Training seminars are helping teachers recount the horrors of genocide to increasingly diverse classes.
Kacie Holcomb moves slowly through galleries, contemplating exhibits that leave her stunned: Jewish concentration camp prisoners in striped uniforms. Black-and- white photos of emaciated survivors. Photos of lifeless bodies -- men, women and children who didn't make it out of the nightmarish camps.
"If we don't remember what happened, all of those people died in vain," said Holcomb, a social studies teacher from Fergus Falls, who toured the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington with students last week. "If we remember them, we're honoring their lives and families and the suffering they endured."
For teachers like Holcomb, trying to explain the Jewish Holocaust to students is one of the most tortuous lessons they'll ever face in the classroom. And yet the atrocities of Nazi-occupied Europe some 70 years ago matter today as much as ever, as Minnesota classrooms grow more diverse and include children of refugee families escaping war and other strife.
Like Holcomb, a growing number of teachers in Minnesota and nationwide are turning to Jewish groups for help in understanding and teaching this complex and horrific subject.
Last year, more than 500 teachers and other educators from Minnesota participated in seminars offered by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). The council also takes students and teachers like Holcomb on an annual trip to the Holocaust museum.
"Students from war-torn countries -- from issues of racism or bigotry or prejudice -- there's something that's documented in the Holocaust curriculum that you can go back to and learn from," said Laura Zelle, director of Tolerance Minnesota, the JCRC's education arm.
Zelle said teachers are looking for resources beyond textbooks -- the latest in memoirs, articles, multimedia and other materials -- to help them teach the subject.
Adding urgency is the fact that a generation of Holocaust survivors is now passing away, leaving few eyewitnesses who can give personal accounts.
Teachers say, "Let's make sure we give this to students now while we still have the witnesses to talk to them," said Peter Fredlake, director of National Outreach for Teacher Initiatives with the Holocaust museum.
Lessons of war
Even as World War II recedes from the memory of living Americans, its lessons remain important, said Dan Wildeson, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education at St. Cloud State University.
"There is a growing interest in trying to find ... lessons from history, particularly the Holocaust, that would help us reflect upon the kinds of social dynamics we encounter right now ... immigration, same-sex orientation. I think the Holocaust provides a prism for looking at some of these other tensions."
Wildeson led a group of about 25 St. Cloud students who took part in the council's trip to the museum Tuesday.
Teachers are seeking "lesson plans, images, techniques ... to open up a conversation about ... these extraordinarily difficult and tragic events," Wildeson said.
Six states have passed legislation mandating that the Holocaust be taught in the classroom: Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, California and Florida. In most states, social studies standards explicitly mention the Holocaust as a topic of study, including in Minnesota for seventh to 12th grades, according to Fredlake.
Eleanor Minnema, an English teacher at Humboldt Secondary School in St. Paul, teaches Elie Wiesel's seminal work "Night," based on his experience as a prisoner at concentration camps. Among her students are the Hmong and the Karen, an ethnic minority in conflict with the government in Myanmar. Most of the estimated 5,000 Karen in Minnesota came from refugee camps in Thailand.
"We couched it ["Night"] in a bigger unit on genocide," said Minnema, who was among the nearly 50 educators who last month attended a daylong JCRC training session at the Orono School District office. "I had one student who was Cambodian, and she researched the Cambodian genocide. We touched on the Armenian genocide. The forced famine with Stalin. Rwanda, Darfur. We tried to get a blend of areas in the world to show how genocide is still a modern issue."
Survivors share stories
Besides the JCRC in Minnesota, other Jewish groups across the country help educators teach the Holocaust. The museum itself is one of the largest providers of such training, reaching between 4,000 and 5,000 educators a year, Fredlake said.
"It is a sensitive topic," he said. "By bringing this into the classroom, you're bringing in material that could be upsetting to kids. Especially now, we have immigrants from Southeast Asia, Africa, South and Central America, whose families may very well have ... been victims of the kinds of crimes against humanity you learn about in the Holocaust. It's really making teachers sensitive."
Neil Anderson, a social studies teacher at South High School in Minneapolis, has participated in the council's training seminar and has gone on 17 of the council's museum trips. This year, he brought nine South students with him.
A key lesson Anderson learned early was to incorporate survivors' testimonies. For years, they've come to his classroom and recounted their stories.
"You can throw around numbers -- 6 million this, 100,000 that, 10,000 this," Anderson said. "But each number is a person that had a life.
"I've seen kids listen to a survivor relate their story and explode out of the desk at the end and want to give them a hug. I've seen kids openly cry in a high school classroom. It's just amazing what you see."
Rose French 612-673-4352
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