Educators’ conference focuses on Holocaust

Educators from Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and San Luis Obispo participated in a weeklong professional development workshop on Aug. 6-10 on Holocaust education at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). 

Twenty-six teachers participated in the free workshop — the third annual Eva and Eugene Schlesinger Teacher Training Endowed Workshop on the Holocaust — which included an interactive USC Shoah Foundation presentation on IWitness, an online application for educators and students that features more than 1,000 video testimonies from survivors, an Anti-Defamation League presentation on its “Echoes and Reflections” multimedia curriculum and a tour of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

This year’s workshop, “Human Responses to the Holocaust,” looked at perpetrators, victims and bystanders of the Shoah as well as Jewish resistance and Holocaust deniers. 

Participating teachers from public and private high schools — and a few elementary schools — had varying levels of knowledge about the Holocaust before attending the workshop, said Jeff Blutinger, co-director of the CSULB Jewish studies program and an assistant professor of history. 

One of the instructors teaches an entire semester course on the Holocaust at a Catholic school and others had “far less background,” he said.

The annual workshops are intended for high school language arts and history teachers, but one discussion highlighted the need for elementary schools students to learn about the Holocaust. CSULB history department faculty member Dave Neumann said that there are age-appropriate ways to share information about the Holocaust in an elementary school classroom. 

“At least one of the teachers said that they [the students] need multiple exposures to the information so when they get to high school it’s not the first time the students are hearing about it,” Neumann said. 

Workshop speakers included Holocaust survivors Sol Berger and Gerda Seifer; Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center at American Jewish University and a professor of Jewish studies; Sherry Bard, project director of educational programs at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute; Wolf Gruner, the Shapell-Guerin Chair in Jewish studies and professor of history at USC; Stacy Jackson, ADL facilitator and co-writer of the “Echoes and Reflections” curriculum; CSULB emeritus professor Don Schwartz; Bill Younglove, a CSULB instructor; and Blutinger.

During an Aug. 8 presentation, Younglove discussed the effectiveness of showing films such as “Sophie’s Choice,” “Defiance” and “Uprising,” which can succeed where words fail when trying to make students understand the gravity of what victims endured. 

The importance of dispelling myths is also central to teaching the Holocaust, and Gruner discussed ways that Jews used civil disobedience as a means to resist racism and discrimination, which runs contrary to the once widely held notion that Jews were passive victims. He also discredited the belief that Hitler, the Gestapo and the SS were the only agents of tyranny, and he discussed the various forms of municipal oppression Jews faced leading up to the Holocaust, including segregation in parks, pools and grocery stores.

Of course, incorporating survivor testimony is paramount to teaching what happened. For that reason, Polish survivor Berger told his story to the participants, discussing his multiple escapes, his experiences fighting for a Polish resistance movement and his induction into the Soviet army, for which he served as a translator.