Teaching the Holocaust

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I'll be honest: My passion for teaching about the Holocaust started because I wanted to make more money.

Soon after I started teaching, I realized I needed only a few more semester hours to move to the next level of the district's salary scale. When I saw a weeklong course on teaching the Holocaust offered at a nearby university during my summer vacation, I was intrigued — and it was only one week long! To say that course changed my life is an understatement.

I grew up in Loudonville, a rural town of 2,900 in north central Ohio — the same small, white, Christian town where my father taught junior high math for 30 years. It's also the town I returned to after college, where I have been teaching high school English for the past 13 years. I love the town and am raising my own children here, but I still encounter narrow-minded attitudes toward "others." It reminds me that the roots of prejudice exist, and they can only be eliminated through education.

Following the weeklong Holocaust course, I created a Holocaust studies class. I've been teaching that course to two (sometimes three) full sections of sophomores, juniors and seniors for the past nine years.

As my passion for learning about the Holocaust and how to teach it grew, I sought any and all opportunities to further my knowledge, driving around the state to visit traveling exhibitions and to hear Holocaust historians, educators and survivors speak. My growing interest sparked a curiosity in my students as well. We researched, we read, we studied and we learned — together.

Though the popularity of my course with students continued to grow, not everyone was pleased. One parent withdrew her daughter from the class, saying I was teaching religion. Another time, a student defaced school property with neo-Nazi symbols and swastikas after taking the course.

Others were convinced I must be Jewish, because in their minds, why else would I teach about the Holocaust? I also received hate mail, anti-Semitic and revisionist literature, articles and propaganda sent with handwritten comments — but never with a return name or address.

How can such ignorance still exist in our diverse world today? How could someone hate so much that he or she would spend time and money making copies and addressing envelopes to me?

I also met prejudice face to face, in a most surprising place. Incredibly, it came from a voice on my district's school board. During a public discussion of a student field trip to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., the board member in question said, "I'm tired of hearing about the damn Jews," "It's always about the Holocaust," and "I'm sick of kissing the Jews' asses."

I was devastated: Were my students and my own children at the mercy of this type of ignorance? Was this an attitude echoing through the community, or was it just one man's opinion? How was I to fight this?

Amazingly, the true impact of my teaching about the Holocaust was soon realized. A multitude of support came to me through comments, phone calls and letters to the editor, criticizing the board member and praising my efforts. So many people gathered in my defense at the next board meeting that it had to be moved to the school's auditorium.

There, a number of parents, teachers, community members and students lined up at the microphone to ask for the board member's resignation, to describe what my class had meant to them, and to express disgust for his anti-Semitic remarks. Ultimately, this unwanted situation turned into a powerful testament to just how far-reaching the class and its lessons had become.

Three years have gone by. The board member in question is now a former board member, and I continue to share my passion with everyone I can.

The wealth of knowledge and experience I have gained during the last nine years now has nothing to do with a salary schedule. I've found purpose in what I teach, rather than simply the abstract ideals and objectives claimed in state standards or lesson plans. Most importantly, I know I have affected young people's lives — opening their eyes a little wider to the reality of being responsible, informed and caring citizens. That's education.