World ORT Establishes Holocaust Education Resource Center in Bulgaria

With the establishment of an online Holocaust Education Resource Center in Bulgaria, World ORT has facilitated a grass roots move by the country’s teachers to plug a gap in Bulgaria’s education. The Resource Center will serve as a repository for lesson plans and other material which teachers can access to help raise awareness and understanding of the Shoah among teenagers.

The project, co-funded by World ORT and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, has also held training seminars at which 180 teachers from across Bulgaria have shared experiences and best practice.

“During the days of socialism it was not taught for ideological reasons, because those who helped the Jews – such as the church – were out of favor with the ruling regime. When communism collapsed there was huge interest in the topic but it was mostly debate about who the rescuers were, which led to a variety of ideological approaches. The Holocaust has no place in the curriculum not because people are against it but because of inertia. The result is that young people in Bulgaria are poorly informed about the Holocaust,” said the project’s curriculum developer, Dr. Albena Taneva, Associate Professor in the University of Sofia’s Department of Public Administration.

Now with greater skills, resources and support, the teachers who participated in the World ORT project have become an effective network to advance the teaching of the Holocaust in a meaningful, thought-provoking and engaging way.

Bulgaria is renowned for not handing over its 50,000 Jews to Germany for extermination – the community survived the war and most of them left for Israel when the communists took power. The reality was, however, more checkered: it surrendered 11,000 Jews from annexed Macedonia and Thrace to its Nazi ally’s death camps. And it was only after a sustained and intense campaign by the public, politicians and the church, that the government decided not to do the same with its own Jewish citizens. Instead, it confined them to rural camps where they were subjected to often cruel, but not fatal, forced labor.

The completion of World ORT’s project is timely as next year is the 70th anniversary of the success of the civil campaign against the deportation of the Jews.  Discussions are already underway how to commemorate the event in an educational setting.

“The sustainability of the project is very important to us. Next year’s anniversary is an opportunity for the network of teachers and the website to generate work. Ideas include an essay competition, locally-based research and exhibitions – events which encourage active learning,” Dr. Taneva said.

Also, as Hannah Rosenthal, the US State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, has noted, extremist far-right groups have entered parliaments in Austria, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland on anti-immigration and racist platforms, prompting her to declare that educating the young is a priority.

Antisemitism in Bulgaria has yet to manifest itself in ways more serious than vandalism, inflammatory rhetoric and offensive graffiti but Dr. Taneva is a firm believer that prevention is better than cure.

“The lack of Holocaust education has created a vacuum which has the potential of being filled with extremist ideas, including from abroad,” she said. “I distributed a book to seminar participants which focused on the way the church was able to have a key role in the rescue of Jews during the war and a teacher from a religious high school, whose students go on to become priests, said it was a powerful antidote to antisemitic ideas that some of his students may have.”

ORT Bulgaria President Dr. Emil Kalo said he was very happy that the Claims Conference had supported the project.

“For 50 years, the history of that era was all about the Soviet role in the war and about the communist-led resistance. The word ‘Holocaust’ doesn’t appear in any school text books; it’s almost as if it hadn’t happened. It’s very important that we start with the teachers because there’s a multiplier effect: each teacher educates hundreds of students,” Dr. Kalo said.

He added: “This is an opportunity to examine the anti-humanity face of the war because the Holocaust is a very important part of this. Many people died on all sides of the fighting but there was one people which was the ‘universal victim’.”