Holocaust museum, local center join forces Teachers get lessons in teaching about the Holocaust, genocide

Holocaust museum, local center join forces Teachers get lessons in teaching about the Holocaust, genocide

Karen Levine (Photo provided)
Karen Levine (Photo provided)

Holocaust education has always been a vital tool in making the cries of “never again” more than just a slogan.

For 40 area educators eager to teach the Holocaust comprehensively and meaningfully, the opportunity to participate in a three day training course run by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh was one they could not pass up.

Matthew Hamilton, the educational program director at the Holocaust Center who organized the session, said that with the passing of Act 70 of 2014, the Holocaust and genocide education bill, which “strongly encourages” schools to teach the two topics, the goal of the training was not only to make teachers aware of the legislation, but to provide them with the means to meet that mandate.

“We wanted to provide them with resources — and training on these resources — so they felt comfortable when they went back to their classrooms and they would have to teach about the Holocaust and genocide and human rights violations,” Hamilton said.

Karen Levine, one of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s regional education coordinators who led the second day of training, said that teaching the Holocaust is complex, tough and hugely important.

“A lot of people believe, well, Hitler came to power, he rounded up all the Jews and he killed them and that’s the whole story. And if you believe that, then the Holocaust would be really easy to teach,” she said.

But, Levine said, the truth is far more complex and layered. To teach it properly, educators must make sure their students understand this. “You really have to think about people’s motives, where people were, what people thought” and what sort of lessons or messages the students will come away with.

Mary Smolter, a middle school history and social studies teacher at St. Alexis Catholic School in Wexford, said she knows just how hard it can be to teach this topic. She said she prepares her students for it before they’ve even begun the unit. She also allows parents the option to preview the material and video footage she uses in the course because they can be so upsetting.

“I tell [the students] they have to be serious about it,” she said, adding that she often tries to close each lesson with something positive.

Levine said she hopes that the signing of the Holocaust and genocide education bill last summer will lead more schools to begin educating their students on the subject, and “if it’s going to be taught, it should be taught right.” Too often, Levine said, teachers use the “shock and awe method: Let me show you a bunch of pictures of horribly mutilated people.” Other teachers just put on the Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List.”

But proper education comes when students are taught “how to think critically about it, how to evaluate people’s motives, and their own motives going forward,” she said.

Levine said that the important role of teachers was highlighted at this training session, with a new unit — that the Pittsburgh teachers were first to use — about the responses and actions of teachers in the Third Reich.

Levine said they discussed the segregation of Jewish students and the government-directed curriculum, as well as the different reactions from the teachers. Some, she said, were complicit, even enthusiastic, while “other people pushed back against the whole thing and wanted to help their students.” That unit was particularly important and meaningful, according to Levine, “because as teachers, when we go to the classroom, what we do matters and … how we treat our students is essential.”

Smolter, the Catholic middle school teacher, said that although the training session was very emotional and could be “draining,” it was “one of the best professional development classes that I ever took,” describing it as both “concrete” and “useful.”

She had been doing research on the Holocaust and developing her own curriculum for several years when she visited the Holocaust Center last year to flesh out her lessons a bit more. Once involved with the center, she was able to get a survivor to speak to both parents and teachers. She took her class on a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington “and once I went to this museum I just thought, there’s so much more I really need to know.”

Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at mashas@thejewishchronicle.net.