Teaching The Horror

As the world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, schoolteachers here use the holocaust as a vehicle to combat bigotry
Published: 1995-04-28

A fifth-grader at Tamarac Elementary School in Holbrook, L.I., spied the french fries on the plate of her friend and asked if she could have some. Before her friend could reply, a male classmate snorted: "Sure she eats off other's plates, her name is Pig."

The girl, Nancy Pigawic, turned ashen and began to cry. Her teacher heard what happened and asked the boy if he remembered what the class had learned about the Holocaust earlier in the week.

"Look what name calling could lead to," the teacher said.

The boy began to cry as the lesson of the Holocaust finally sunk in.

Since the late 1980s, high schools throughout New York State have been teaching the Holocaust as part of European and American history. To make sure it was included in the European history section of the global studies curriculum, the state Board of Regents in 1987 included material on the Holocaust in its approved syllabus and developed questions for the state-mandated Regents exams from that syllabus, according to George Gregory, supervisor of educational programs for the New York State Department of Education.

For many schools, that means the Holocaust will be taught to 10th-graders at this time of the year — which coincides with worldwide Holocaust Day commemorations that this year fell out on April 27. But the amount of attention given to the Holocaust in public school varies widely, depending on the school. Gregory said there are no minimum requirements. However, New York is still one of only about six states with a mandated Holocaust curriculum.

But at least one teacher of the Holocaust, Mark Willner, an assistant principal at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, said he has found that "a small but growing number of high school educators are devoting a substantial amount of time to the Holocaust" in the classroom.

Interviews with those who teach the Holocaust found that the subject is being taught not only to educate youngsters about what happened but to teach them lessons about democracy and bigotry that can be applied today.

"There's a lot of hatred in America today," one teacher told his class just days before the deadly bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by suspected white separatists.

Many Jewish schools appear to have a more extensive Holocaust curriculum, with Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan teaching the Holocaust for 25 weeks in its sixth-grade Sunday school.

A fifth-grade teacher at Tamarac Elementary School, Nicholas LaGrega, said his school district's teaching of the Holocaust over the past 14 years has taught teachers of the lower grades how to teach about tolerance and differences in lifestyles and culture. "The focus is not on the Holocaust, but we use the Holocaust as a catalyst to stress tolerance and explain what happens when it fails," he said.

At Middle College High School on the campus of LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens, the Holocaust is taught over a two-week period and teacher Kathy Moran said it is covered quickly because that semester's curriculum covers the entire 20th century. As a result, she said she and assistant principal Bobbi Beinhacker teach an elective course about the Holocaust for students in the 10th through 12th grades.

Offered for the first time last fall, 25 of the eligible 400 students signed up for the course. Moran said most of them had already taken the global studies course, which she said most entered with "very little knowledge" of the Holocaust.

"They knew it happened and that it was terrible, but they said it happened a long time ago and in another place," she said. "They were curious as to why we should be spending so much time on it. By the end of the course, they no longer asked why."

In the elective course, Moran said students are taught about identity and what it means; they are given an historical overview of the Holocaust, the rise of Nazism and the choices people had to make at the time; the responsibility for the Holocaust and the lessons it teaches today.

Beinhacker stressed that the students are taught about the choices non-Jews were forced to make, too. And she said survivors were brought to the class.

"There is something about actually meeting a survivor that is magical," said Moran.

Because of funding cutbacks, Moran said it is uncertain whether the elective course on the Holocaust will be taught next year. So efforts are now under way to incorporate into other classes elements of the lessons learned from the Holocaust "so no matter what happens, we will still be able" to cover it in some way.

Gregory of the state Department of Education noted that many English classes are speaking about the Holocaust because of the books on their reading list, such as "The Diary of Anne Frank" and Elie Wiesel's "Night."

Last summer, Gov. Mario Cuomo signed into law legislation that mandated the teaching about genocide, slavery, the Holocaust and other violations of human rights to all students from the third through 12th grades.

But no funds were allocated to develop the curriculum and no workshops were set up to explain how it should be taught. Instead, Gregory said he has been sending schools material that was developed in 1987 and referring them to publishers and such organizations as the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith that have developed their own material.

Vincent Marmorale, the Holocaust educator in the Sachem Central School District in Suffolk County, L.I., and an award-winning authority on Holocaust education, said he believed many districts are merely giving lip service to the latest mandate.

"They'll say they're doing it, but they're not," he said.

How Early Is Too Early?

Primarily because of Marmorale's interest in the subject, Sachem, with 14,000 students, the largest suburban school district in the state, has developed a curriculum to teach about bigotry as early as kindergarten. Marmorale said that three years ago he experimented with a Holocaust program in the fourth grade and "we felt it was a year too early. They were not mature enough to understand it. So we brought in a survivor to speak with them so that they could understand it better."

Since then, he said, he has taught the Holocaust to those no younger than the fifth grade. Marmorale said he waits until the spring to teach it because the students are significantly more mature than in the fall.

During a recent 90-minute Holocaust class he taught at Tamarac, Marmorale kept the attention of Anne Marie Arra's fifth-grade class by speaking of the Holocaust in the simplest of terms and showing excerpts of movies dealing with the subject.

"Who understands what it means to be fair and unfair?" Marmorale began.

Hands of several students shot up.

"Everyone in the class was born without hate, so who's teaching it to you?" he asked.

There were replies of "school," "brothers and sisters," and "television."

"You're all right," he said.

Moments later, he turned to a map on the wall.

"Our story begins in Austria...where there was an artist. He was poor, he couldn't sell his paintings, and he began attending lectures dealing with hate. He began learning about a super race, an Aryan race, which is nonsense. Unfortunately, some people believe it even today. So he began blaming others for his failure. Who knows the name of this artist?"

One hand rose.

"Adolf Hitler," said the child.

"And whom did he blame for his failure to be a great artist?"

"Jewish people," replied another youngster.

"Yes," said Marmorale, a Catholic.

Walking through an aisle of seats, Marmorale asked: "What if I told you that you all had to go to school to learn how to hate? Most of us trust our teachers. They took the young people of Germany and poisoned their minds."

He then showed a video of a fifth-grade classroom in Nazi Germany in which the teacher was teaching that Jews were inferior and the root of all problems in the country.

"Do you think the students believed this, that Jews were not human?" Marmorale asked the wide-eyed youngsters. "You can be taught anything — even the worst things if you don't know any better....Fear and terror had become part of German life. They were thieves and gangsters, the Nazis. That's all they were. So what did they do? When you get to the eighth grade, I'm going to show you things so frightening."

The class ended with the showing of a movie in which Nazis marched Jews to the edge of a pit and then killed them with a burst of machine-gun fire. Although the actual shooting was not shown, many of the students interviewed later said it had been one of the most memorable moments of the class.

"Can you believe that ending?" Marmorale asked. "In a democracy, we protect all minority groups. In Germany, there was no protection and they lost something inside that made them human."

Toward Tolerance

One student, Maria Calderon, 11, of Holbrook, said later that she had not realized people from many different groups in addition to Jews had been murdered by the Nazis. And she said she was particularly struck by the fact that the Nazis killed "so many kids — over 1.5 million."

Matt Mauro, 12, of Holtsville, said that after class he asked Marmorale what the Nazis would have done to him because he is both Jewish and Catholic.

"He said I probably would have been killed or kept to do work," Matt said.

Marmorale said he deliberately tells the students that the Nazis murdered more than just Jews in an attempt to "universalize it so that the entire audience believes they could have all been victims."

At the same time, he said he does not want to de-Judaize the Holocaust.

"How do you include others but still express the uniqueness of the Holocaust in Jewish history?" Marmorale asks. "If you don't bring in non-Jewish victims, you make the Holocaust solely a Jewish event in history, and that's what the anti-Semites want people to believe — that Jews were killed because they were different."

New Textbook

To help encourage teachers of the global studies curriculum to teach more about the Holocaust, Barron's Educational Services last month published a new course textbook that includes more than 40 pages on the subject. The book's principal author, Mark Willner of Midwood High, said this is the most extensive coverage of the Holocaust found in any standard European history survey textbook printed in the United States.

"If you go to any high school or college and look at their history books, you will see a page or a page and a half on the Holocaust and it would be tucked into a chapter on World War II," he said. "And none of the books have any mention of Jewish resistance or righteous gentiles."

`Let The Children Remember'

Willner has also taught the Holocaust for the last 20 years to sixth-graders at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. He said he spends 90 minutes each Sunday with the youngsters, teaching them each week about a different aspect of the Holocaust.

"One week we'll talk about Kristallnacht, another we'll talk about other key events, and the next we'll discuss how it occurred and why," he said.

For even younger Sunday school children, those from kindergarten through the second grade, B'nai B'rith Women is now distributing a program called "Let the Children Remember." It was created six years ago by Adrian Kalikow of Chappaqua, L.I., when she was teaching first grade at Beth Torah Congregation in Mount Kisco.

"It came time for Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day] and all but the youngest kids had Yom HaShoah programs," she recalled. "I felt it was important to start teaching the subject from the youngest age to make the children aware without it being threatening."

She said that for B'nai B'rith Women she modified her curriculum so it could be used in the public schools as well. And by adding texts and resource materials, it can now be taught through the sixth grade.

"The emphasis in my program is on having freedoms taken away — things that the kids could identify with without going to the extremes of all the horrors that happened," said Kalikow. "So we talk about not being able to be to be with your parents, leaving your home, not being allowed in your school, having friends you used to play with not being allowed to play with you anymore. These are things that would be a horror to children."

One of the parents in the school, Alynne Krull, also of Chappaqua, came up with the idea of trying to help the children get an idea of the size of the number 6 million. She distributed paper with 50 figures of people on them that had to be colored in. Hundreds of these figure-filled sheets were returned by the students. They were fashioned into objects, such as a Magen David and an Israeli flag, and displayed two years ago at the Mid-Westchester Y in Scarsdale.

"Every piece was more moving than the last," said Krull.

Sheets containing about 250,000 figures covered the entire interior of the building. A total of 33 day schools and afternoon schools, nursery schools and Y's participated.

At the time, Krull was president of the B'nai B'rith Women Rita Salberg Chapter and with her help the entire organization has now begun distributing Kalikow's curriculum. (For more information, call 914 698-2060.)

In his new book, Willner said he deliberately did not include any mention of Holocaust deniers. He said he feared that would give them undue attention and that all of the material and pictures he had in the chapter would belie any of their claims.

But it is the attention Holocaust deniers have received on college campuses that has troubled many, including Bess Myerson, the only Jewish Miss American and a former New York City consumer affairs commissioner. She is so incensed that this year, in conjunction with the ADL, she offered cash awards to college newspaper articles and editorials that dealt with multiculturalism and intergroup relations.

She pointed out that anti-Semitism is nothing new to her, that she had faced it during her reign as Miss America in 1945.

"Fifty years later," said Myerson, "I'm still living in a world with anti-Semites."

Copyright © 1995, Jewish Week, The.

Copyright © 1995, SoftLine Information Inc., all right reserved.

Title: Teaching The Horror: As the world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, schoolteachers here use the holocaust as a vehicle to combat bigotry.
Summary: A fifth-grader at Tamarac Elementary School in Holbrook, L.I., spied the french fries on the plate of her friend and asked if she could have some. Before her friend could reply, a male classmate snorted: "Sure she eats off other's plates, her name is Pig."
Source: Jewish Week, The; Ethnic News Watch
Date: 28-APR-1995
Regular Price: $3.00
Subscriber's Price: $3.00
Document Size: Medium (3 to 7 pages)
Document ID: GG19970827140010125
Citation Information: V.207; N.52; p. 8
Author(s): Ain, Stewart
Document Type: Article

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Stewart Ain
Title: Teaching The Horror, As the world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, schoolteachers here use the holocaust as a vehicle to combat bigotry
Sources: The Jewish Week, 28-APR-1995, V.207; N.52; p. 8
Published: 1995-04-28
First posted on CODOH: June 29, 1996, 7 p.m.
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