teaching the teachers

As knowledge about the Holocaust declines, these educators are learning how to teach it

One attendee said it becomes harder for students to understand the magnitude of what occurred as time passes. 

Nearly every winter since 2004, Ann Mollengarden, the former education director at the Alabama Holocaust Education Center, travels to an advanced seminar held by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous on best practices in teaching about the Holocaust. It never feels repetitive, and especially didn’t this year.

“I just can’t emphasize how important it is for our teachers in Alabama to be able to have access to this kind of a resource,” Mollengarden, who is now an advanced researcher at the center, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “It’s sort of like a reboot.”

Holocaust educators face a challenging landscape. Antisemitism has increased in recent years, according to surveys by the Anti-Defamation League. A recent tally published by Axios found that most states don’t require Holocaust education, and a 2020 survey by the Claims Conference found that most U.S. millennial and Gen Z respondents didn’t know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, and that 11% believed Jews caused the Holocaust.  

Meanwhile, politicians are pushing to enact laws banning teachers from teaching “controversial” topics such as race without showing “opposing” viewpoints, and are scrutinizing the books provided to schoolchildren, which some fear could have a chilling effect on teaching the Holocaust. One year ago, a school board in Tennessee banned the teaching of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, about the Holocaust.

In another instance, a senior administrator in the Southlake, Texas, school district told teachers at an October 2021 training that, based on a state law, if they teach a book on the Holocaust they must also require students to read a book from the opposing view. The superintendent of the district later apologized for the comments.

The seminar, held from Jan. 14-16 at the Hilton in Elizabeth, N.J, taught 22 middle and high school teachers and other Holocaust educators about the geopolitical forces that allowed hatred to fester throughout Europe in the years leading to the Holocaust and showed them how to teach the Holocaust without running afoul of potentially restrictive state legislation. One presenter at the advanced seminar, Nicholas Coddington, director of education and public programs at the National Archives and Records Administration, taught attendees how to access and create lesson plans based on federal documents.

“We had teachers from Alabama and New Jersey and Virginia and Florida and South Carolina, where because of new laws, books have to get approved,” Stanlee Stahl, the executive vice president of The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that also provides financial assistance to 120 needy righteous gentiles, told eJP. 

“Lesson plans have to get approved,” she added. “But for the most part a teacher should not get in trouble using a federal document, like a law, like the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924,” that all but halted Jewish immigration in the years leading up to the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Teachers were also taught how to teach about prejudice by looking at other laws that restricted the rights of minorities, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. “Sometimes teachers will teach antisemitism in conjunction with other -isms —  racism, antisemitism, etc,” said Stahl. 

Scholars in Holocaust studies, including historians Peter Hayes of Northwestern University, Jeffrey Veidlinger of the University of Michigan and Paul Hanebrink of Rutgers University, spoke to the seminar. Addressing the absence of women scholars on the program agenda, Stahl said, “I’m just looking for people who are doing research and writing in the field, and who are recognized.” She added that her foundation searches for younger scholars who have published books based on the focus of the seminar each year, and this year those happened to be men. Although recent years’ winter seminar presenters have all been men, she said women have presented at the foundation’s summer seminar that takes place each June, including Doris Leanna Bergen, who teaches  Holocaust studies at the University of Toronto, and Alexandra Zapruder, the editor of Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust.

Session topics included pogroms in Ukraine and how businesses in Germany cooperated with the Nazis in carrying out the genocide. 

“There is much more focus on what happened in Eastern Europe before or as the camps were just beginning to develop, and the mass killings that occurred, the mental attitude of those killers and why and how they did what they did,” said Mollengarden. “Of the different international forces that came into play in Eastern Europe… and the history behind the people that lived in those lands and what they had to endure even before the Holocaust. All of that is relatively new [in the seminar].”

Students today don’t realize the power of the antisemitism they are regurgitating, Stahl said. “Many students do not understand what they’re doing when they repeat antisemitic tropes or they use an antisemitic symbol,” she said. “So it’s education, education, education.” 

As time passes, said Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez, a seminar attendee and the assistant director of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at New Jersey’s Stockton University, it becomes harder for people to understand the magnitude of what occurred. 

“Unfortunately, we’re coming up to a point where there will be no more Holocaust survivors to tell their stories to the students in our classrooms,” he told eJP. “At the same time… there will also be no rescuers to tell their stories of heroism during the Holocaust. And the question comes now is how are we going to tell the story and how are we going to keep their memories alive while teaching the Shoah?” 

This year’s seminar was the first to meet in person since the pandemic began. Attendees came from New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama and Washington state.

 “We never ask [about] religion,” said Stahl, “but when I meet the teachers, many are wearing crosses around their neck or they’re teaching theology at a Catholic day school. They’re not Jewish, and this is something that’s important to them. Therefore it’s important to us that we meet their needs.”

Funding the event costs about $32,000, Stahl said. Support comes from individual donors and members of the foundation’s board. The program is heavily subsidized for attendees, with a participant fee of $425, which includes Saturday and Sunday lodging and the seminar. Participants cover their own travel, but often receive subsidies for travel as well as Friday lodging from local institutions. 

Stahl said the seminar is aimed at middle and high school teachers based on a recommendation from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “Basically, this has been a target since the 90s,” she said. “We do not advocate teaching 5-year-olds the Holocaust, or 6-year-olds or 7-year-olds or 8-year-olds… It is generally believed that at middle school, sixth, seventh grade, they’re able to understand and digest most of the aspects of the Holocaust.” 

The seminar is part of The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous’ broader education initiative. That includes the Alfred Lerner Fellowship Program, in which the foundation works with 13 Holocaust education organizations across the country. Those organizations each choose two fellows from their staff or from local middle and high schools to attend the foundation’s weeklong Holocaust education program every June at Columbia University. 

Fellows for that seminar are chosen based on their investment in teaching and learning about the Holocaust. Sometimes teachers inquire about becoming fellows, and sometimes the education centers reach out to them. 

Teaching the Holocaust can feel lonely, said Moreno-Rodriguez, who feels that meeting the other Holocaust educators inspires him to better himself. Fellows can attend the June program only once, but can attend the winter seminar, always held over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, every year. 

“Sometimes it can feel like you’re teaching in a silo,” he said. “In New Jersey, we’re a bit more fortunate than other states, because in New Jersey, it’s mandatory to teach Holocaust studies. But that’s not the case in other states. So it’s wonderful to network with other teachers and to continue that networking, even after the conference.” 

In terms of whether Holocaust education can stem a rising tide of antisemitism, Moreno said he has witnessed individual students grow passionate in fighting antisemitism, and has seen teachers expand their curricula on the Holocaust.

“It’s a starting point,” he said. “Not all of my 35 students [during a tour] are going to earn a minor in Holocaust and genocide studies or take another Holocaust class at the university level, but some will, and the important part is to reach that one student… People will say that Holocaust studies is not working or it’s doing too little, but there are actually profound changes that we see at the lower level.” 

He added, “We’re gonna keep fighting, no matter what, because we know as educators that education is key in combating hate and racism.”