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Europe’s brave new teachers of the Holocaust

Teaching the Holocaust in the modern era has its difficulties and rewards.

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Sinisa Vukadinovic with his students at the site of a concentration camp, in the outskirts of Belgrade, Serbia. He is showing them a wartime photograph of one of the same buildings they are looking at now. Photo courtesy of Sinisa Vukadinovic.

Surrounded by echoes of the past and a sense of urgency regarding the present, a small but mighty group of European educators teach about the Holocaust to ensure it will never happen again.  They often work alone and face the challenge of fitting it into a mandated curriculum that might not include it.  Yet, these teachers bring awareness to a part of history that many would rather forget. 

Before COVID, Sinisa Vukadinovic took his students to the site of a concentration camp not far from their high school in Belgrade, Serbia.  "There is now a fancy restaurant, right on the site where the morgue of the camp was," Vukadinovic said. "Most people have no idea what happened at this location."  

He prepares his students in advance, having them analyze photos of the buildings before and during the war.  Some buildings are still recognizable today.  "I see my students' faces when they realize that people are just eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves in that restaurant.  One student told me, 'I was sitting here once with my parents and I had no idea.'"  The point is not to make students feel guilty about what happened before they were born, but to make them aware that this happened right here, "to people who were a part of us."  

These non-Jewish educators and students live in the places where the horrors occurred.  As Marek Kraszewski, a teacher in Warsaw, Poland, noted, "You see that history everywhere, on plaques saying, 'Here was the border of the Jewish ghetto.'"  Kraszewski grew up in Bialystock, Poland, and learned only after high school that 40% of the population of his town was Jewish.  "Poles and Russians were second in number to the Jews!"  

Xara Stefani, a social studies teacher in Thessaloniki, Greece, takes her students on walking tours and points out the Jewish family names above the doorways of shops.  She reminds them that the Jews had been there for hundreds of years, and the few survivors who returned found their homes had been taken. 

As part of the concentration camp study, Vukadinovic's students interview people to learn what Serbians think today.  One man told a student, "We can't be obsessed with history all the time. Life goes on."  

Back in the classroom, students discuss these opinions. "This genocide happened to people who were integrated into Serbian society," Vukadinovic reminded them. "We did not lose foreigners in World War II-we lost part of our society."

Seeking to learn more, these teachers find their way to Centropa, a non-profit that provides educators with a wealth of resources about the lives of Jews in communities across Europe before, during, and after the war.  Originally created by journalist Edward Serotta as an archive to a lost world, Centropa documented interviews with survivors who shared photographs showing their cultural richness before the war.  

As teachers contacted Serotta for materials, he realized Centropa would be impactful as an educational program, putting a human face on the statistics. Lauren Granite, Centropa's US Education Director, said she believes that Centropa is effective by telling people's stories.  "Stories are universal and connect us all," she said. "If you can tell a person's whole story, that humanizes them. They are not just victims." 

Stefani put a face on this history when she arranged a visit to the home of a local survivor.  "When the students returned to school saying, 'We live in a civilized society and people were burned!?' I was reminded of my purpose."  The Holocaust provides a framework for understanding society today.  "There is verbal abuse between students, which is the beginning of how everything can get worse."  

Vukadinovic mentions attitudes towards refugees in Serbia.  He worries that many of his students whose great-grandparents were killed in the war currently have xenophobic thoughts.   "We can't repeat the mistakes of our history," he said. "This is why I teach this."

Michele Gili Sherman teaches visual arts to middle schoolers at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago and works as a freelance writer on topics of education and Jewish culture.


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