Holocaust education has long been part of the mission of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. But when there was a threat that would have seen Holocaust and genocide studies removed from the social studies in Minnesota schools, the JCRC not only advocated for its reinstatement but also continued in making teacher training available.
Thanks in part to funding from the Minnesota Vikings — whose owners Mark and Zigi Wilf are the children of Holocaust survivors — the JCRC Holocaust education program has led a cohort of 22 teachers from around the country in a professional development opportunity using curriculum packets designed by JCRC Holocaust Education Director Laura Zelle and Kristin Thompson, a former trainer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Zelle said the push to start the program really kicked in when a Tennessee school district banned the graphic novel Maus, and teachers in a Texas district were being told to teach opposing views of the Holocaust.
“We recruited from seven states and had a waitlist,” said Zelle. “You can tie this back to the lack of funding for training teachers. We’re not waiting for a stream of funding. We just started it.”
Hannah Swaden, a teacher at Glen Lake Elementary School in the Hopkins School District, went through the program and said that even though she teaches mostly 5th-grade students, it’s important to teach some aspect of the Holocaust every year.
“It’s essential for our students to understand the effects of the refugee crises around the world, and I thought that being a part of this cohort would help me be able to contribute a little more to designing curriculum,” she said. “Not only to meet the needs of older students but we also have introductory lessons that help our younger students see the overall, so when they get into middle school, they will have the background about the war, antisemitism, and being a refugee.”
Thompson said the resources packets that were created align with the current Minnesota social studies standards, although a new set of standards is in process. Holocaust and genocide had been eliminated in the first draft of the standards but were replaced in the second draft.
“Because truth has been under fire and antisemitism and hate groups are all on the rise, now just seemed like as important of a time as ever, to be making sure that teachers are using accurate history, that they’re using primary sources so that this is indisputable,” Thompson said. “It was really sort of a back-to-the-basics approach. There are a lot of institutions and organizations out there that offer professional development, and they make an assumption that teachers really already have a good grasp of history. And that’s a really poor assumption because we’re finding that institutions and organizations do not actually provide the basic history of the Holocaust. We decided that was a role that we needed to fill. So we put together the primary source packets, and then advertised it as joining this cohort.
For eight weeks, the teachers would come together to go over one lesson per week on the following topics: European Jewish Life Before WWII and the Holocaust; Rise of Nazis; The Power of Propaganda; Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust; Challenges of Escape; Wannsee Conference and “The Final Solution’; Rescue & Resistance; and Aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust.
“These teachers [that] would join us formed a community together where they’re learning, and on top of going through the packets they would discuss what kinds of things they’re running into in their classrooms and how they can be supportive of one another,” Thompson said.
While Holocaust education falls into the area of social studies in Minnesota, Mike Musli, an English teacher from the Omaha suburbs, was also part of the cohort.
“Laura and Kristen, are really amazing,” he said. “They do an incredible job with how they present it and what they present. “
Musli also flew from Nebraska to Washington, D.C., to meet up with the Minnesotans that were part of the JCRC’s annual trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum trip in early April.
“The artifacts that we saw as a part of the class were artifacts of the museum, and that really made a connection,” he said. “As prepared as one thinks one is to go into there, and I’d been once before, you’re never prepared to go in there.”
Despite not being a social studies teacher, Musli said that the content in the cohort and Holocaust education generally applies to literature. He said that one of the big takeaways he learned from Thompson and Zelle was being more precise in the language he used when talking about the Holocaust.
“Always in the past, we would talk about how many Jews were killed or how many people were killed. And I noticed a very deliberate change to the word murdered,” he said. “And Kristen said that every time: this has is how many Jews were murdered, this is how many people were murdered. And I love that language is important.”
Musli said that if not for the cohort, he wouldn’t have known about the movement away from using the book and movie The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in Holocaust education.
“Kids always asked to watch that they know that movie, and they always want to watch it,” he said. “And [why not to] is such a good conversation to have.”