Catholic Gratz Grad Preserves Survivors’ Stories Through Teaching

Jennifer Kugler (center) graduated from Gratz College May 21, where her two children, William and Abigail, attended the ceremony. | Photo provided

Gratz College is rooted in Jewish history and education.

And so is Jennifer Kugler, an American history teacher at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School.

Kugler graduated from Gratz College May 21 with a master’s degree in Holocaust and genocide studies, as well as a graduate certificate in Jewish-Christian relations.

She’s a self-proclaimed “cradle Catholic” — “I’ve always been Catholic,” she said. “I was born and baptized as a Catholic. So while I was always interested in Holocaust [studies], I grew up in the ’80s when they first started talking about it [in school].”

Kugler first studied the Holocaust 16 years ago through the Anti-Defamation League’s Bearing Witness program, which provides Catholic school teachers with the training and resources to educate their students about the relationship between Jewish and Catholic communities.

When Kugler was a high school student, teachers showed her and her classmates photographs of the piles of dead bodies from concentration camps and briefly mentioned Adolf Hitler, but that was about it.

“It wasn’t defined the way it is now,” the Horsham native said. “Holocaust education was not yet defined. We didn’t know how to appropriately teach something so catastrophic. And at that point, we weren’t talking about what happened in Cambodia, we weren’t talking about what happened in the Ukraine — we didn’t know about the Ukrainian starvation — we didn’t know what there was to know about the Armenian genocide. We certainly weren’t talking about Native Americans in terms of genocide.”

Fortunately, Holocaust education has since expanded from Kugler’s days. She’s taught at Hallahan for three years out of her 20 in the field, teaching the Holocaust within her history class.

In the late ’90s, she responded to a mailer she received for professional development on Catholic-Jewish relations, which she found fascinating. It also provided Act 48 accreditation — Pennsylvania-required teaching credits.

“I expected a professional development opportunity. Some people might talk at me, I might get some ideas,” she remembered. “And then I went and my world got turned upside down. … The responsibility that Christianity bears — and not laying all of its fault at Christianity because at its heart Nazism was anti-religion — but they used what they could from what was bred into the people’s minds throughout the centuries regarding Jews, and they used that to their advantage.”

Fully intrigued, Kugler went on March of the Living, a trip that visits concentration camps in Poland.

“I’m standing there surrounded by all of these familiar things, by churches,” she said. She went to a Polish church and discovered how the structure of the mass service is the same as her church back home, regardless of language barriers.

The trip continued in Israel, where she witnessed the roots of Judaism and Christianity and how they intertwined.

But she struggled with her own crisis of faith throughout the process.

“Even though the church can say it was not doctrine to teach ‘Jews are going to hell’ or it was never doctrine to teach explicitly ‘Jews killed Christ,’ my father-in-law learned it in school. It might not have been official doctrine, but he was taught it. He grew up in the ’40s, and those changes didn’t come until the ’70s,” she said. “The crisis of faith was, can I continue to be Catholic knowing this legacy?”

Kugler said the Bearing Witness program changed the way she views the world, the way she uses language and the way she teaches her children about not just the Holocaust, but everything.  

“[The Bearing Witness program] changed me fundamentally as a human being,” she said. “It becomes not just a discrete topic that needs to be checked off… but it becomes something that really informs everything that I do, both as a human being and as a practicing Catholic.”

Throughout her crisis, Kugler said she came out the other side stronger.

When she used to teach middle-schoolers, she took her students to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., but teaching high-schoolers is different, she said, as she has to consolidate what they may have already learned.

She teaches pieces of the Holocaust throughout the school year. She hopes by next year to have a full six-week unit on the topic.

She’s squeezed some of that curriculum into her additional sociology class, too, analyzing the general idea of genocide and how that operates sociologically.

At Gratz, she studied classes on the Jewish civilizations before Hitler, the history of the church and Jews, gender and genocide studies, and Eastern European history between Stalin and Hitler.

She wrote her thesis on the “efficacy of the policy of reconciliation in Rwanda.”

She said studying the Holocaust is obviously important, but the nuances are slipping as more and more survivors pass on.

“When I was growing up and you had an opportunity to talk to a survivor, you were talking to someone who was an adult at the time,” she said. “Now you’re talking to children, whose memories are very different than adults’. They don’t understand or grasp the nuances; the adults in their lives shielded them or protected them from some of the worst of it. Their experience is just very different from the adults around them.

“The fewer eyewitness accounts we have, the more it opens the door for people to say either it wasn’t that bad or it didn’t happen at all,” she continued. “That’s a real problem because we already can say that we haven’t learned our lesson. Already, ‘never again’ is the rallying cry and yet it has happened again and again and again and again.

“It’s imperative that we become the witness that the survivors will no longer be.”

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