Buddhism teaching

Teaching teachers about the Holocaust and its lessons for democracy today

CHARLOTTE, NC (RNS) — At a seminar for teachers on teaching the Holocaust, instructor Donna Tarney went through a list of anti-Semitic tropes about Jews throughout history.

In the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and using human blood to make matzo.

In the early 20th century, automaker Henry Ford claimed that Jews were behind World War I, the outbreak of “robbery and robbery” – even, he said, the inefficiency of the US Navy.

She then turned to face the class: “Space lasers started the California wildfires. Who said that?”

The teachers all replied, “Marjorie Taylor Greene!

They were referring to the Georgia congresswoman who suggested last year that the 2018 California wildfires were started by a space laser controlled by a corporate cabal, including the Rothschild banking firm.

Such connections between past and present are made in seminars offered to public and private school teachers across the United States and abroad by the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust and Human Rights Studies. man, or TOLI.

Olga Lengyel was a Hungarian Jew who survived the Auschwitz death camp and eventually made her way to New York, where she curated a library and art collection devoted to the Holocaust. After his death in 2001, Lengyel’s friends established TOLI, which hosted his first seminar for teachers in 2006.

Its mission is to educate middle school and high school teachers about how the systematic murder of European Jews may have occurred and how disinformation campaigns can metastasize into human rights abuses, the destruction of democratic standards, even in genocide.

“The TOLI program examines how the Weimar Republic became a dictatorship,” said Tarney, a former Catholic school teacher with a master’s degree in religious education who now co-directs the program in Charlotte, one of 20 seminars that TOLI will organize this year. “There are lessons we can learn about how to protect democracy. We can teach teachers the importance of democratic ideas and how to identify when things are slipping.

American teachers are feeling increasing pressure from new norms, mostly driven by partisan politics, governing how they teach already sensitive topics such as race, diversity and LGBTQ issues. Florida has banned teachers from discussing racism as an integral part of American history as well as discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in the early grades. Pen America maintains a list of nearly 1,600 books recently banned from school libraries.

Holocaust education seems to have escaped such scrutiny. Some 23 states require their students to learn the history of the Holocaust.

Stephen Criswell, center, speaks about Native American history at a seminar hosted by the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust and Human Rights Studies, or TOLI, in Charlotte, North Carolina , end of July 2022. Photo courtesy of TOLI

However, many teachers say they are ill-equipped to teach the Holocaust in a meaningful way. TOLI grounds teachers in the history of the genocide and offers parallels with other mass injustices. In Charlotte, teachers spent a day learning about the Catawba Nation, many of whom have been driven from their ancestral lands in South Carolina, North Carolina and parts of Virginia.

TOLI director Deborah Lauter, an attorney who until recently headed the New York Bureau for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, said Holocaust education is often superficial — a series of facts or the memoirs of an individual writer. “In ninth grade World History, my teacher put a picture of Hitler on a screen, turned and pointed at me and said, ‘Deborah, you’re Jewish. Talk to the class about the Holocaust.’ »

TOLI does not offer its own Holocaust curriculum, but rather guides teachers to resources, strategies, materials, and ideas to use in their own classrooms. He calls his method “inquiry-based learning” intended to get students to ask questions and think critically for themselves.

At a Thursday morning seminar on the campus of Queens University in Charlotte last month, Tarney began her lecture with a question she says teachers always ask: Why did Hitler hate Jews?

She began by examining passages from the Gospel of John to explain the rivalry between Christianity and Judaism in the first century; accelerated during the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire; and moved on to the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, in which marauding Christian missionaries killed between 2 and 6 million people, including countless Jews, en route to retaking Jerusalem from Muslim rule.

Finally, she explored embodiments of anti-Semitism in early 20th-century America, including Ford and the Reverend Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who used his weekly radio broadcasts in the 1930s to blame Jews for the Nazi violence.

The teachers then had time to write down their personal reflections or prepare lesson plans.

Alli Ott, left, a social studies professor at Columbia, South Carolina, speaks with another teacher during the TOLI seminar at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina July 28, 2022. RNS Photo by Yonat Shimron

Alli Ott, left, professor of social studies at Columbia, South Carolina, speaks with Amanda Ledford during the TOLI Seminar at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina on July 28, 2022. RNS Photo by Yonat Shimron

Alli Ott, who teaches sixth- and eighth-grade social studies at Columbia, South Carolina, said the seminar was helpful.

“My students think they know everything,” Ott said. “They’ll say, ‘I know who Anne Frank was.’ I know who Hitler was. But they don’t know ‘why the Jews? the story.


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The 10 teachers attending the Charlotte seminar came from North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas. None were Jewish.

Patricia Hatch, an English teacher at Davidson Green Private School in Davidson, North Carolina, said she wanted to approach difficult issues in her classroom more confidently. In her last job, at an evangelical Christian school, she went from teaching Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to teaching ‘Othello’ because the main character is a Moor, believed to be of African descent – which allows him to approach the race.

“I was looking for professional development and the title mentioned the Holocaust but also human rights and social justice,” Hatch said. “I thought, ‘Oooh, I could use all of this in general for my own confidence when talking about difficult topics. I really want to address these topics but I don’t feel equipped to do so.

Wanda West, a special education teacher from Perryton, Texas, a small town where 95% of her students are Hispanic with immigrant parents, said she compared the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust to how immigrants without papers were sometimes processed.

These parallels, she said, remind her of why she is a teacher in the first place – to train and mold the next generation to be moral agents.

“I want the kids to know it was a human thing, not an act of God,” West said. “I don’t want them to be a master key. I hope I can help them think, ‘What’s the good thing here?’ I want my children to be honest.


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