But that may soon change for some students in New Jersey. With the start of this school year, a curriculum is available in the Garden State that highlights Jewish heroism and resistance in the face of increasing German oppression.
The Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation – an organization established five years ago, and funded by a slew of individual donations and family foundations – developed the educational material that instead of focusing on Jewish tragedy, stresses the armed resistance fighters of the Holocaust.
According to the organization, New Jersey – one of just a handful of states in the country that require, through legislation, its schools to teach about the Shoah – is the first such state to recommend the new curriculum to all of its nearly 800 middle and high schools.
"There were millions of acts of resistance – everything from people teaching Hebrew and saying the Shema to lighting Shabbat candles," said JPEF executive director Mitch Braff. "Young people don't only want to hear about devastation and loss. They are hungry for stories about standing up against tyranny and oppression."
As part of the new material, students may learn about such partisans as Norman Salsitz, who wanted to defend his homeland of Poland, but knew that Jews trying to fight against the Nazis would be killed by their Polish counterparts. Salsitz posed as a Catholic and joined a Polish resistance group, and not only had the ability to fight the Nazis, but on more than one occasion was able to sabotage his own group's plans to assassinate Jewish leaders or Jews hidden in nearby farms.
According to Paul B. Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, the state will incorporate the JPEF material into a much larger curriculum addressing not only the Jewish partisans, but the resistance movement in general. The commission will soon hold a workshop to introduce these ideas and concepts to teachers, he said.
'Echoes and Reflections'
Other organizations have also recognized a need to educate students about the heroic efforts of Jews during the war. The Anti-Defamation League, Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and the Yad Vashem memorial museum in Jerusalem teamed up this summer and celebrated the launch of a new multimedia Holocaust curriculum called "Echoes and Reflections."
Geared to high school students, the material covers both Jewish and non-Jewish resistance in two of its 10 lessons, which use maps, photographs, timelines and video to teach students about cultural diversity, intolerance, and genocide in both past and present-day settings.
At the Holocaust Commission, Winkler said that despite the emphasis on this new component of Holocaust education, there's no way to measure or track what teachers or schools may do with the items, which include study guides, short films narrated by Larry King and Ed Asner, an interactive Web site and, if requested, live speakers.
In Pennsylvania, which does not mandate Holocaust education within its schools, the state has a task force that works with the department of education to run workshops and seminars for teachers.
According to Braff, the JPEF package has not yet been sent to schools in the commonwealth.
In talking about the importance of the curriculum, Braff stressed that the stories of Jews standing firm and, in some cases, overcoming the odds could be a source of inspiration to many students.
"There happens to be millions who fought actively as teenagers," he said. "The new curriculum shows the students that young people can make a difference."