Holocaust survivor Joe Alexander shares his testimony with teachers from across California at the JFCS-coordinated California Teachers Collaborative's Summer Institute. (Photo/Courtesy)
Holocaust survivor Joe Alexander shares his testimony with teachers from across California at the JFCS-coordinated California Teachers Collaborative's Summer Institute. (Photo/Courtesy)

Big push to improve state’s Holocaust and genocide education 

Pete Schlieker has been teaching middle- and high-school history in Big Pine, California for 15 years.

In this Inyo County town of 1,500 just outside Death Valley, Schlieker estimates that more than half of the 157 students in the town’s two schools are Native American and a third Latino. So far as he knows, there are no Jewish students or teachers in the district, himself included.

It may seem surprising, then, that Schlieker teaches his 10th-graders — seven students this year — about the Holocaust as part of their world history curriculum. “The Holocaust has always been important to me,” he said. He visited Auschwitz about a decade ago to learn more.

Few in his classes have heard about the Holocaust, he noted. “Being in this rural area, they are somewhat limited in what they see.”

Even though that lack of exposure means “we don’t get the antisemitism you see in other areas,” he said, “we have to learn from history so we don’t make the same mistakes again.”

Experts say California overall is ahead of the curve nationally when it comes to Holocaust education. In 1985, it became the first state to mandate the subject in public schools.

But the mandate had no teeth: There is no curriculum, no enforcement and little support for teachers who decide to teach such a class.

Schlieker, like many other teachers, put together his course on his own.

This past summer, however, he got some welcome support when he took part in a four-day summer institute run by the California Teachers Collaborative for Holocaust and Genocide Education, a consortium of 14 leading organizations, each devoted to educating about genocide. The June seminar took place in Los Angeles and was organized by Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center in San Francisco.

“For 40 years, nothing was done statewide,” said Anita Friedman, JFCS executive director and a forceful advocate for improving Holocaust education. “There was no systematic effort to decide what Holocaust education is, how it is being taught, how effective it is. You might find one or two teachers in a school who become experts. But if no teacher is interested, it doesn’t get taught.”

The collaborative is the first of its kind in the nation, launched in 2022 by the JFCS Holocaust Center with support from a $1.9 million grant from the state. Nearly $1 million was distributed to the organizations in the collaborative to develop new resources and curricula, some of which they presented at the summer institute in Los Angeles.

For example, grant funding enabled the Holocaust Museum LA to launch two curriculum guides, said Jordanna Gessler, vice president of education and exhibits. One is for teachers, on the history of antisemitism and how to combat it. The second is built around a scale model of the Sobibor death camp, which was made by a camp survivor and donated to the museum along with the survivor’s testimony and other artifacts.

In addition, the museum is working with the Cambodian Genocide Research Center to combine lessons and offer a joint educational day for California teachers. That kind of cross-pollination is a goal of the project.

The 100 teachers who took part in the summer institute are expected to develop their own classroom lessons from what they learned. Schleiker is putting together a new lesson plan that covers several genocides, starting with Native Americans in the 1800s and moving through Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia and China’s Uyghurs.

There were some Pawnee tribe members teaching at the institute, and Schleiker plans to incorporate their lessons into his unit on the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of 60,000 Native Americans in the mid-19th century. And he was so impressed with a talk given by a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, he invited her to come speak to his class. It’s an eight-hour drive from her home in San Jose, but she accepted.

“Real success comes when teachers team up,” said Morgan Blum Schneider, director of the S.F. Holocaust Center. “We had teachers from remote parts of the state for the first time finding colleagues to do this work with.”

In September, the collaborative received a second grant of $1.5 million from the state budget. It will go toward the overall goal of developing standards-aligned lessons for all students in grades 6 to 12 in California, and over the next three years for the training of more than 8,500 teachers to implement them.

Making sure the curricula align with state standards is critical, Blum Schneider said. She noted that standardized tests have no questions about the Holocaust or other genocides. “And California teachers are required to prepare their students for the standardized tests, and are evaluated on their success,” she said.

“A teacher could say, ‘I met the mandate. I taught one chapter from “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Moving on now.’”

Some teachers have developed “wonderful courses,” Blum Schneider said. But because they don’t meet the Common Core State Standards, “they have a hard time convincing their principals” to support their efforts.

The teachers collaborative and the summer institute are part of a larger state initiative to improve teaching about the Holocaust and genocides in California schools — not just to know the history, but to teach empathy and a willingness to stand up against bigotry and antisemitism on campus.

In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom formed the Governor’s Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education.

Explaining his interest in supporting Holocaust education in the state, Newsom said earlier this year, “While other states rewrite history and whitewash the painful parts of our past, California is moving in the opposite direction. We’re making sure that future generations avoid making the same painful mistakes, and instead forge a better way forward.”

Pete Shlieker teaches about the Holocaust to 10th-graders in Big Pine, California. (Photo/Courtesy Pete Shlieker)
Pete Shlieker teaches about the Holocaust to 10th-graders in Big Pine, California. (Photo/Courtesy Pete Shlieker)

“It’s the first time any initiative of this magnitude has taken place in the United States,” said Friedman, who is a co-chair of the council. “The state deserves much credit for partnering with us Jews in this unprecedented effort. There is a real sea change in our society.”

She said the impetus for the state’s interest was the rising incidence of antisemitism in California — a 41% increase from 2021 to 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the highest number on record.

Last month, Friedman added, the state granted $2 million to the Governor’s Council to conduct the country’s largest-ever research project on Holocaust education. Some 84 researchers are studying how Holocaust education is being conducted in California, and based on what they find, the council will make recommendations to the governor, the state’s Department of Education and the California Legislature.

“We know from research that has already been done, by the Holocaust Center and other organizations, that Holocaust education, when properly done, increases an understanding of who Jews are, decreases stereotyping, and creates empathy and a willingness to stand up against bigotry,” Friedman said.

Next summer, the teachers collaborative plans to run another training institute. Private funding is also coming in, notably for a rebuild and expansion of the current San Francisco Holocaust Center and a teachers’ website, a multimillion-dollar initiative funded by Silicon Valley tech leaders.

“We want to develop an army of teachers who understand how to teach about the Holocaust, and reach every schoolchild in California,” Friedman said, adding that educators in other states are closely watching the progress of this initiative. “The fact that our state, our Legislature, has been very bold will inform the rest of the country.”

Blum Schneider said she’s been contacted by a Holocaust museum in Georgia that is interested in what the JFCS Holocaust Center is spearheading in California, and her team has already done teacher trainings in Maryland.

“People are fascinated with our model,” she said.

For more information, contact California Teachers Collaborative for Holocaust and Genocide Education.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].