The courage to act

The courage to act

The Borough of Tenafly just passed its annual capital budget with a special line item — the acquisition of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s world-renowned Courage to Remember exhibition on the Holocaust. The municipality’s plan is to share this critical tool on Holocaust education with its school system, and demonstrate its prioritizing Holocaust education for the next generation of local middle and high school students.

Courage to Remember is a 40-panel mobile exhibition that puts a human face on the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust and reinforces the importance of Holocaust education to combat efforts to erase history.

What is special about this action lies in the exemplary responsiveness of Tenafly’s Mayor Mark Zinna and the entire council to an issue that they easily could have punted on. What is unique is that a governing body recognizing that after an unfortunate incident in its local school system — over which it has no oversight or jurisdiction — it was necessary for it to take action. The council unanimously did so.

As many remember, and as was widely reported, last June there was sudden and immediate outrage over a controversial class assignment given to sixth graders at the Maugham Elementary School in Tenafly. A teacher had allowed a student to write a biography glorifying Adolf Hitler and then publicly and proudly displayed the student’s work in the school hallway.

Immediately, and without hesitation, the mayor and the council began working with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. They did not point fingers in return for a quick dose of media fame, and they did not further embarrass a little girl and her family, who were already receiving death threats. Instead, they worked to explore and employ substantive methods to fix what was broken.

Together, we came up with a list of action items. They included:

An immediate city council-sponsored town hall meeting in Borough Hall, where the community met and heard from a Holocaust survivor.

The opportunity for us at the Wiesenthal Center to speak to the family. That allowed us to learn their version of what actually occurred with their daughter, and about her interactions with the school’s personnel.

A press event at Borough Hall with the mayor and council, who said on the record that what occurred was wrong, that there were no excuses, and that it would be dealt with immediately.

The assurance that at its next budget cycle, the borough would acquire the Courage to Remember exhibition to ensure that additional and enhanced Holocaust education resources were available and prioritized for the educating the borough’s next generation.

Within 10 days of the incident, the press conference was held, the family was spoken to, and Holocaust survivor Marc Schonwetter of Livingston came to speak to a standing-room-only crowd in the Tenafly Council chamber.

However, the true commitment of the governing body was on display over the last few weeks. A year after the incident, long after it left the public eye, Tenafly kept its final, most enduring commitment. The Courage to Remember exhibition now will be integrated into the town’s public schools’ Holocaust education curriculum, and it also will ensure that students recognize the level of priority these lessons have to their hometown. Such action, perhaps more importantly, puts the educators employed in Tenafly’s school system on notice that Holocaust education is of the first order of importance.

Courage to Remember is so named because we all must have the courage to study the Holocaust, no matter how disturbing these studies may be. That’ because only informed, understanding, morally committed people can prevent such persecution from happening again, to anyone.

We also note that as Tenafly was making its announcement, the author of the exhibition, former director of the Museum of Tolerance, Dr. Gerald Margolis, died. But Courage to Remember will continue to inspire people the world over.

We cannot take the leadership of Tenafly’s mayor and council on this issue lightly. At a time of rising antisemitism and political divineness, it is not easy or simple to put what is right first, despite how easy and simple it sounds. Let Tenafly’s leaders’ actions serve as a guiding light to others, and may we all give them a very public round of applause.

Michael D. Cohen of Englewood is the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He represents his city’s Second Ward on Englewood’s City Council, and he belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah there.

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