2017-07-19 / Home

Two South Jersey teachers learn from Holocaust experts over break

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff

Michelle Myers is pictured with Holocaust survivor Roman Kent during the seminar.Michelle Myers is pictured with Holocaust survivor Roman Kent during the seminar.Before Michelle Myers even left for a Holocaust education seminar in New York City, the veteran teacher had already plowed through the hefty prerequisite reading: An 800-page compilation of academic essays.

And now, after returning from the intensive week of back-to-back lectures from top scholars and survivors, she is using what’s left of summer break retooling her lesson plans to incorporate copious amounts of new and powerful information and ideas still swirling in her head.

“I came home with nine pages of type-written notes,” said Myers, a longtime French educator at Sterling High School in Somerdale now in her second year of teaching a Holocaust and genocide course through the history department. “There are all kinds of practical ways I plan to take what I learned and give a different life to my class.”

Myers was among 22 educators from across the nation, Croatia and Poland who met at Columbia University in late June for the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous Summer Institute for a high-level, intensive academic seminar. The organization provides financial support to aged and needy non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust while preserving their legacy through a national education program focused on middle and high school teachers.

Veteran Millville Senior High School history teacher Thomas DeCou, the only other South Jersey educator who was in the mix, is in the same boat.

“I almost felt like a Holocaust beginner sitting in the lectures listening to world-renowned experts, authors and professors,” said DeCou, who teaches a diversity and tolerance class at the Cumberland County school. “Now I’m trying to figure out how to take back what I learned to my class.”

Both South Jersey teachers were accepted into the program through their connection with Stockton University’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies Department, which provides students dual college credits for successful completion of coursework.

The seminar featured survivors and scholars including: Roman Kent, Volker Berghahn, Doris Bergen, Jeffrey Burds, Lawrence Douglas, Henry Feingold, Peter Hayes, Michael Marrus, Steven Field, Michael Steinlauf, Edward Westermann and Alexandra Zapruder. The educators met in small groups following each lecture to develop approaches to introducing the subject matter to their students. The 800-page seminar book is “How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader,” introduced and edited by Professor Peter Hayes, a leading Holocaust historian.

Myers said brainstorming with fellow educators was as valuable as the lectures. Among takeaways, she plans to bring “the crocus project” to her classroom. Started in Ireland, students plant crocus bulbs in the fall. The yellow flowers that will subsequently bloom resemble the Star of David Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis. The project is now in place across Europe to honor the memory of 1.5 million Jewish children who perished in the camps.

“A Polish teacher gave us the idea,” said Myers, who is active with the JCRC’s Raab/Goodwin Holocaust Museum & Education Center. “I’ve already written to the organization.”

DeCou said he was particularly struck by all the newfound information he gleaned about the history of anti-Semitism tracing back to biblical times as well as how Poland’s fate was shaped by its position between both Russia and Germany and how Nazi occupation affected the nation, its government and citizens, not just Jews.

“It was all fascinating,” said DeCou. “This was, without a doubt, the most valuable experience I’ve had as a teacher.” 

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