Holocaust studies remain hit or miss in public schools

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English teacher Matt Tossman knew he had his work cut out last fall when he asked some 50 students at San Francisco’s Burton High School if they’d ever heard of the Holocaust.

Just four hands went up.

“Three had heard of it but didn’t know what it meant. One thought it was a sporting event,” said Tossman, who teaches world literature to ninth-graders in the inner-city school just across Highway 101 from Hunters Point.

Over the next eight weeks, Tossman set about immersing his students in a mini-course on the Holocaust. He gave lectures, showed slides, led class discussions and assigned reading of “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s semi-autobiographical novel about a teen’s death camp ordeal.

“This is something very close to me,” said Tossman, who is Jewish and had focused on Jewish studies at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He’s in his second year at Burton, assigned through an AmeriCorps program aimed at lifting “under-resourced” schools.

His unit on the Holocaust culminated with a presentation by 83-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Farkas, who described how she was separated from her fiancé, a soccer star, when she was forced into a ghetto and later shipped to Auschwitz.

Addressing about 100 students in a dark and frigid school auditorium, Farkas said: “You young people are the last ones to see us, the ones who went through the Holocaust. Study it. Learn it to see that it never happens again. You must be vigilant.”

The same vigilance, some Holocaust educators say, is needed to ensure that California’s 6 million public school students get consistent and accurate instruction in the searing lessons of the Shoah.

In big city and suburban schools alike, Holocaust instruction “is really hit or miss,” observed Sam Edelman, a professor at Chico State University who directs the Center for the Teaching of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance.

Many eighth-graders in California read Anne Frank’s diary while high school students frequently are assigned “Night.” But beyond that, “there’s no consistency” to the quality or quantity of that instruction from one school district to the next, Edelman said, even though the state’s social studies guidelines since 1992 have required the teaching of the Holocaust.

“There’s a mandate,” said Edelman. “While it’s in the state education code, teachers teach what they know. They don’t teach what they don’t know.”

In an effort to remedy that, Edelman’s center has started offering multi-day training programs for public school teachers about the Holocaust and other genocides in human history.

The first big workshop is set for February for teachers in the Elk Grove School District near Sacramento. Edelman eventually hopes to offer 30 sessions yearly covering the stages of the genocide and an exploration of why some became perpetrators while others were victims.

“Our goal is to train as many teachers as we can as long as it takes,” he said.

The Chico-based center and a statewide task force were created last year by legislation introduced by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-Hollywood) who was concerned that “in a lot of places, [Holocaust education] wasn’t happening at all.”

Though state funding was axed by California’s budget woes, Edelman has raised some $200,000 in private funds to cover the next two years. Alarmed by occasional instances when teachers have inadvertently pulled material about the Holocaust from deniers’ Web sites, the center has launched a Web site of its own at www.csuchico.edu/mjs/center/ with a model curriculum for teachers.

Edelman’s center is just one of several state and regional efforts aimed at raising the level of Holocaust instruction in California schools.

Another is Hayward-based Facing History and Ourselves, which has offered in-depth training about the Holocaust, racism and prejudice to more than 1,000 Bay Area teachers over the past seven years. Director Jack Weinstein said that 120 local schools now have Holocaust units or even full courses based on that training. Facing History encourages students to make a connection between historical events and their own moral choices.

Despite the state’s financial crisis and the resulting hit to public school funding, Weinstein hasn’t seen an appreciable drop in the level of Holocaust instruction.

Still, he said, “it is possible to walk on a high school campus and find students who know nothing about this history.”

In another local project, the Holocaust Education Memorial Fund, run through the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, has sent almost 20 teachers in recent years to a three-day seminar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

One recent participant, Judith Mahnke, a history teacher at Wallenberg High School in San Francisco, said, “I think there’s tremendous interest” among educators to teach about the Holocaust. She doubts that money-strapped districts will fund training efforts, however.

This March, some 200 teachers are expected to attend a second forum at Stanford University on Holocaust education offered by the Holocaust museum.

One sponsor, the S.F.-based Holocaust Center of Northern California, is an ongoing resource for local teachers. Last year, the center’s speakers and slide-show presentations reached more than 10,000 local students, most of them in public schools.

“There’s an extremely high demand for camp survivors, because so few of them are left,” said Lissa Schuman, director of the speakers’ bureau.

Farkas is one of 44 speakers, including survivors, refugees, rescuers and hidden children, who address students throughout Northern California. “There are not as many knowledgeable students as I’d like to see. Maybe 10, 15 years ago, more knew about the Holocaust,” observed Farkas, who has been speaking on the subject for almost 30 years.

At Burton High, students heard Farkas’ story of growing up near the Hungarian border and being ordered first to a ghetto in 1944 and then shipped by cattle car to Auschwitz. Her parents and three siblings were among the relatives who perished in the camps.

The students burst into spontaneous applause when they learned that she was reunited with her fiancé and had been married to him for the last 58 years.

Fourteen-year-old Angel Moore was moved by the talk. “I can really imagine all the pain and suffering she was going through,” she said.

Fellow student Marquita Jones, also 14, said she knew a bit about the Holocaust from TV programs. Hearing Farkas’ presentation packed a different emotional punch, however.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “When you’re sitting there looking at someone who went through it … I was just looking and staring. I just couldn’t imagine losing my family and going through it.”