Lessons of the Shoah

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More than 200 students across Baltimore City and County participate in a day-long Holocaust curriculum to learn lessons of tolerance and compassion at the John Carroll School. (Melissa Gerr)
More than 200 students across Baltimore City and County participate in a day-long Holocaust curriculum to learn lessons of tolerance and compassion at the John Carroll School. (Melissa Gerr)

More than 200 high school students from approximately 20 schools from Baltimore City, Baltimore County and beyond came together last week at the John Carroll School in Bel Air for “Lessons of the Shoah” a day-long program designed “to motivate participants to make a personal commitment to combat prejudice and hatred.”

The gathering was co-sponsored by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the Baltimore Jewish Council, the John Carroll School, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the Claims Conference and, on a most personal level, John Carroll graduate Andy Klein, owner of local ShopRite grocery stores.


Klein, a native of Bel Air who attended the school when there was no Holocaust curriculum, is a firm believer in educating young people about tolerance and regularly sponsors the school’s seniors’ trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. This year, he wanted to do more.

Klein said studying Holocaust history is a way for young people to internalize the stories and hopefully invoke in them the willingness to call out injustice and “to challenge it and question it.”

In the morning, the students, from many religious and ethnic backgrounds, chose from six workshops that tackled different themes of the Holocaust.

Deborah Cardin, JMM deputy director of programs and development, presented students with five large black-and-white historical photographs that depicted several scenarios; some included civilians and military, some showed smiling faces; and others showed destitute families. She challenged the group to create a timeline — representing before, during and after the Holocaust — by scouring over details in the images. Participants studied expressions, clothing, location and even body language. The exercise ignited conversation and sparked questions about what was actually happening in the photos, what events led up to the Holocaust and what could people have been thinking at the time.

Father Robert Albright, former Catholic campus minister at Towson University and director of ministry to higher education for the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, dissected the difference between, he said, the often misinterpreted concepts of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, pointing out that the former is theological and deals with culture and religion while the latter is ideological and based on racial and secular ideas.

Presenter Josh Headley, history department head at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, confronted students with the “not in my backyard” notion as he unraveled the complex roles of perpetrator, collaborator and bystander during the Holocaust.

What do you do if something happens, but it doesn’t have any relevance to you, he asked the group, and compared that behavior with those who stood by and watched the horrors of the Holocaust unfold. But, he prodded, what happens if you do stand up and say this is wrong and what is needed for an individual to take that action?

Headley said he’s witnessed the impact of teaching Holocaust curriculum on students, especially when it promotes ideas of not looking the other way and calling out an injustice

[pullquote]“I’ve taught 40 years in the classroom and nothing has had an impact” on students like studying the Holocaust.[/pullquote]

“I see it in … the change of behaviors on the lacrosse field,” where Headley coaches. “I see it in the hallways at school — students will stand up for someone else they don’t know and say ‘you need to stop what you’re doing, that’s wrong.’ It’s really affirming,” he said.

Headley hopes students, after a day immersed in Holocaust curriculum, will be able “to contextualize the behavior of something happening right now and what might happen if you don’t adjust or adapt but instead make a change.”

Other workshops dealt with the psychology of hatred and the evolution of genocide and included presenters from the USHMM Levine Institute for Holocaust Education and Centropa, a European organization dedicated to preserving 20th century Jewish stories from Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

After lunch, for which kosher meals were provided as needed, the group listened to Esther and Howard Kaidanow, who have shared their personal stories of resistance and survival of the Holocaust with hundreds of young people.

“If you forget history, it could happen again,” said Esther, in anticipation of speaking to the assembled group. “There are some who don’t know about it, don’t believe it or even deny it. … I hope that it will give knowledge and power to young people … to alleviate any possibility of hatred or misjudging people of other backgrounds. I always hope that if it influences even one person, then it’s a benefit.”

At the end of the day, students met to discuss, reflect and share what they learned. For many, such as Rawaida Saeed, a freshman at Polytechnic Institute, this was a first exposure to Holocaust curriculum. What she learned that morning made her question the inaction of genocide bystanders, she said. “If something happens like that, I can do something. … We can take matters in our own hands. We have freedom of speech, we can protest.”

“I’ve taught 40 years in the classroom and nothing has had an impact” on students like studying the Holocaust, said Louise Brink Géczy, senior project coordinator at the school and a passionate promoter of Holocaust education there for 13 years. Géczy works closely with Jeannette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust programs for the BJC since 2007.

Parmigiani said Baltimore City and County are very committed to Holocaust education, and last year, more than 6,000 students at 52 schools, synagogues, community centers and military locations heard firsthand Holocaust testimony from the approximately 20 survivors that BJC enlists as speakers.

Richard O’Hara, president of John Carroll School, said the goal of the day was “not just to study history, but learn from the lessons and apply them … to stand up to evil, point out injustice … to build up the kingdom of God for peace and understanding and love for others.”

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