Catholic educators become students in course on Holocaust

By Brandy Wilson
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Nesse Godin survived starvation, beatings and a gas chamber as a teenager.

“People always say you must have been really smart or really strong to survive the Holocaust. I tell them I wasn’t smart or strong. I was fortunate,” she said.

The Lithuanian native presented her story as part of “Bearing Witness: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Contemporary Issues,” an annual seminar for Catholic educators offering strategies for teaching the Holocaust.

This year educators from schools in North Carolina, Washington, Maryland and Virginia gathered Aug. 3-7 in the nation’s capital and were themselves the students.

The seminar is an annual Holocaust education program developed in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Archdiocese of Washington, the National Catholic Educational Association and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Holocaust was the systematic persecution and murder of Jews and other groups by the Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler and others. More than 6 million Jews were killed between 1933 and 1945 through starvation, execution by firing squad and asphyxiation in gas chambers. Homosexuals, the disabled and Jehovah’s Witnesses were among other victims of the Holocaust.

Seminar participants received intensive training from scholars, theologians, rabbis and priests that included a guided tour of the museum, the testimonial from the Holocaust survivor and a scavenger hunt through the museum, in which educators learned how to incorporate museum artifacts into their lessons.

Facilitators also utilized the Holocaust to open a dialogue about the contemporary issues of anti-Semitism in popular culture, politics and Hollywood; the current Israeli/Palestinian conflicts; and genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“If you read about what’s happening in Darfur and substituted the words Jewish community there were definite parallels to the Holocaust,” one teacher said.

Sudan’s Darfur region has been beset by human rights abuses and other atrocities since February 2003 when fighting escalated between rebel groups and government troops and the Janjaweed, or Arab militias.

The conflict has forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes and left more than 200,000 people dead, causing a humanitarian crisis that the United States has described as genocide.

Another seminar participant compared Germany’s attempt to ignore its violations of human rights during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with China’s attempt to hide human rights conditions in that nation during this year’s Olympics in Beijing.

The program for the teachers focuses on guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust, including the importance of contextualizing and not romanticizing history, using precise language, avoiding comparisons of pain and humanizing the statistics.

“We owe it to our kids to complicate their thinking. The easy thing to do would be to give kids easy black-and-white answers to their questions,” said Peter Fredlake, a facilitator and coordinator of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s teacher fellowship program.

“This is a difficult time in history to have to confront. As teachers we have to help facilitate that confrontation. But we have to be intellectually honest,” he said.

Sessions of “Bearing Witness” also aimed to foster Jewish-Catholic relations by educating participants about the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on relations with non-Christians, “Nostra Aetate,” which established the foundation for dialogue between Christians and Jews. A course on Jewish beliefs and practices was held at the Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Featured speakers at other sessions included Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl.

“You can’t teach (this by) depicting Jews as peripheral to the Holocaust or asserting that the Holocaust is universal and could have happened to anyone,” said David Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“The Holocaust is a chapter in the history of anti-Semitism and the Jewish people, and you have to start with that when teaching about this subject,” he said.

“As Catholics we deal a lot with social injustices. It’s part of our seven principles of Catholic social teaching,” Andrea Beyrer, a teacher at St. Raphael Catholic School in Raleigh, N.C., told Catholic News Service. “We’re a few generations removed from the Holocaust. It’s important to teach this so that we don’t lose the message.”

Pat Marlette, an educator at Mount De Sales Academy in Catonsville, Md., planned to implement what she learned in a semester-long course on the Holocaust for juniors and seniors at her school. “It’s important to give students a sense of Jewish life during that time and not just death,” Marlette said.

“Bearing Witness” was developed in 1996 by the late Cardinal James A. Hickey of Washington and Friedman. Since its inception, it has trained nearly 1,300 Catholic educators around the country.

“To say ‘never again’ is not enough. We have to act and get involved,” Godin said. “We can’t fix what was, but we can learn from it.”

“There are moments that just touch your life so deeply. This is that experience for me,” Kevin Shearer, a high school teacher at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore, told CNS. “Being here, you’re inspired to go and transform your community.”