Opinion | Maintaining Holocaust Education in the Era of COVID-19

A gold star, the kind Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust, is cradled in someone's hands
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By Arlene B. Holtz

Holocaust education in public schools can have a precarious life in the best of times because the high school study of history has descended on the ladder of importance as a non-tested subject. The passage of the new Holocaust Education legislation made me think about how our school is educating our students on the issue, including during this time of COVID-19. I am proud that our teachers and administrators at the Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School, a K-12 Philadelphia charter located in the Frankford section of North Philadelphia, have elected to shift Holocaust education online, including our yearly presentation by a survivor on Zoom.

As the president of the board of trustees of the Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School, I have had a unique vantage point of witnessing how our school embeds Holocaust education into the 10th-grade English course with an emphasis on meaning-making rather than just learning a chronological list of events. Our program began in 2009, when then-English teacher and now Assistant Principal David November requested that Elie Wiesel’s memoir “Night” be added to the English curriculum. He asked students to read, reflect, talk and write about their reading. Over the years, he incorporated trips to Holocaust museums in both New York and Washington, D.C., and each year invited a Holocaust survivor to speak to our sophomores.

The closure of Philadelphia schools on March 13th due to the COVID-19 pandemic came right in the middle of our Holocaust studies, and threatened our ability to provide the same level of programming for our students. I feared our students would lose the opportunity to hear from a survivor — an experience that is essential component of our program. However, as learning shifted online, students finished reading Wiesel’s memoir with the support of their teachers, who offered online sessions featuring reading and discussion and timely nonfiction texts that helped bridge the gap to the suffering in our contemporary circumstances. Our 10th-grade special education teacher, Kira Gutter, contacted Philadelphia’s Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center to arrange for Holocaust survivor Michael Herskovitz to speak about his experience on Zoom, and Gutter quickly worked to sign up students for the opportunity. Students were eager to participate although they would not have the chance to connect with the survivor in person.

I am pleased that as a school we did not accept that this year’s group would not hear a survivor tell his story. Through survivors’ stories over the years our students heard of how Jews and others rebelled, or hid, or bartered and survived. They learned how people in camps maintained their humanity in the face of cruelty and evil. For me, as a Jew, it’s been a powerful experience to sit in a classroom and witness this exchange between the generations. The effort our teachers and administrators made, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure that this opportunity was not lost on our students, speaks to the values of decency, caring and social justice we seek to embody in ourselves and our students.

Throughout the years, I’ve been particularly impressed by the questions students ask survivors, as they struggle to comprehend how they endured the experience. One year a student asked David Tuck, who survived Auschwitz, “Do you believe in God?” Tuck responded, “What does God have to do with this? People did this.” In the absolute silence of the classrooms at Bracetti, our students have listened to these stories, took selfies with them, and hopefully they will never forget the impact these stories had on them.

As survivors of the Holocaust continue to decrease and amnesia seeps into the fabric of society, Holocaust education is more important than ever. Our students continue to find deep meaning and applications as they study the Holocaust and its texts. Students develop competencies in critical thinking, empathy, resilience and compassion as they learn about the past atrocities. They learn of the roots of anti-Semitism and many find connections to their own experiences as Hispanic or African American children growing up in North Philadelphia. They learn of the impact of propaganda and dehumanization on society, and how words matter. Many discover their voice and realize their own capacity to make meaningful change in their communities. Perhaps most importantly, they learn that we must not remain silent in the face of injustice. These are lessons that our students will carry with them, even during the uncertainties they face.

Recently, the U.S. Senate approved $10 million in funding for Holocaust education in American schools. The funds will be administered over five years by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which will support the dissemination of curriculum. This is indeed a positive step toward providing meaningful Holocaust education for more schools. In my experience, funding and programming matter a great deal, but the passion and commitment of the school community, from principals to teachers, is what makes all the difference. I know that the exposure our students have had to Holocaust education, even under this year’s extraordinary circumstances, will be life-altering and help them develop as future leaders and meaningful contributors to society in need of rebuilding.

Wiesel wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” It is through education that we can overcome the darkness of indifference and build.

Arlene B. Holtz is president of the board of trustees at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School.

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