Teaching history, so it doesn’t repeat
GREENWICH — When Connecticut legislators passed a bill requiring the Holocaust be taught in schools starting this fall, they did not know the subject of anti-Semitic violence would be so relevant two months after the new year began.
State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26th, the legislator who tried to move the bill forward for a decade before succeeding this May, happened to be in Pittsburgh a few days before a shooter shot and killed 11 Jewish people worshiping in the Tree of Life synagogue Saturday.
“This weekend was devastating,” she said. “It chokes me up to think we need this so badly right now, because only is it through the education of our young people that they can be sensitized, and have compassion and empathy for all other people.”
The State Department of Education has made lessons on “genocide education and awareness,” and the Holocaust in particular, available to school districts for several years.
But the new law requires that the subjects be taught in Connecticut public schools as part of their social studies curriculum. Local school boards were permitted to use existing lessons to satisfy the law, which was passed by unanimous votes in both houses of the General Assembly.
“It is incredibly disturbing that we have seen an uptick in hate crimes and hate speech over the last year - including assault, bomb threats and vandalism - in nearly every region across our country,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said on signing the bill this spring. “Equally as disturbing are recent statistics showing that two-thirds of American Millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is and 22 percent of Millennials say they haven’t heard of the Holocaust. We are simply not doing enough to teach our young people the extreme and deadly mistakes of the past. Holocaust and genocide awareness are not just essential curriculum, but critical.”
In Greenwich, administrators preparing for the legislation knew the district’s middle school and high school curricula already reflected the new mandates.
“We knew this was coming,” Social Studies Coordinator for Greenwich High School Lucy Arecco said. “We were already doing what the legislation really is asking educators to do, in terms of teaching about the Holocaust and genocide and promoting awareness.”
Greenwich middle school students start with a historical lesson about the end of World War I, the Geneva Convention, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and his use of propaganda, Eastern Middle School Assistant Principal Joanna Savino said.
As a class, they read “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of his experience at Auschwitz; and in small groups complete another book on the Holocaust based on their reading level.
Teachers focus on presenting how someone like Hitler could gain a following after Germany’s defeat using rhetorical skills, Savino said.
Holocaust survivor Judith Altmann has visited regularly to speak to the student body.
“This frail, old woman up there, she captivates our 13- and 14-year-olds,” Savino said. “They’re just mesmerized by what she’s saying about the experiences, the trauma. To meet an actual survivor is humbling to them.”
Eighth graders across the three middle schools also visit the Holocaust Museum during their annual field trip to Washington, D.C.
The passing of the new legislation was a good time for educators to reflect on their curriculum, Savino said.
“For me, personally, I was a little surprised that wasn’t a curriculum mandate,” she said. “We need to be mindful of what is propaganda. That’s important for our kids to understand — to be aware of how easily people can be influenced, so that way we don’t fall prey to those evils in the world.”
When students reach Arecco’s ninth-grade class, they already have gained substantial knowledge on the background and the history related to the Holocaust, she said.
Freshmen are required to take a global studies course in which there are two units, interconnectedness and development, she explained.
During “interconnectedness,” a three- to four-week unit, students learn about foreign relations, past and present — including World War II, with one to two days dedicated to the Holocaust. Freshmen learn about the Rwandan Genocide in the preceding “development” unit, which focuses on African nations.
Sophomores are required to take American history, in which the Holocaust is addressed during the course’s multi-week unit on World War II.
Juniors and seniors can choose to take Modern European History or AP European History, which both have units on WWII, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and the Nuremberg trials.
Arecco thinks the high school social studies classes teach students how to respect people they consider to be different from themselves, Arecco said.
“One of the reasons I love social studies is that it’s an area that’s the study of people, how they relate, whether we’re talking about the past or the present,” she said. “It’s about teaching kids how to make a better community for themselves and the future.”
Rabbi Mitchell M. Hurvitz of Temple Sholom in Greenwich said he felt validated as a Jewish person when Connecticut legally mandated Holocaust and anti-genocide education.
Hurvitz has visited Greenwich public and private schools — for programming specific to the Holocaust and for presentations on the Jewish faith — and generally, he has been impressed.
“I think that in Greenwich, locally, there has always been a strong desire to appropriately address Holocaust and anti-genocide education,” he said. “In our town, both the secular and the private schools, I’ve found them to be ahead of the curve.”
Hurvitz has not advised the public schools on Holocaust curriculum, but principals and administrators had discussed approaches with him before the curriculum mandate; specifically, after the school district worked to make amends after a controversial football maneuver referencing Adolf Hitler surfaced in the fall of 2016.
Since then, Greenwich has not experienced any instances of anti-Semitic vandalism, threats or acts of violence, Greenwich Police Department spokesman Lt. John Slusarz said.
Still, Slusarz reminded the community the department is on the lookout for criminal acts intended to harm or intimidate those of any religion.
“We recognize religious-based locations could be targets for people with political motives,” he said. “We want to make sure that people stay safe and that we dissuade anybody from making use of targets in communities.”
Statewide, the problem is spreading.
Last year saw the largest-ever increase in anti-Semitic harassment and violence, from 26 counts in 2016 to 49 in 2017, according to the Connecticut branch of the Anti-Defamation League.
The league is still compiling data for 2018, but as of now, the trend shows no signs of stopping, ADL Associate Director Andy Friedland said.
“It’s been a busy year, unfortunately,” Friedland said.
The ADL is in Greenwich High School every year for NAMES Day, to teach about the “Pyramid of Hate,” which explains that hateful words or jokes, when left unchecked, can lead to violent acts.
“GHS has always had a positive relationship with the ADL,” Arecco said.
Students and staff also talk about inclusiveness, tolerance and treating others with respect during Diversity Week, which is held in February or March and sponsored by the Parent Teachers Association.
Last year, Judith Altmann, a Holocaust survivor, spoke to high school students about her time in Auschwitz, losing her family and surviving the “death march” to Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
“Our community cares about this,” Hurvitz said.