Internal battle results in canceled Holocaust course

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Controversy erupted when Mountain View High principal Tom Baer pulled a new course about genocide from the fall curriculum. More than 50 students had signed up for the class, a brainchild of 19-year school veteran Frank Navarro, who would have taught it.

The course would have covered the Holocaust, the Armenian and Cambodian genocides, the Native American experience and ethnic cleansing

Baer initially supported the course. However, last spring he voiced concerns following Holocaust Remembrance Week, which was organized by a student under Navarro's supervision.

Baer, who is Jewish and lost family in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, said he worried whether or not Navarro's curriculum would offer students enough opportunity to "process their feelings.

"My concern is that kids hook things up in strange ways. The Holocaust is something that strikes lots of teens about the sick and cruel world we live in. I don't want that confirmed for kids," Baer said. If the Holocaust is taught, "I want it linked with images of hope and opportunity."

Navarro, in fact, provided Baer with an outline of activities students would do to explore their feelings about such dark phases of human history: According to the outline, the youngsters would keep journals, create artwork dedicated to the victims of genocide and write reports on rescuers, resisters and Nazis.

However, Baer canceled the course, which Navarro had been preparing since 1994.

Both Baer and Navarro agree that the question isn't whether or not the Holocaust should be taught. But after that point, their individual accounts of the situation diverge sharply.

Baer said Navarro didn't respond to memos asking him to discuss the program. Navarro said Baer "seems to have a problem with teaching anything which brings light to this time period. When he and I sat down to discuss it, he rejected all my comments."

Navarro also claims that Baer was dubious about a non-Jew teaching the course and likened the situation to that of a white man teaching African American history. Baer's message was "it doesn't jibe," said Navarro, who is Mexican American.

But Baer claims ethnicity has nothing to do with the matter. He doesn't deny the comment, but contends that he only meant to point out that some subtleties of the Holocaust experience may be lost on someone who was not personally affected.

Ultimately, Baer said, "I think it's a big plus that Frank's not Jewish, because he isn't overly sensitive to the Holocaust. This [ethnicity] is a non-issue. I have great faith in him."

Navarro has participated in Holocaust training with the National Conference of Christians and Jews, "Facing History" and at Israel's Yad Vashem. Organizers of the traveling Anne Frank exhibit, which will make a stop in Mountain View later this year, have asked him to speak at an event.

Nonetheless, Baer didn't seem too assured of Navarro's abilities on April 24, 1996. That day he penned a memo to Navarro following Mountain View High School's Holocaust Remembrance Week.

Baer wrote that the activities — which included two talks about the history of the Holocaust, as well as speeches by a survivor, a liberator and a hidden child — seemed "too improvised at the eleventh hour and reflect poorly on you, me, the school, and the topic."

He added, "I need to remind you that I would be very uncomfortable organizing such a remembrance myself since it is so personal to me and might give mixed messages to students and the community…I worry about those who would make the Holocaust too schmaltzy, almost glorifying it in its horror…It is unprofessional to expose people to some of the horrors without it being thoroughly planned and grounded." Barbara Goodman, director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, refused to comment on the Mountain View battle. However, she said she believes "kids can handle this better than we give them credit for. They have to deal on a day-to-day basis with all sorts of familial crises, violence and drugs. If this material is portrayed and developed through thoughtful lesson plans, not only can kids handle it, but they can learn from it." Nonetheless, the fears Baer mentioned in his memo following Holocaust Remembrance Week — of which he attended only one activity — seem to be his main reasons for rescinding support of the program as it now stands.

However, Baer hopes to offer the course next fall, after fleshing it out with input from both Navarro and Weinstein.

Navarro wants to offer it sooner — this winter, and with help from Glenn Earley and Adrienne Scheck of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the educators who assisted him with Remembrance Week.

A number of students have written letters to Baer expressing their disappointment in his decision and their support of Navarro.

In addition, Navarro said, "53 students signed up for this. A Latin American history course, which only 22 students signed up for, is replacing it." Meanwhile, the district funded the genocide class. "The course has to go ahead. I'd prefer it to be sooner than later."