Confronting uncomfortable truths
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Confronting uncomfortable truths

22 Lerner Fellows, all educators, study how to fully teach about the Holocaust

These are some of this summer’s Lerner Fellows; Sarah Coykendall is sitting, second from left, Terrilisa Bauknight, seated in the middle, is wearing a brightly colored dress, and Stanlee Stahl, standing at right, has a mask on.
These are some of this summer’s Lerner Fellows; Sarah Coykendall is sitting, second from left, Terrilisa Bauknight, seated in the middle, is wearing a brightly colored dress, and Stanlee Stahl, standing at right, has a mask on.

The Holocaust can’t be taught as if Anne Frank’s diary says it all.

But for some well-meaning teachers at middle and high schools around the country, the misconception that what that one brilliant teenager wrote in her diary in an attic in Amsterdam can encapsulate the entirety of what happened to European Jewry before and during World War II is enough. Far too many teachers don’t teach why the Frank family left Germany in 1933 and what happened to them when they were discovered in that attic hideaway. Far too many teachers don’t have the knowledge to correct the misconception that Jews didn’t fight the Nazis, that they went meekly to the gas chambers. Or the killing fields. Or the ghettos.

The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, founded in 1986 by Rabbi Harold Schulweis to support and help aging and needy non-Jews who risked their lives to save thousands of Jews, stepped into the Holocaust teacher education sphere in 2000 to combat the myths, the misconceptions, and lack of real knowledge surrounding the teaching of the subject in American schools.

Why did they do that?

Stanlee Stahl of West Orange is the executive director of the JFR. Ms. Stahl was named for her uncle, Stanley Goldblum, who was a private first class in the 18th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division during World War II. He was killed in May 1944, fighting near the Anzio beachhead in Italy, and he is buried near there.

Ms. Stahl noted that teachers don’t teach what they don’t know. Nothing is more perfect an example of this than those teachers who think teaching the Holocaust can be done by teaching their students only the words of a diary. “If they try to teach it the Holocaust, they sometimes get it wrong,” Ms. Stahl said.

Twenty-two states, including New Jersey and New York, mandate the teaching the Holocaust. “Most of the mandates in the states come without any money for teacher training,” she continued. That’s why the JFR stepped into that vacuum.

For each summer of the last two decades, including the last two pandemic summers, JFR has held its Summer Institute for Teachers, a high-level intensive five-day course that delves into the complex history of the Holocaust and is a forum for discussion on techniques for teaching about it. The institute is named for Alfred Lerner, the founding chairman and CEO of MBNA Corporation, a bank holding company and parent company of the subsidiary MBNA Bank America. He also was a major JRF donor.

Every year, 22 educators are selected from schools around the country to participate in the program and become Alfred Lerner Fellows. This year’s seminar was held last month at the Hilton Hotel at Newark Airport. The noted scholars who taught there included Doris Bergen of the University of Toronto, Robert Jan van Pelt of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and author and Holocaust historian Alexandra Zapruder.

“There are three main goals for the JFR’s Summer Institute,” Ms. Stahl said. “They include providing teachers with a graduate level course on the Holocaust; making pedagogical connections with other teachers so they can learn what works and what hasn’t; and giving them resources for the classroom.”

Terrilisa Bauknight teaches global studies and U.S. history from exploration of the New World through the Civil War and Reconstruction up to contemporary times at the Essex County Schools of Technology in Newark. She was one of the 22 educators from 10 states, including New Jersey, selected to participate this year.

“My interest in the Holocaust began when I was in high school and we were presented with the story of Anne Frank,” Ms. Bauknight said. “But I always felt there had to be more.” The fellows must be nominated by one of the 14 JFR-designed Centers of Excellence. Ms. Bauknight’s nomination came from Dr. Sara Brown at the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education in Lincroft She said she felt honored to be recommended for the program.

Stanlee Stahl

“I wanted to know more than Anne Frank,” Ms. Bauknight continued. “That’s not to diminish or deny her. But I always wanted to know what else happened and how it could have happened.”

Sarah Coykendall of Montague, the managing assistant director at the Holocaust Resource Center of Kean University in Union, is another of this year’s fellows. She was nominated by her director, Dr. Adara Goldberg; Kean’s Holocaust Center is one of JFR’s Centers of Excellence.

She said that the institute offers the opportunity to teach the educators who come to the Holocaust Center how better to prepare classroom teachers to instruct their students about the Holocaust.

“I’d been to conferences before, and it always felt like each section, each workshop was separate, almost like being in a silo,” Ms. Coykendall said. “You’d go to a speech, ask a question or two, and then you’d go onto the next workshop or event. At the institute it was different.

“We developed personal relationships with the scholars and could ask detailed questions. Knowing we were all educators, they tailored their answers to how best we could all use that information in the classroom.”

As she listened to Dr. Bergen, Ms. Coykendall learned what she regards as a best practice, a new and different way to help others to understand the Holocaust. “Dr. Bergen called it “reversing the gaze,” meaning changing the perspective,” Ms. Coykendall said. “For example, don’t just teach the rise of the Nazis from the point of view of Hitler’s speeches or the brown and black shirts, but from the point of view of the Jews who were experiencing anti-Jewish legislation.

“That was an eye-opening concept for me.”

Ms. Coykendall was introduced to the Holocaust when she was in 10th grade. She grew up in Eldred, a town in the Catskills; New York is one of the states where teaching the Holocaust is mandated. “We were supposed to read ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel and it was supposed to be something we studied over the course of the semester,” she said. “But I went home and read the whole book that very same night. I was taken with Mr. Wiesel’s strength and his will, and his perseverance, but also the turmoil and anguish he and his father experienced.” She’d never known anything like that and she wanted to share it with others. “I was 15, and I didn’t know exactly how I would do that — but I knew I wanted to.”

Ms. Bauknight had both professional and personal reasons for wanting to absorb everything she could at the institute. “There is a Jewish connection in my family,” she said. “One of my forebears, a woman whose last name was Eichelberger, moved to Saluda, North Carolina, and married into my family.” Ms. Bauknight grew up in Cranford and then moved to Greenville, Pennsylvania, to enter Thiel College. Then she returned to New Jersey, where she took a summer study program at Princeton. “I felt like I owed it to both parts of my heritage to learn more about the Holocaust,” she said.

Ms. Bauknight developed her interest in teaching Holocaust studies at Thiel, and it grew stronger when she was at Princeton, through a course called “The Mosque, the Church, and the Synagogue.”

When she began to teach about the Holocaust at Kean, she was fortunate in having a supervisor who allowed her to be as creative as she wanted to be in putting together the units of study for her classroom. But still she hoped to expand her knowledge. She feels fortunate to have met Dr. Brown of the Holocaust Center five years ago and to have increased her knowledge through the center’s programs. Among other things, it prepared her for the institute.

“Most everyone attending already taught Holocaust studies either over the course of a school year or as part of a unit,” she said. “They all came to the institute with foreknowledge, but they all wanted to gain better insights and to be better able to teach from truth.”

“With her questions and insights, Terrilisa added depth and dimension to the program,” Ms. Stahl said. “Many of the teachers who come to our program are not of the Jewish faith” — Ms. Bauknight is a woman of color and a minister; she is not Jewish — “but they all want everything they can take away from the discussions, the lectures, and the networking amongst themselves that is such a part of what is truly a graduate level experience.”

After in-depth discussions about the differences between anti-Judaism and antisemitism, the part that Catholic priests played in saving Jews—one third of all priests were killed by the Nazis as part of their extermination of Polish clergy and the Polish intelligentsia—about the work of German physicians, 45% of whom were members of the Nazi party, and how they practiced their profession under the Hippocratic Oath, and other shocking, eye-opening, and dreadful facts that they absorbed in their readings, lectures, and discussions, the educators went home to their schools.

“We follow up with them and ask what worked for them and what didn’t,” Ms. Stahl said. “Tell us what you’re doing differently in the classroom from before, what you’ve changed based upon what you learned at the Summer Institute.”

Ms. Coykendall, who also teaches an undergraduate course on Holocaust studies at Kean — was overwhelmed by a sense of privilege and honor when she was nominated to attend the Institute. “Teacher training and education is at the core of the Holocaust Resource Center,” she said. “There’s a graduate program at the center where the tuition is waived and teachers can learn not just Holocaust education but prejudice reduction as well. I plan to work more intensely with those teachers, but I also plan to teach what I learned at the seminars I attended to my students.”

Ms. Bauknight, who slept for 18 hours when she returned home from the Institute, will make sure that the content she teaches draws a straight line from the Holocaust to the hatred and racism of today. She will help her students understand that the Holocaust is not something that’s taught. It exists. “We don’t just have to deal with it as if it’s past,” she said. “We’re still dealing with it.

“Hate was at the base of the Holocaust, and today hate is the base of what we regard as racism and white supremacy in this country.. We need to get rid of the myths and the misinformation.

“We have to be made to feel uncomfortable to make sure we get to the truth.”

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