Summer school has always been dreaded by young students, but for teachers, it’s just as likely to be regarded as a privilege.
As such, educators from across the country gathered at the Freedoms Foundation in Valley Forge last week to get a deeper scope into World War II history, while also gaining updated certified credits, including under the new Pennsylvania-sanctioned Act 48 mandate.
But as the Holocaust often only grazes a few pages of a public school textbook, Maureen Carter, a Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) Lerner fellow and administrator for K-12 Holocaust studies for the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida, led a class during the five-day seminar on ways to best teach the Holocaust to students.
Only eight states require Holocaust education in some form — Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey included.
From her experience, Carter said the Holocaust can’t be taught in statistics or re-enactments, but rather only through the stories of real people, victims and survivors. They each had lives, families and stories to tell.
Bruce Klasner, a Holocaust studies educator based in South Florida, also spoke to the group of teachers and provided a poignant example.
He began by sharing some history of Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving thousands of Jews by employing them in his factories.
Klasner showed a black-and-white image of his family, who he said all perished in the Holocaust except for one, his father, No. 204 on Schindler’s list.
The class gasped, then fell completely silent.
Klasner only found out by half-listening to a PBS documentary one day. It showed a portion of Schindler’s list — and his father’s name was on it.
He didn’t find out the entire truth of his father’s suffering until the aging survivor was on his deathbed in April 2001.
Working in a Polish factory — not directly under Schindler at the time — Klasner’s father snuck food to friends in the barracks. He was tortured for it and sent to Gross-Rosen concentration camp.
But he was well-liked by an SS officer, which led to him making the list.
He never told his son because he felt ashamed for taking the place of what could have been another life.
“I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said, ‘Your father saved my life,’” said Klasner, wearing an American flag-designed tie. “I wish I could be 10 percent of what my dad was.”
Stories of the Holocaust can relate to students closer to home. Carter shared the story of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, a prisoner-of-war sent to a camp with more than 1,000 other American soldiers.
The Americans were divided — Jews and non-Jews. About 200 of those soldiers were Jewish and sentenced to death, but Edmonds stepped in.
He refused to see them march to their death. When asked to identify which soldiers were Jewish, he exclaimed to SS officers, “We are all Jews here.”
“Roddie Edmonds was a farm boy from Tennessee. He didn’t think Jewish, Catholic, Christian, whatever. He just said, ‘This is the right thing to do,’” Carter said. “‘They’re not taking you guys because you’re Jewish.’ So to me, he’s a real hero.”
Edmonds was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel.
Edmonds’ story wasn’t public knowledge until a few years ago, and has since been made into a JFR-produced film, Following the Footsteps of my Father.
Carter, who is not Jewish, said learning and teaching the Holocaust was her “calling.”
When she was a child, her mother gave her a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank.
“Ever since then, [learning] the whole idea of social justice — it was so unfair. And that’s just one story,” said Carter, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y., and lived in Downingtown, Pa., for 20 years.
As a history buff, she became intrigued by the story of Tibor Rubin, a survivor who received the Medal of Honor for his Korean War service. Her fascination then spread.
She said studying the Holocaust “makes us better citizens” and teaches us “how to be human.”
“It teaches character traits, which obviously is part of Holocaust education,” she said. “The basic tools of Holocaust education is to teach students what’s right and what’s the right thing to do.”
Students are the most important part of education, she added, but teachers need to be better educated on this topic, too, as well as know how to properly pass on that knowledge.
“You’ll often hear, ‘Why [teach] the Holocaust?’ And this is why. This is why we teach it. You have to have some kind of hope for humanity,” she said.
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