A group of 20 educators returned from a unique Israeli seminar on Holocaust education with a plan to develop a new curriculum for middle and high school students. Representing Jewish day schools from the United States, Canada, Brazil and Israel, the school principals and teachers spent nine days at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem and its International School for Holocaust Studies.

Organized by the Chabad-Lubavitch Education Office in conjunction with Yad Vashem, the seminar offered lectures and workshops designed to generate discussion on how modern educators approach a very difficult – and with the passage of time, an increasingly distant – subject.

According to Leah Miller, a curriculum developer for the Walder Education Pavillion Teacher’s Center of Torah Umesorah in Skokie, Ill., and a special-education supervisor at Bais Yaakov High School in Chicago, the seminar provided “a serious inquiry into the lessons of the Holocaust.”

“Although I have researched the Holocaust extensively, I feel that the vastness of the subject demands continual study and exploration,” she said.

Other attendees shared the same desire to deepen and broaden their understanding for the sake of their students.

“I have been teaching about the Holocaust for 10 years and I was interested in furthering my own knowledge, meeting other people involved in Holocaust studies and gaining insight into effective and suitable methods for teaching about this devastating event,” said Rochel Holzkenner, who teaches Jewish history at the Rohr Bais Chaya Academy in Coral Springs, Fla., and at the Chaya Aydel Seminary in nearby Hallandale.

At Yad Vashem, Holzkenner appreciated “the focus on the resilience of survivors’ souls during and after the Holocaust, despite the dehumanization.” She said she would incorporate that message into her presentations.

The educators focused on the resilience of survivors during the Jerusalem seminar.
The educators focused on the resilience of survivors during the Jerusalem seminar.

Individual Focus

According to Chabad-Lubavitch Education Office director Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, the need to emphasize the Holocaust’s individual impact becomes more and more crucial as time goes on.

“Growing up, everyone had a story to tell about Auschwitz, Poland or Siberia,” said Kaplan, who was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, just after World War II. “My children met survivors, they heard stories. This is a living thing for them.

“But for my grandchildren, it is getting farther away,” he continued. “They can’t perceive 10,000 people being killed in one day.”

So last summer, together with other educators, Kaplan discussed coming together in the effort to form a curriculum to teach today’s children.

According to Rivkah Denburg, principal of the Hebrew Academy of Margate in Florida, teaching about the Holocaust can be very challenging. With the help of a comprehensive curriculum, it will be “less daunting.”

“Deciding which topics is just the beginning,” said Denburg.

Between determining which materials to use and then developing “a developmentally-appropriate format,” and educators have their work cut out for them, she added.

At last week’s seminar, the educators had a chance to explore what happened between 1933 and 1948 on several levels.

The Holocaust was presented “as a complex composition of individual experiences, explained but not limited by the facts and figures that define the historical realities,” said Frayda Kaplan, who teaches Torah and Jewish history at the Bais Rivkah High School in Montreal.

Denburg added that the stories of individuals maintaining their Jewish identity were inspiring. She specifically mentioned the 1942 experience of Moshe Goldkorn, whose teeth were knocked out when he was beaten for smuggling flour into the Kovno Ghetto so that 100 people could make matzah in advance of Passover. Despite having no teeth, he still wanted to follow his family’s tradition of not soaking the hard matzah before eating it.

Another of Yad Vashem’s retellings is of a boy named Shereshevsky who was just three months shy of his Bar Mitzvah. He asked a rabbi for permission to don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin – a ritual reserved for men – because he feared he would die before he had the opportunity to observe the biblical commandment.

“Viewing the Holocaust from many perspectives, rather than a merely historical one, brings a deeper and more personal dimension to it,” said Miller. “Many aspects of the Holocaust were given voice during the seminar, helping us develop a greater sensitivity and understanding of a complex subject.”

Kaplan is optimistic that with the right information and direction, students will understand what happened during the Holocaust and how it relates to their lives today.

“We intend to create a carefully graded, age-appropriate curriculum for junior and senior high schools. What we’re looking to do is to teach kids to come out stronger, and more steadfast in their faith and determination,” said Kaplan. “We need to demonstrate and help them understand how, in the worst of conditions, survivors did not lose their humanity, they risked their lives for each other, and so many emerged to rebuild their lives and persevered,” having faced such unspeakable horror.