To a high school student, the events of the Holocaust can seem unreal, and far removed from contemporary life. But by drawing parallels between current events and Nazi Germany, Seneca Valley Senior High School teacher Jim Lucot has been able to help illustrate the horrid reality that was the Holocaust for his students.
The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) recognized Lucot this week for his excellence in Holocaust education.
One of only two educators worldwide to receive the 2009 Robert I. Goldman Award, Lucot does not teach the subject as it is generally taught in high schools across the country, as “a single episode for one day as part of the World War II curriculum,” he said.
Rather, Lucot, who is not Jewish, begins teaching the roots of European anti-Semitism, beginning in 1890, to his 11th grade American History class in August, building up during the rest of the semester to the rise of Nazism.
“I never wanted to teach history episodically,” Lucot said. “I wanted to teach how subjects were inter-related and inter-woven.”
When his course begins in late summer, Lucot said, his students think they already know all about the Holocaust because they read an excerpt from Anne Frank’s diary when they were in middle school.
“They think the Holocaust was like playing hide-and-seek, like camping out in your grandmother’s attic,” Lucot said.
Lucot is able to change that perspective by focusing on all the players involved in the Holocaust — the bystanders and the liberators, as well as the victims and perpetrators.
“I have my students look at photographs of the bystanders,” Lucot said. “I show them pictures of men in suits and ties, and I ask them, ‘What do you think these men do for a living? They are obviously educated men, and they are smiling [as they watch Jews being victimized].’ That’s what’s really powerful.”
Lucot said that his students become silent when viewing these photographs.
“When they’re silent, you know an impact is being made,” he said.
Lucot also makes the Holocaust real for his students by drawing parallels to current events.
“[Iranian president] Ahmadinejad recently said he wanted to place all the Jews in Alaska. We laugh about it, but early in the Third Reich, the Nazis wanted to send all the Jews to Madagascar,” Lucot said. “When I can make parallels like that, that brings the Holocaust to life.”
The JFR honors and supports Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. The Foundation provides monthly support to more than 1,000 aged and needy Christian rescuers in 24 countries. Through its national education program, the Foundation also preserves the legacy of the Righteous and educates teachers and students about the history of the Holocaust.
Lucot received a $1,000 cash award, which was presented to him at the foundation’s annual dinner on Dec. 1, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The JFR also covered the cost of Lucot’s travel, hotel and expenses for the event.
Lucot said he knows his course is having an effect on his students, and recounted a “neat experience” he had this fall while attending a United Jewish Federation event in Squirrel Hill featuring a speaker on the Hitler Youth Movement.
“I had the flyer in my classroom, but I didn’t mention it [the event] to my students,” Lucot said. “But when I was leaving the event, I ran into one of my students, who had brought her dad and her boyfriend. Her boyfriend was not even in my class. She drove 35 miles from Cranberry to hear this speaker. That proves there is an interest.”
Lucot is currently a member of the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council, and is working to make Holocaust education a requirement in public schools in Pennsylvania.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1263)