Passing on survivor stories for the sake of tolerance

Holocaust survivor: ‘Hate is a disease, and my message is a cure’

Staff Writer

 Dale Daniels is the executive director of the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College, which maintains an extensive library of materials.  ERIC SUCAR staff Dale Daniels is the executive director of the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College, which maintains an extensive library of materials. ERIC SUCAR staff As the number of Holocaust survivors grows smaller, the responsibility of others to tell the stories of the horrors of the genocide looms larger.

These stories and the messages within are carried on both by younger generations of survivors and by teachers in classrooms across New Jersey, one of five states to mandate Holocaust education for students in kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Dr. Paul B. Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, is confident in future generations’ ability to preserve the atrocities of the Holocaust through living memory — telling the story of a single person who made it while approximately 11 million others, 6 million of them Jews, were murdered at the hands of the Nazi regime.

 Frida Herskovits holds a photograph of her family, which lived in Czechoslovakia before the Nazis forced them from their home.  SCOTT FRIEDMAN Frida Herskovits holds a photograph of her family, which lived in Czechoslovakia before the Nazis forced them from their home. SCOTT FRIEDMAN “The 250 survivors [who] work with the commission ensure that the second and third generations know the story, and ensure that the story can be told — not directly, but as closely as possible,” Winkler said. “We have to be able to confront … deniers, or those who can’t believe that it happened or can’t fathom the depth of it. We have to be prepared to do that without the direct person being involved.”

Children are prepared from a very young age. The suggested curriculum begins in kindergarten, though children that young do not learn about murder and forced labor — they are shown the basic tenets of dignity and respect. “From kindergarten until the fourth grade, we teach about tolerance,” Winkler said. “We teach about acceptance of others, understanding differences, and what things are OK to dislike. You can dislike broccoli, but not the person who sells it because of the color of the person’s skin. It’s all about ‘good character’ education. Those root qualities prevent bias and eventually genocide from happening.”

This emphasis on the development of good character is the basis of a civil society, Winkler said. A lack of tolerance of others, in the commission’s view, is the raw basis for the Holocaust and other genocides throughout time. “We have a philosophy in Holocaust and genocide education that your head, heart and hand are all connected,” Winkler said. “With these root qualities that prevent bias, genocide would not occur.”

The emphasis on equality is carried into the middle grades, as students are exposed to the war crimes of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.

“As we talk about bias and bullying, we start to get at how a person like Hitler could come to power,” Winkler said. “Students learn facts, feelings, and learn to do something about it. It’s not just the chronological order and the names of the [concentration] camps that the students learn; they also learn from a psychological and a sociological point of view.”

As students learn about Hitler and hear key terms like “concentration camps” around fifth grade, the anti-bias studies continue.

“It all depends on the teacher’s involvement, the age appropriateness and the teacher’s ability to get into the subject matter,” Winkler said. “Around the fifth grade is where it starts to turn to the next level.”

The integration of Holocaust education begins with items such as “Night,” the memoir written by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; movies such as “Schindler’s List”; and “Number the Stars,” Lois Lowry’s novel about the escape of a Jewish family from Copenhagen, Denmark, during World War II.

“Our statute says that [Holocaust and genocide studies] shall be taught in all the schools, but how it’s taught and what is taught is flexible,” Winkler said. “We make recommendations. We have developed many lists of books and a curriculum that can be used by teachers … [and] we are very wary of fiction[al] stories if they are not complemented with facts and information.” M any schools are able to provide firsthand accounts, thanks to survivors such as Frida Herskovits of Monroe, Middlesex County. Herskovits, who survived three concentration camps, visits classrooms, college campuses and religious institutions to share her experience living with her family in Czechoslovakia, being taken by Nazi soldiers at gunpoint in 1944 and sent to concentration camps in Poland and Germany, and enduring “death marches” toward the end of the war.

Now 86, Herskovits exhibits no signs of slowing down — all in the name of passing along the horrors of the Holocaust down so that future generations can see the impact of hatred.

“God left me alive for a reason,” Herskovits said. “I was a skeleton. I marched in marches where hundreds of people were shot and left to die, where we walked with no food, no socks and no coats in the winter. … I’m lucky that I reached 86. Some people never have a chance, so I know I’m here for a reason.”

Herskovits believes she is alive so that she can tell her story to as many who will listen. She feels so strongly about her message that she tells people to record her speeches, so her story “will live forever on videotape.”

“I can’t change what I’ve been through,” Herskovits said. “Instead, I work very hard [so] that we should have a better world. Hate is a disease, and my message is a cure.”

The symptoms of this disease of hate — the culture that leads to and accepts genocide — are taught in detail in high school.

“In the upper grades … we talk about the people before, what happened to them during, and their lives after,” Winkler said. “It’s very important to us that we don’t just talk about the sheer horror of an act. These were real people. We take the same approach with the perpetrators. Who were they, and why did they carry this out?”

Beth Passner, a ninth-grade world history teacher at North Brunswick Township High School, also teaches an elective course for this age group called “Dimensions of Prejudice, Genocide and the Holocaust.” She received the Honey and Maurice Axelrod Award in 2012 for her Holocaust curriculum, her establishment of the school’s Human Rights Club, and her work on Adopt-A-Survivor projects that gave each student the opportunity to correspond with a Holocaust survivor.

“You can’t really understand how the Holocaust or any other genocide happened without the basics and without understanding about prejudice, stereotypes and how prejudice forms,” Passner said. “It’s necessary when learning about genocide to cover how having a negative attitude toward someone suddenly turns into that that person doesn’t deserve to live anymore.”

Hands-on experience with concepts such as tolerance and conflict resolution — and experience with Herskovits, with whom Passner has worked closely — plays a major role in Passner’s classroom.

“I think that especially in North Brunswick … which has one of the most diverse student bodies in New Jersey, [the students see that] all walks of life go to this school,” Passner said. “Right away, these kids are all friends with each other. Learning about diversity and appreciating each other’s differences is a concept that they are able to grasp really easily, because they’ve been friends with each other for so many years.”

Winkler sees the students’ understanding and their activism as a testament to the 13 years of genocide education — a curriculum that cannot be measured by exams.

“When I see students react to situations of bullying, [and] when anecdotal records and teacher comments come in, they all indicate that the kids are understanding this,” Winkler said. “One hard piece of evidence is that New Jersey students have been indicated by Doctors Without Borders and the State Department in Washington, D.C., as the students that have raised the most money, sent more letters and had the highest involvement in [raising awareness for the genocide in Darfur, a region of western Sudan, Africa] than any other kids in the country.”

Many of those teaching Holocaust education are trained at any of 24 training centers across the state. Brookdale Community College, Lincroft section of Middletown, is home to one such facility — the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (CHHANGE).

“We are now in our 34th year, and for the entire time of our existence, a major focus has been on teachers and students,” Executive Director Dale Daniels said. “We offer workshops during the year and host teacher training programs, including a two-week intensive program where teachers focus on Holocaust studies.”

Like Winkler, Daniels recognized that one of the greatest challenges of training teachers is tracking effectiveness, due to the lack of tools to measure how children are absorbing the messages.

“There are so many ways to insert Holocaust education into other parts of the curriculum,” Daniels said. “That is a help, because they don’t always have the amount of time needed to teach the subject [on its own]. We are very fortunate that there are many teachers in the community who are interested in the topic, and we want to be able to help them find the time and provide them with the necessary background to teach it properly.”

That strong background is key in Holocaust education for the same reason that Winkler’s commission shies away from fictionalized accounts of Holocaust stories in books and movies. The curriculum is designed to leave little, if any, room for doubt, as almost a preventive measure against those who question the Holocaust’s impact as World War II is buried deeper into the history books.

That forward thinking relates to the biggest challenge in Holocaust education today — the dwindling number of survivors. The commission estimates that 1,800 survivors are still alive in New Jersey.

The eventual loss of the survivors is why the commission recommends — and many classrooms implement — a pledge at the end of a child’s public school education: to tell, in the year 2045, the story of a survivor whom they met or learned about. That year will mark the passing of a century since the concentration camps were liberated at the end of World War II.

“They make a vow to publicly tell their stories somewhere to keep the story alive,” Passner said. “It ensures that someone will still be around to tell the survivors’ story.”