Teaching the Shoah in public school ‘a particular challenge’

Teaching the Shoah in public school ‘a particular challenge’

When the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education decided in 1993 that all state schools should teach about the Shoah, longtime social studies teacher Elliot Pollack was pressed into service.

Asked by Ridgefield Park Junior/Senior High School, where he has taught for some 31 years, to create a course meeting state guidelines, he fashioned a class on intolerance designed to "move the kids both intellectually and emotionally. They have to feel it," said the Teaneck resident, adding that "it’s a particular challenge to get students to relate to something they have no experience with."

Elliot Pollack is pictured with his class at Ridgefield Park Jr./Sr. High School.

Offered as a senior elective in history, Pollack’s class has expanded to include current instances of intolerance and genocide, such as the ongoing conflict in Darfur. While course materials have varied over the years, he said, students’ attitudes have also changed. "Students now are a lot more open, tolerant of different lifestyles," he said.

Pollack noted that the course highlights both historical and contemporary events and includes a segment on "the nature of mankind." Students in the class read the work of four noted thinkers: Niccolo Machiavelli, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and B.F. Skinner. They also read "Night" by Elie Wiesel and "The Diary of Anne Frank."

But while reading is key to the class, he said, "the most effective [teaching] technique in our generation is visual." Not only has Pollack brought in survivors to speak with the class (although, he noted, "so many are passing away"). But he also screens a ‘5-minute video of footage he shot in Eastern Europe on a trip funded by a state grant.

The video shows the site of former concentration camps as well as cemeteries, Anne Frank’s house, and other important venues. It was created with the help of two former students, who also helped lay down a sound track, said Pollack. The teacher also "takes the students on a virtual tour of Auschwitz," using the school computer and the resources of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

This year, Pollack asked his 45 students, ranging in age from 16 to 18, to write poems or draw pictures about the Holocaust. He is extremely proud of the result. "The fact that they react openly and honestly means a lot." he said. "I consider the poems a major achievement."

Before beginning their work, the teenagers were asked to read "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" — a collection of works of art and poetry by Jewish children who in the concentration camp Theresienstadt — as well as other poems by their contemporaries. "I told them, now it’s your turn to have a go," said Pollack.

Here is a poem by one of his students, 17-year-old Sharla Boland of Ridgefield Park.

Is it a dream?

A loud bang

I am startled from my sleep

The bell rang

Then there is silence

It must be a dream

I am confused, I go back to sleep

Cries through the night

I continue to sleep

Gun shots everywhere

What must I be dreaming of?

Now I am in a large truck

Is this a dream?

This place is dark and gloomy

Nothing like my room

Who knew I would wake up in hell?

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