It’s been 20 years since the state Legislature mandated Holocaust and genocide education in the New Jersey public schools.
Since Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed the bill into law in April 1994, almost 2 million high school graduates should have learned about and discussed the consequences of bullying, intolerance, racism and hatred in World War II, Armenia, Darfur, and Rwanda.
But while many have engaged in insightful discussions, others barely touched on the topic, or heard it mentioned in class one day, only have the instructor move on in the race to complete an ever-growing history curriculum.
“I see it in my college classes,” said Doug Cervi, a high school teacher who also leads a course at Atlantic Cape Community College. “I ask how many got it in high school and most say they did almost nothing.”
By comparison, Cervi said he spends a month on Holocaust and genocides in his U.S. History II class at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing.
As the mandate enters its third decade, many Holocaust survivors who fought for it have died. Those remaining are aging, and in some families the children and grandchildren have picked up the torch.
More than ever it is teachers who will decide the future of Holocaust education in New Jersey.
“My biggest fear is the loss of commitment,” said Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, who helped craft the mandate. “We are so geared up about testing and evaluations that the Holocaust becomes an ‘extra’. We must build a new population of teachers to teach this or it will be forgotten.”
That’s why survivor Ruth Kessler of Ventnor was at Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township on Thursday, to talk to teachers about how she survived the Holocaust as a child in the Kindertransport that evacuated children to London and saved them from extermination. She was just five, lost her mother and sister, but was reunited with her father in the United States when she was 12.
“He was a stranger to me by then,” she said. She, along with other survivors, have written memoirs and talk to teachers and students whom they hope will keep their history alive.
“We need the young people to learn about it, so we keep speaking about it,” she said as she signed books in a room filled with photos of local survivors.
Stockton has one of 16 Holocaust centers in the state that each year hold programs for teachers, students and the public. Statewide in 2012-13 they sponsored 335 programs that reached more than 54,000 students, 7,100 teachers, and almost 44,000 members of the public according to the Commission’s annual report.
Stockton’s is one of the most active centers, hosting 96 programs last year for 9,000 students and almost 1,300 teachers, plus nine more programs at its Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage in Woodbine. Cumberland County College in Vineland also has a Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center that last year hosted four programs reaching more than 500 students and 100 teachers.
Vineland attorney Harry Furman was a history teacher at Vineland High School in 1976 when he taught the first Holocaust-related course, titled “Conscience of Man.” He, teacher Kenneth Tubertini and school administrator Richard Flaim later participated in writing the Holocaust education curriculum for the state Commission. He remains active in Holocaust education and said New Jersey remains in the forefront of teaching about Holocaust and genocide issues even if implementation is not consistent.
“It is important that students deal with these issues,” he said. “For many students it is their first confrontation of the ethical issues they will deal with in their lives. This is a course about being human, how do we want to be as human beings, and how do we confront difficult situations.”
Today Terry Kuhnreich, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, teaches the course now called Search for Conscience. This year about 170 students, mostly seniors, are taking the popular elective course.
Kuhnreich said her goal is to personalize the history. She begins the year talking about racism, prejudice and discrimination, relates it to other events in history, and to the students’ own lives in the racially and ethnically diverse school.
“This is not just a paragraph in a book that says a lot of Jews died,” she said. “It has to be meaningful to the students.
A few schools, including Vineland, Atlantic City, Holy Spirit and Egg Harbor Township, offer an elective course on the subject. Other schools integrate it into U.S. History II.
Abby Bender, who teaches an elective course at Atlantic City High School to about 50 students said humanizing the Holocaust and applying it to current events is crucial if the Holocaust cry of “Never Again” is to resonate into the future.
“It is easy for students to get desensitized if you just keep showing them photos of genocides,” she said. “The luxury of having a full course is that I can take the time.”
Teaching about the Holocaust and genocides is included in the state Department of Education Social Studies standards for high school in three areas: assessing the response of the United States and other nations to the violations of human rights in genocides; comparing the perspectives of victims, survivors, bystanders, rescuers and perpetrators; and how the Holocaust led to organizations like the United Nations to project human rights, and the impact of those groups.
A challenge that remains is teaching younger children. Winkler said the new statewide emphasis on anti-bullying teaches the same lessons about tolerance that the Commission recommends to prepare younger students for the later history lessons.
“You can’t learn about the Holocaust, but you can learn about accepting differences,” he said. “If you have to be taught to hate and fear, you also have to be taught to appreciate and respect.”
Michael Hinman, curriculum supervisor in the K-8 Galloway Township school system, said that since under the state standards students don’t study World War II until high school, teachers there address the mandate through literature in English classes and in social studies through world cultures.
“You don’t just want to teach one isolated event,” he said. “When we talk about world cultures we can address that there are times when people are evil to each other.”
He said eighth grade students visit Stockton, including a stop at the Holocaust Resource Center.
Back at the center, director Gail Rosenthal was thrilled at the packed classroom of teachers who came to hear Kessler. She admits that when the Commission met at Stockton in the 1990s to discuss whether to have a recommendation or a mandate she was worried that a mandate that forced teachers to teach the Holocaust would not be successful or effective.
“But the survivors were so passionate,” she said. “They said that if you don’t have a mandate you are forgetting all of my family that perished.”
Free workshops, and the Master’s degree program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Stockton bring the topic to 21st century teachers and keep the mandate current. Winkler said the issues are sensitive, and teachers need training to learn how to approach them with students of all ages.
Ellen Kaplan Wetzel, a social worker in the Hamilton Township schools, said her mother is a survivor and has come to speak to eighth graders in the district.
“We are trying to pass it on,” she said of their place in history.
Barbara Hedrich, a history teacher at Absegami High School in Galloway Township said she was inspired by Cervi at Oakcrest, and her goal is to continue his work.
“I am passionate about learning about that era and personal accounts are growing scarce,” she said.
Michael Hayse, director of the master’s program at Stockton told teachers at the workshop that the college is starting a certificate program that will require only five courses rather than 12 for the master’s degree.
“Remember, it is not the mandate that teaches,” he said. “It is you, the teachers.”