Educators Express Qualms over Teaching Holocaust

By JANICE ARNOLD Staff Reporter

Canadian Jewish News [[email protected]] | April 6, 2000

MONTREAL — One of the most difficult things about teaching the Holocaust is trying to convince students of the morality of arresting enfeebled 80-year-old men for alleged wartime crimes, say teachers in the English Montreal School Board (EMSB). Some admitted they themselves also question whether it’s the right thing to do.

These feelings came out following a presentation by York University history professor, Irving Abella, at a day-long Holocaust education seminar for the board’s moral and religious-education (MRE) teachers.

Forty elementary and high school teachers voluntarily attended the event, the first of its kind since the EMSB was created two years ago with the reorganization of the province’s school boards along linguistic lines. Many came from schools that were under the former Catholic boards and still Catholic in their orientation — schools like Holy Cross, St. Pius X, Michelangelo and Rosemount. Some had not taught the Holocaust before.

One young teacher, who identified herself as of Greek origin, suggested it might be time for “forgiveness” of Nazi war criminals. “A lot of my students want to know what is the purpose of sending these old men to jail after 50 years. I have trouble understanding it myself.”

Another older male teacher said he has run into the same problem. “Usually when a suspected war criminal is arrested, we hear that his neighbours liked him, he was a good family man, he worked at General Motors for 40 years. My students say, “Why are we picking on this nice old man?'”

A third teacher said she was didn’t know how to answer questions about what choice these men had had. Could they choose the unit they were in? What was the consequence of disobeying orders?

Abella, co-author of None is Too Many, said teachers should ask students, “If a gang came in and killed all your family and your neighbours, what would they want done? Do they think they should go free just because many years have passed?

“We cannot reward longevity,” Abella said. “Simply surviving long enough should not mean people don’t have to face justice.”

Other problems also surfaced. One teacher said he found it hard to explain how otherwise good family-loving, church-going people did not do more to save Jews, or worse, became those responsible for the deaths of Jews, who were their neighbours.

One teacher remarked that she thought it was important to stress that not all Germans were bad. She said children of German background in the class had felt “persecuted” after the Holocaust was taught.

The teaching of the Holocaust is not compulsory in the EMSB and whether the subject is dealt with is largely up to the individual teacher, said Laurie Greenspoon, the MRE consultant to the board, in an interview.

Many teachers are interested in including the Holocaust, but a problem has been the lack of curricular materials. “It’s a problem to find accurate and interesting material,” she said. Neither the education ministry or board supply anything and teachers usually have to improvise, using newspaper articles or movies as discussion catalysts. In addition, history and language arts teachers also teach the Holocaust.

Greenspoon said the board would like to develop a standardized teaching unit on the Holocaust. The EMSB has 45 elementary and 20 high schools. The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, which co-sponsored the seminar with the Norbert and Gusta Roth Foundation, piloted a draft teacher’s Holocaust education kit during the day, which it hopes may answer these needs. It has sections providing an overview of Jews and anti-Semitism, a historical summary of the Holocaust, Canada and the Holocaust, survivors’ stories, and suggested films, readings and Web sites. Greenspoon said that she likes the kit, but funding will have to be found to publish it.

Greenspoon is well acquainted with the difficulties of teaching the Holocaust. She was a Grade 10 teacher at Lauren Hill High School in St. Laurent where she taught the Holocaust to a wide ethnic diversity. “Often, there is a strong prejudice against Jews. So I tried to tie in other genocides to help them relate to it better,” she said.

The seminar also included a presentation by survivors, Rena and Mayer Schondorf, who volunteer for the MHMC. The Schondorfs spoke of childhoods cut short by the Holocaust. When such presentations are made to classes, the students are asked afterwards to translate their own traditions and memories into writing, painting and drawing.

Another presentation, designed for high schools, was a critical examination of the unregulated flow of hate on the Internet.

Despite the difficulties teachers face on the Holocaust, MHMC education director Naomi Kramer said that in her 12 years, she has never seen such a demand from schools for help, be it materials, speakers or tours of the centre’s exhibitions.

She attributes the interest to the fact the Holocaust has become “so topical” in the news and in film. Kramer thinks that will only increase because Yom Hashoah is now officially recognized by the Quebec government. Holocaust education need not only be taught formally.

On April 11, New York private investigator Steve Rambam, who received media attention for tracking down suspected Nazi war criminals in Canada and elsewhere, will speak at Rosemount High School, under the co-sponsorship of the EMSB and the Roth Foundation.