2018-04-11 / Voice at the Shore

Holocaust educators tackle how to “make better human beings”

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Stockton professors Steve Marcus, left, and Alex Alvarez led the workshop for educators at the Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center on March 20. Stockton professors Steve Marcus, left, and Alex Alvarez led the workshop for educators at the Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center on March 20. It was an impressive gathering: Despite the threat of snow and ice-covered roads, a roomful of South Jersey middle school and high school educators made their way to Stockton’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center on March 20 to discuss “Lessons and Legacies of Teaching the Holocaust.”

As the workshop unfolded, the Holocaust educators’ passion for their subject—and for teaching children and teens to resist hate and prejudice— became apparent.

Some of the educators taught classes in Holocaust and Genocide studies, while others covered those topics as part of a history or social studies class. All were looking for the most effective ways to teach Holocaust and Genocide studies to make it relevant to their students’ lives.

“What’s the real business we are in?” asked Steve Marcus, an adjunct professor at Stockton. “Holocaust education, yes, but the real business is to imbue values and make better human beings.”

Workshop leader Alex Alvarez, a visiting professor in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Northern Arizona University, agreed. He noted that in Arizona, unlike New Jersey, Holocaust and Genocide education was not mandatory. “Teachers don’t have to teach it, but those that do do so because they think it’s very important,” he said.

“Survivors coming to classrooms was a powerful way that students connected to the Holocaust” because it allowed students to hear that person’s story firsthand. But with survivors aging and dying out, this avenue for connection will soon be lost.

In the face of this, educators are challenged to find new ways to connect the events and lessons of the Holocaust to today’s students, especially given the recent uptick in discrimination against minorities and immigrants.

“We are in a pivotal period, not only in our history but in what we do,” stressed Alvarez. It is ironic, he noted, that while “there has been an explosion of Holocaust education,” the Anti- Defamation League has also reported a 57% increase in anti- Semitism over the past year, with incidents most commonly occurring in elementary and high schools, said Alvarez. Holocaust education should lead to fewer incidents, not more, he stressed.

Alvarez and other educators also noted the troubling worldwide shift toward authoritarianism, which he related to the rise in both anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Semitism occurring worldwide. One educator commented on parallels between modern times and the rise of Hitler, saying she was afraid students who supported the current political environment might “have problems” with what she was teaching.

“You’re not alone in making those linkages,” said Alvarez.

As a possible strategy for dealing with this, Alvarez suggested teaching students how to think rather than what to think, by presenting facts and letting students draw their own conclusions. Similarly, another educator said he had students view newscasts from different TV stations and talk about their biases, so that they learned to think critically about the facts being presented. “You can’t just blindly follow a newscast and say, ‘that’s a fact,’” he stressed.

One educator stressed the importance of students learning to stand up for what’s right.

“I try to teach kids to be part of the process,” he said. “I tell them it’s their job to get lawmakers to do the right thing.”

Many teachers expressed optimism over the “Student Walkout” that had occurred March 14, in which students nationwide left their classrooms for 17 minutes to protest gun violence in schools. The walkout was held on the one-month anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, where 17 students and faculty were killed by a gunman armed with automatic weapons on Valentine’s Day.

“I think students taking a stand and walking out brought attention to the situation. It was a good thing. We want kids to take a stand, to become active, involved citizens. When kids articulate how they feel, that’s powerful,” one educator concluded. 

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