Thursday, May 16, 2019

A Problem from Hell: Inside America’s Classrooms and the Teaching of the Holocaust

Remarks provided to the Women's Club of Sandusky 

Huron, Ohio
April 23rd, 2019

 Image result for holocaust poland

Thank you for that kind introduction, and it’s an honor tonight to speak to the College Women’s Club of Sandusky. My first teaching job out of College was just south at Western-Reserve Local Schools, and my first apartment was right down the road in Huron, Ohio. Sandusky has always held a special place in heart, especially, since my partner Joey’s family continues to reside here.

Special congratulations to tonight’s high school scholarship award recipients, and to the College Women’s Club for making these gifts possible.

In 2017, I was selected by the International March of the Living as one of its six inaugural faculty fellows. Apparently, I had been nominated for this honor by a few of my peers attesting to my work in community building with the LeBron James Family Foundation.

I still remember when I received a phone call from the organization’s director, David Machlis. He informed me that this yearlong commitment would allow to me conduct extensive research on the Holocaust and in Holocaust Education, visiting with scholars in Washington DC and throughout Poland.

Honestly, as a fifteen year history and social studies teacher and researcher, and being a cheap date, David had me at free trip to DC and Poland! The rest of the conversation focused on what to wear, along with some discussion of my itinerary. After all, who really knew what an inaugural faculty fellow was anyway?

In early spring of last year, the six selected faculty fellows (including myself) from around the U.S. came together for the first time at George Washington University in DC. We stayed in D.C. for six weeks before our travel to Europe to reflect on Holocaust readings, interview accomplished scholars, and meet with Survivors. Most of our sessions took place at the United States’ Holocaust Memorial Museum, a space dedicated to helping leaders and citizens of the world confront hatred, prevent genocide, promote human dignity, and strengthen democracy.

When you walk into the Museum, in its large Hall of Witnesses, you are greeted with a large banner that reads, “This museum is not an answer, it’s a question” a quote by Elie Wisel. Today, friends I need to open with the same disclaimer, that my presentation centers more on questions than answers. Questions that push us to consider why antisemitic incidents surged 57% last year in the U.S.? What makes the anti-human attacks in churches in Sri Lanka, at a Temple in Pittsburgh, at a Mosque in New Zealand, and at a dance club in Orlando possible?

After all, inquiry begins with just one compelling question. In an age where 24/7 cable news pundits spew all the answers, where people seek affirmation over information, infotainment over substance, I would contest the health of our shared democracy is only as strong as the vibrancy of the questions we ask. So with the few minutes we have today, I would like to propose two questions:                                                    
Question 1: What do students learn about the Holocaust in school?
Question 2:  Why is teaching the Holocaust important?

As for the first question, What do U.S. students today learn about the Holocaust in school?

I believe America’s schools are its last, best hope in helping us advance civic responsibility and engagement.  By civic engagement, I mean defining and imparting what the obligation of one stranger is to another. After all, there are powerful lessons history can tell us in answering these civitas’ calls; especially, as citizens of a democracy in an increasingly global and multi-cultural age.

Schools are a unique space where all of the nation’s children come together across so many differences- like race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and ability- in order to gain enduring understandings that not only improve their quality of life but mold and advance our communities.

As I’m sure most people in this room know, the Holocaust was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators, systematically murdered 11 million people- some six million European Jews and about 5 million “undesirables”-  including Communists, disabled Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals between 1941 and 1945. Not only did the Holocaust shock the conscience of humanity, but it largely impacted the creation of the United Nations and a march globally to better protect human rights. Survivor stories often live on through their writings (Elie Weisel, Promo Levi, & Ann Frank) and as depicted in Hollywood portrayals (Boy in Stripped Pajamas, Schindler’s List, & The Pianist).

Research tells us that people inside and outside of the U.S. differ in their awareness of the Holocaust.

In the U.S.
  • In 2017, the Claims Conference and Yad Vashem randomly interviewed 1,350 adults. Reported findings include:
    •  93 % of all respondents believed youth should learn about the Holocaust
  • However,
    • 31% of Americans (and 41% of millennials) believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust (actual number is around 6 million)
    • 66% of Millenials can not say what Auschwitz was
    • 52% of Americans believe Hitler came to power through force
Content Standards:
  • In Ohio, only 1 reference to the Holocaust (10th grade, Modern World History elective)
    • “Oppression and discrimination resulted in the Armenian Genocide during World War I and the Holocaust, the state-sponsored mass murder of Jews and other groups, during World War II.”
  • History textbooks have been critiqued many times over the years (Michael Apple, James Loewen). During the 1950s, when the number of victims of the Holocaust had come to light, textbooks were no longer including Holocaust content. The Cold War deemed it necessary for U.S. schools to prop up Germany as a defender of freedom against the advance of Communism, the spotlight on German persecution of its Jewish population was dimmed. CHRISTOPHER WITSCHONKE research concludes, “it appears that a purposeful 'Curtain of Ignorance' towards the Holocaust fell across U.S. history textbooks during the Cold War.

For a second, I would like to compare the teaching of the Holocaust in the U.S. with its teaching in Poland’s schools (the epicenter of the Holocaust's destruction). Even when the Holocaust is taught, we see its politicization (Wounded by History)

The Polish Anti-Defamation Law sponsored by its Law and Justice Party recently enlists a jail term for anyone that accuses the country of being complicit in Germany-Nazi crimes during World War II. The legislation criminalizes any mention of Poles as being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich. Jan Grabowski’s book, “Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland” finds that the systematic murder of 90% (or 3 million) of Poland’s Jews could only have been possible through Polish neighbors being complicit in their murder. Steven Katz, Director of Elie Wiesol Center, notes in his research that non-Jew Poles eagerly rounded-up and even murdered local Jews in advance of Nazi German invaders- in hopes that it would give them special favor and clout with incoming Nazis. Some even argued, “By killing Jews I saved other Polish lives… Kill a few to save those important to you.” This included the death of 1,600 Jewish residents in the summer of 1941 by their neighbors in Jedwabne. These same Poles also profited by looting the homes and property of their Jewish neighbor.

As Buguslav Milerski notes in his research, all Polish students (for better and worse) are required to learn about the Holocaust in their history classes. His research across 71 junior high schools (which is compulsory) indicates that:
  • Only 30% of students reported visiting a school sponsored Holocaust memorial site.
  • 32 % reported that Jews were somewhat at fault for the Holocaust (“they were like sheep” North Korea and Diary of Anne Frank)
  • 1/3 of respondents noted that Poles did Not engage in acts of hostility towards Jews during WWII. 
Maddalena Gross research notes, current political conditions have resulted in Polish classroom teachers providing a “misguided” view of history, one where German Nazis targeted all Poles equally. This only kindles the current flames of anti-semitism and neo-Nazi propaganda in Poland.

Survey: Who suffered more during WWII under Germany occupation, Poles or Jews? The major responded Poles. Polish history textbooks tell the story of heroic Poles that by and large helped their Jewish neighbor during the war. This is evident for anyone that has ever visited the Oscar Schindler factory in Krakow.

However, this is not to say that there weren’t non-Jews in Poland that risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination. During my research, I met Jerry Rawicki (now living in St. Pertersburg, FL). Jerry was a courier for the Polish Underground in the Warsaw Ghetto. In April, 1943, he participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. At age 15, during the uprising, Jerry was able to sneak out of the Ghetto through a tiny opening in the wall- four removed bricks. Once out, he managed to befriend a 17 year-old Polish boy at the beach. They exchanged boyhood stories (i.e. disdain for school, their luck with girls, and wisecracks). Eventually, Jerry confided in the 17 year-old boy that he was a Jew. The boy took Jerry home, and with his mother’s permission (not dad), allowed him to stay in their family’s cellar at night. After the war, Jerry found out that this boy and his family had been hung/ murdered by the Nazis ([Janusz Rybakiewicz would latter be identified by Yad Vasham as a Righteous Amongst the Nations).

Question 2:  Why is teaching the Holocaust important?

I believe teaching the Holocaust can be a meaningful entry point for schools and communities to promote global learning where youth audit their own perspectives, while examining different perspective in order to confront prejudice, discrimination, and oppression. For instance, Why did the United States not do more to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust?

On the evening of Nov. 9, 1938, a wave of violence against Jews swept across Nazi Germany, one that would result in hundreds of Jewish synagogues and businesses being destroyed and tens of thousands of Jews being sent to concentration camps. Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” had shocked the world and nations were encouraged to immediately act to save lives.

Some of you may be familiar with
  • The St. Louis: In May 1939, the German liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, to Havana, Cuba, carrying 937 Jewish refugee passengers. The United States and Cuba were unwilling to admit the passengers. 254 of these passengers were killed in the Holocaust.
  • In 1939, before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosted a rally to celebrate the rise of Nazism in Germany. Inside, more than 20,000 attendees raised Nazi salutes toward a 30-foot-tall portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas
  • In 1940 the Wagner-Rogers Bill, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee children, failed in the U.S. Senate. Despite the fact that about 1,400 Americans had written to Congress offering to adopt refugee children. Later in the same year the U.S. admitted 5,000 children from war-torn Britain.
  • Hitler was time magazine’s Person of the Year in 1938. Significant funding to his campaign and the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party came through U.S. automobile tycoon Henry Ford. Funding for his eugenics research came through the Carnegie Foundation and Rockefeller Corporation. In fact, U.S. conglomerate IBM was fully aware and profited off of Nazis using their equipment to “generate lists of Jews and other victims, and register and track inmates at concentration camps”. As author Edwin Black notes, there was an IBM office (Holleritch Abteilung) in every concentration camp. Jacques Pauwels indicts other US companies complicit, such as Kodak, General Motors/Opel, and J.P. Morgan Chase Bank.
  • In 1944 upon learning about the Killing Centers in Europe the U.S. decided not to bomb these facilities. Despite heavy U.S. bombings of IG Farben’s synthetic rubber and oil factories less than five miles away from Auschwitz- Birkenau. Thus, the gas chambers and crematorium went untouched. U.S. leaders felt such an attack would lend support to Hitler’s proclamations of this being an Allied war to save the Jews, resulting in lessened support for the war back home. Allied efforts were instead focused exclusively towards winning the War 

Germany Nazis weaponized science (pseudo science), weaponized the media via boisterous propaganda, even its schools and universities to cultivate an Aryan Race, establish the Third Reich, and institutionalized murder. You may ask who were these murders?  A Polish school principal, and Holocaust survivor, Chaim Ginnott, described penned this in an open letter:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

In fact, this experience as a faculty fellow, has forced me to wrestle with this question “why is teaching the Holocaust important?” both professionally and personally. Thus, I constantly ask myself “How can I draw from the lessons of the Holocaust to improve civic life?” To be a better researcher, teacher, neighbor, even stranger?

After all, as a child in Krakow reminded me, “they still live”. It is true that most of the Nazis and their Holocaust collaborators have been buried deep underground, but they are not dead. Events like Charlottesville, the assassination of Gdansk’s “tolerant mayor” in Poland, and rising global extremism, remind us of the need to be vigilant and attentive toward injustice and hate in our world.

Now What?  My plan in choosing to act includes leading 15 professional educators to Poland and Germany in a few weeks to learn how science and economics were of the Holocaust.This course aims to prepare teachers as civic leaders, to better understand and confront hate in all its forms. The good news however is you don’t have to leave the shores and islands of Northern Ohio to chose to act. I invite each of you you to journey with me in asking, “Why is teaching the Holocaust important?” There is no better time, especially, with Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) next week, May 2nd.

Thank you for you for having me here today.


Black, E. (2001). IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation. New York: Crown Books.

Pauwels, J. (2017). Big Business and Hitler. Toronto, ON, Canada: James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers.

Ellis, C., & Rawicki, J. (2013). Collaborative Witnessing of Survival During the Holocaust: An Exemplar of Relational Autoethnography. Qualitative Inquiry 19(5) 366–380.

Rawicki, J., & Ellis, C. (2009, July 1). Oral history interview of Jerry Rawicki by Carolyn Ellis. Retrieved at

July 2009 Jerry Rawicki oral history interview by Carolyn Ellis, July 1, 2009 Jerry Rawicki (Interviewee) Carolyn Ellis (Interviewer)

Grabowski, J. (2013). Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied PolandHardcover. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Claims Conference. (2018). New Survey by Claims Conference Finds Significant Lack of Holocaust Knowledge in the United States. Retrieved at

Witschonke, C. (2013).  A ‘Curtain of Ignorance’: An Analysis of Holocaust Portrayal in Textbooks from 1943 through 1959. The Social Studies, 104(4), 146-154.

Boguslaw, M. (201). Holocaust Education in Polish Public Schools: Between Remembrance and Civic Education. Prospects: Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, 40(1),115-132.

Gross, M.H. (2014) Struggling to deal with the difficult past: Polish students confront the Holocaust, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(4), 441-463.

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