November 20, 2019

How to Remember The Holocaust

Urgency. That’s the word that defines Marilyn Harran’s mission. Harran is director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman College.

She says connecting teachers and students with Holocaust survivors best expands their understanding of history and its link to contemporary subjects, such as ostracism, gangs and stereotypes.

Considering the violence that has rocked the world since Sept. 11 — not to mention the violence that has plagued schools for several years now — teaching the consequences of intolerance and hate must become a vital part of today’s educational curriculum.

“This generation is absolutely the critical one,” she says. “Even those young at the time of the Holocaust, in 25 years, they will be gone.”

To that end, Chapman, a private college in Orange, now hosts an ambitious schedule of films, lectures, seminars and contests that involves many of the region’s Holocaust survivors. There is no charge for any of the events.

“I will never charge a dime,” Harran vows. Why? “I feel a human commitment to be doing this.”

The rewards were evident at a lecture by Pierre Sauvage, whose film, “Weapons of the Spirit,” was screened at Chapman University’s third annual Holocaust memorial. About 250 people attended the event, one of several held around the county in April.

Only by confronting history, the Los Angeles filmmaker told his audience, can we resist being shaped by it. To his dismay, Sauvage says he sees the Holocaust’s pall again immobilizing American Jews in their reaction to the crisis in Israel and increasing anti-Semitism. He surmises the reason: “We can’t afford to blow it again, but it’s because we again don’t know what to do.”

No doubts troubled th subjects of Sauvage’s documentary. They were residents of Le Chambon, 350 miles south of Paris. In 1940, heeding their pacifist pastor who urged in a sermon to “resist with the weapons of the spirit,” they shielded 5,000 Jews fleeing European capitals. The sermon, from which the film gets its title, resonated in Le Chambon, populated by descendants of Huguenots, who also resisted persecution over dissenting religious beliefs in the 1500s.

“There is great force to nonviolence,” says Sauvage, who grew to appreciate its influence when researching his 1984 film, which was twice broadcast on public television stations in the 1990s. “That Palestinians don’t engage in it doesn’t mean Jews can’t engage in it.”

Like many fascinated by the subject, Sauvage wrestles with how to remember the Holocaust. He focuses on telling the stories of little-known heroes who acted out of principle, unfazed by risk. “And Crown Thy Good,” a more recent but still unfinished Sauvage film, is a tribute to Varian Fry, known as “America’s Schindler” for helping finance the rescue of 2,000 Jews.

Such presentations have galvanized Chapman audiences and outside educators.

Even so, luring teachers to deepen their knowledge of the Holocaust isn’t easy at a time when public school administrators are under pressure from many constituencies.

The subject may even seem irrelevant in schools with large minority student populations and raises sensitive topics, said Jan Osborn, co-coordinator of Chapman’s writing contest and a lecturer in its School of Education, one of the state’s largest teacher colleges. “It’s hard to explain those connections and let the Holocaust lead to the study of difficult histories,” she says.

Discussions about tolerance took on new urgency in light of campus shootings around the nation. Yet the Holocaust is not required curriculum in California public schools. Because of an expected state budget deficit, a recent proposal to create a statewide educational program for teaching the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide is facing an uphill battle for enactment.

However, that hasn’t stopped Harran. Recently, Chapman hosted a teacher training conference on the Holocaust and technology (see p. 10) and plans another in July with Facing History and Ourselves, a professional development organization whose programs were cited by the Carnegie Corporation for reducing racist attitudes and improving school life. About 1,200 teachers from Los Angeles and Orange counties last year participated in the Pasadena-based group’s seminars.

Hallie Williamson, who attended one of the group’s seminars on the Holocaust, inspired more winners of Chapman’s Holocaust contest that any other teacher. In March, Miriam Scatterday, Elaine Inoue and Alethia Miyake, students from Williamson’s classes at Acaciawood College Preparatory in Anaheim, received three of the nine awards presented in Chapman’s third contest.

“They’ve taken the subject to heart,” says Williamson, who required her eighth-grade class to prepare submissions to Chapman and a similar contest by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the winners of which will be announced this month.

Besides reading a minimum of three nonfiction books on the subject, Williamson takes her students to Los Angeles’ Museum of Tolerance and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. She engages them in discussions about moral choices. This year, she also invited to the school Irene Opdyke of Yorba Linda, author of “In My Hands,” who retells her teenage story of hiding 12 Jews in the basement of a Nazi officer’s home.

The winning entries are emotionally powerful, but show real scholarship. “They can write and be historically accurate,” Williamson says. “Poetry can’t just be fluff.”

Inoue, 17, of Yorba Linda, says studying the Holocaust has made her more conscious of her actions, such as avoiding saying a hurtful word. “The more I got into it, the more lessons I saw from it,” she says.

Scatterday, 18, of Anaheim, a previous winner of other Holocaust contests, finds the subject continues to hold her fascination. “It’s so complex. You see the very dark and the very wonderful side of man through this one event.”

The inspiration for her latest entry came from her grandmother, who recently suffered a stroke and failed to recognize her granddaughter. Scatterday wrote much of her winning poem while returning home by car from the visit. “For the first time,” she said, “I felt the pain of loss. I could glimpse what others felt.”