous educational resources on its website — from the “Holocaust Encyclopedia,” which includes thousands of articles and is undergoing a revamp to make it more user-friendly, to a major collection of survivor testimony recordings.

Donly also pointed to a couple more recent projects the museum has undertaken to fill gaps in Holocaust knowledge and education. In 2013, the USHMM made a 38-minute video called “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” which shows the factors and context that led to the Holocaust and is utilized by many teachers for general background.

The second is a crowdsourcing project called “History Unfolded.” It encourages citizen historians — and especially teachers and their students — to do deep dives into their local archives and find out how World War II and the Holocaust were reported in their area. The resulting information is uploaded to the site, which features a map of the states showing the number of articles found for each one. Currently, Maryland has 127.

The goal of Holocaust education, Donly said, should be not just background facts and figures, but getting students to think critically, beyond the idea that Adolf Hitler was evil and responsible for everything.

“We’re looking at things that provide a larger concept out of the facts and figures,” she said.

Some states, like Pennsylvania and New York, mandate Holocaust and genocide education. Maryland does not. That’s because Maryland is a local-control state, said Bruce Lesh, social studies coordinator for the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). While the state provides a framework for what students must learn in each grade, an individual district has broad control over curriculum and implementation.

The social studies part of the framework is under review. But the framework as it stands includes this directive: “Analyze the atrocities committed against civilians during World War II, including the Holocaust in Europe and the Rape of Nanking in China.”

So, “all of our districts have it built into their curriculum,” Lesh said.

Since the mid-2000s, the MSDE has joined with the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) and Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM) each year to provide a three-day continuing education workshop on teaching the Holocaust. Its curriculum includes survivor stories, presentations from other teachers, available resources and a trip to the USHMM. There’s always a waiting list for that workshop, Lesh said.

The Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington coordinates a Holocaust speakers bureau with public, private and religious schools in addition to other institutions like the Washington Navy Yard, said Steven Adleberg, director of outreach education.

Deborah Cardin, deputy director for programs and development for the JMM, coordinates the workshop.

“The unique thing about our program is that we open it to everyone,” Cardin said. “It doesn’t have to be someone who teaches the Holocaust, but anyone who is interested.”

The workshop usually ends up including teachers from all over the state and of a number of different subjects — English, social studies, religious, etc. In recent years, Cardin said, the workshop has focused on providing new ways to teach the Holocaust. In particular, she added, teachers are interested in learning to relate issues of today to what happened both during and leading up to the Holocaust.

“It wasn’t that long ago,” Cardin said. “There are so many lessons to be learned from the past and help students think about issues happening now.”

For all the great resources and important professional development for teachers, everyone emphasizes that nothing can replace the first-hand account of a survivor. Jeanette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust programs for the BJC, coordinates a local speakers bureau, which pairs schools and organizations with Holocaust survivors willing to share their stories.

“It’s not a history lesson,” she said. “It’s you have to learn the lessons of the Shoah and apply them today. I just think we’re very fortunate in this area because of the number of survivors [who live here].”

In the 2016-17 school year, survivors went to 39 schools, reaching about 5,000 students. And now, Parmigiani is working to cultivate the next generation.

“We are encouraging second, even third, generations to start telling their family’s stories,” she said. “That’s our goal right now.”

For many schools, survivors anchor their Holocaust teaching. Louise Geczy, senior project coordinator for the John Carroll School in Bel Air, outside Baltimore, said she often tries to bring in as many survivors as possible during the school year. Along with covering the Holocaust in history classes and English (seniors read “Night” by Elie Wiesel), seniors also take a trip to the USHMM. But it’s always the survivors who bring it home for students, Geczy said.

“We have to find new ways to tell the stories because we’re not going to have the firsthand accounts in the same way we have in the past,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done in keeping this relevant, but the student interest is there. Like anything, it’s just how you present it.”

With fewer survivors available, the ones still able and willing to tell their stories do so many times a year — like Esther and Howard Kadinow and Edith Cord.

“When my husband and I go to speak now, there’s only a handful of us, so I feel it’s important to do,” said Esther, who as a child fled what’s now Croatia and spent about a year and a half in the mountains with the Partisans, a Jewish resistance group.

Beyond commemorating what happened and giving testimony, both she and Cord, who survived the Holocaust on the run as a “hidden child,” want students to make connections with the world today.

“My goal is not to make the talk about myself because everyone survived by a hair. The importance for me in speaking is the parallels with today. My goal is to wake them up to what’s happening today. I want them to take advantage of their opportunities and their schooling,” said Cord, who ended the war at 18 with a sixth-grade education.

At the end of the day, Esther said, if she can get students to stand up and take the risk to do the right thing, she will have succeeded.

It’s an ongoing thing,” she said. “There’s always going to be someone somewhere suffering, and if you can do something about it, that’s a wonderful thing.”

Hannah Monicken is senior reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times. Political Reporter Dan Schere contributed to this article.

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