Eternal Lessons


Every year, Esther and Howard Kaidanow and Edith Cord, all in their 80s, receive numerous notes from grateful students.

The three are all getting on in years, but they still answer what they feel is a very important call — to share their stories of survival in one of the world’s greatest atrocities, the Holocaust. It will never be easy, but that doesn’t stop them.

“Even after all this time, I’m not calm about it,” Esther Kaidanow said. “I still get nervous and emotional. But I think it’s important, and I will keep doing it as long as I can.”

The Holocaust was one of the defining events of the 20th century. But as the distance between its horrors and the present day increases, it stands to lose its sense of urgency, of relevancy, especially for younger generations. It doesn’t help that estimates put the remaining number of survivors — their collective testimonies being the single most powerful learning tool for the Shoah — at around 100,000, with the youngest of those, just children at the time, now in their 70s.

And so, Holocaust education has had to change with the times, incorporating technology and cultivating second- and even third-generation survivor speakers. Organizations, both local and national, have been working to provide resources that adapt to what educators need.

“I do think it’s evolving, certainly, all the time,” said Kristine Donly, interim director of the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. “And trying to stay on top of it is a challenge. But we, and other institutions, are very focused [on providing up-to-date resources].”

The USHMM is a major provider of some of these resources, of course. Of the museum’s 1.7 million visitors a year, half a million are school-age students who come from all over the country, especially the D.C./Maryland region. The museum also provides numerous educational resources on its website — from the “Holocaust Encyclopedia,” which includes thousands of articles and is undergoing a revamp to make it more user- friendly, to a major collection of survivor testimony recordings.

A group of survivors at Perry Hall High School in 2011 (Photo provided)

Donly also pointed to a couple more recent projects the museum has undertaken to fill gaps in Holocaust knowledge and education. In 2013, the USHMM made a 38-minute video called “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” which shows the factors and context that led to the Holocaust and is utilized by many teachers for general background.

The second is a crowdsourcing project called “History Unfolded.” It encourages citizen historians — and especially teachers and their students — to do deep dives into their local archives and find out how World War II and the Holocaust was reported in their area. The resulting information is uploaded to the site, which features a map of the states showing the number of articles found for each one. Currently, Maryland has 127.

The goal of Holocaust education, Donly said, should be not just background facts and figures, but getting students to think critically, beyond just the idea that Adolf Hitler was evil and responsible for everything.

“We’re looking at things that provide a larger concept out of the facts and figures,” she said.

Some states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, among others, mandate Holocaust and genocide education. Maryland does not. That’s because Maryland is a local- control state, said Bruce Lesh, social studies coordinator for the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). That means that while the state provides a framework for what students must learn in each grade, an individual district has broad control over curriculum and implementation.

The social studies part of the framework is currently under review, but the framework as it stands includes this directive: “Analyze the atrocities committed against civilians during World War II, including the Holocaust in Europe and the Rape of Nanking in China.”

Commemorative artwork from a Monarch Academy student (Photo provided)

So, “all of our districts have it built into their curriculum,” Lesh said.

Since the mid-2000s, the MSDE has partnered with the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) and Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM) each year to provide a three-day continuing education workshop on teaching the Holocaust. Its curriculum includes survivor stories, presentations from other teachers, available resources and a trip to the USHMM. There’s always a waiting list for that workshop, Lesh said.

Deborah Cardin, deputy director for programs and development for the JMM, coordinates the workshop.

“The unique thing about our program is that we open it to everyone,” Cardin said. “It doesn’t have to be someone who teaches the Holocaust but anyone who is interested.”

The workshop usually ends up including teachers from all over the state representing a number of different subjects — English, social studies, religion, etc. In recent years, Cardin said, the workshop has focused on providing new ways to teach the Holocaust. In particular, she added, teachers are interested in learning to relate issues of today to what happened both during and leading up to the Holocaust.

“It wasn’t that long ago,” Cardin said. “There are so many lessons to be learned from the past and help students think about issues happening now.”

For all the great resources and important professional development for teachers, everyone emphasizes that nothing can replace the firsthand account of a survivor. Jeanette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust programs for the BJC, coordinates a local speakers bureau that pairs schools and organizations with Holocaust survivors willing to share their stories.

“It’s not a history lesson,” she said. “It’s you have to learn the lessons of the Shoah and apply them today. I just think we’re very fortunate in this area because of the number of survivors [who live here].”

In the 2016-’17 school year, survivors went to 39 schools, reaching about 5,000 students. And now, Parmigiani is working to cultivate the next generation.

“We are encouraging second, even third, generations to start telling their family’s stories,” she said. “That’s our goal right now.”

For many schools, survivors anchor their Holocaust teaching. Louise Geczy, senior project coordinator for the John Carroll School in Bel Air, said she often tries to bring in as many survivors as possible over the course of the year. Along with covering the Holocaust in history classes and English (seniors read “Night” by Elie Wiesel), seniors also take a trip to the USHMM. But it’s always the survivors who bring it home for students, Geczy said.

“We have to find new ways to tell the stories because we’re not going to have the firsthand accounts in the same way we have in the past,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done in keeping this relevant, but the student interest is there. Like anything, it’s just how you present it.”

Memorial artwork created by a Monarch Academy eighth-grader (Photo provided)

At Krieger Shechter Day Schools, the subject of the Holocaust permeates a number of classes, including social studies, Jewish history and English. In fact, the eighth-graders’ Jewish history class includes a full semester of Holocaust education.

“In the middle school, at the appropriate commemoration times during the year — Kristallnacht, Yom HaShoah — every grade level has an event,” said Robyn Blum, the head of the middle school.

Students — many of whom have some personal connection to the Holocaust — also visit the USHMM. And being able to talk to living survivors makes it seem less far away, Blum said.

“It will be interesting — not in this generation, but perhaps in the next one — to see if that sense of proximity rings true,” she added.

Monarch Academy in Glen Burnie’s J.P. Bennett, the school’s eighth-grade humanities teacher, called the Holocaust one of the cornerstones of his teaching. After years of presenting the subject to students, he’s found that bringing in survivors to speak is the best way to introduce the subject matter.

“When learning about the Holocaust and the overwhelming tragedy, I’ve found it’s important to keep the students focused on individual stories and keep it humanized,” he said.

Students also read Anne Frank’s diary and take a trip to the USHMM. By introducing the speakers first, Bennett said, it gives the students a connection to and stake in the material.

“I think it’s a powerful starting point if educators have the opportunity to try it because then the students filter the rest of what they are learning through these personal connections,” he said.

With fewer survivors available, the ones still able and willing to tell their stories do so many times a year.

A student experiencing the USHMM (Photo courtesy of USHMM)

“When my husband and I go to speak now, there’s only a handful of us, so I feel it’s important to do,” said Esther Kaidanow, who as a child fled what’s now Croatia and spent about a year in the mountains with the Partisans, a Jewish resistance group.

Beyond just commemorating what happened and giving testimony, both Kaidanow and Edith Cord, who survived the Holocaust on the run as a “hidden child,” want students to make connections with the world today.

“My goal is not to make the talk about myself because everyone survived by a hair. The importance for me in speaking is the parallels with today. My goal is to wake them up to what’s happening today. I want them to take advantage of their opportunities and their schooling,” said Cord, who ended the war at 18 with a sixth-grade education.

At the end of the day, Kaidanow said, if she can get students to stand up and take the risk to do the right thing, she will have succeeded.

“It’s an ongoing thing,” she said. “There’s always going to be someone somewhere suffering, and if you can do something about it, that’s a wonderful thing.”

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here