New Jersey mandated Holocaust education in its public schools more than a decade ago. But until now, something has been missing.
The New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education recommended last summer that teachers add a new subject to the standard curriculum about the Shoah: Jewish partisan fighters. Although individual teachers may have broached the subject before, this is the first academic year that the topic is being officially sanctioned.
According to Paul Winkler, executive director of the commission, reaffirming resistance and focusing on partisans supports the commission’s longstanding missions: teaching about the Holocaust and addressing prejudice.
“This is a good project to show [how prejudice works],” Winkler said. “This goes into details of how partisans worked, protected themselves and saved themselves.”
New Jersey’s commission, the nongovernmental body that trains Holocaust educators, incorporated partisans into the curriculum by partnering with the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation. The state is following in the footsteps of California, which adopted a similar curriculum in 2003 — also through a partnership with the foundation. Florida is poised to adopt the resistance focus next year.
According to Mitch Braff, who founded the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation five years ago, most students are still unaware that some 30,000 armed Jewish fighters battled behind enemy lines during World War II to sabotage Nazi convoys and trains, among other things. “From our research, we learned that less than 2% of public school kids know about Jewish partisans, and 15% of Jewish kids know about partisans,” he said.
History textbooks don’t discuss Jewish resistance at any length; as one Holocaust educator quipped in a recent interview with the Forward: “You might get a word or two about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — and that’s a real maybe.”
The foundation aims to fill that gap by supplying camps, synagogues and schools with study guides, videos and other alternative teaching materials.
Teaching about Holocaust-era Jewish resistance has faced its share of obstacles in schools. Even some educators who maintain faithfulness to the lessons of the Holocaust sometimes deemphasize resistance, said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the University of Judaism. “One problem with teaching the Holocaust in American education is that it goes against the grain of the American ethos,” which focuses on happy endings and optimistic futures, Berenbaum said.
On one level, a certain mythology (and negative stereotype) that Jews were incapable of fighting back has long characterized Jewish Holocaust victims, said David Schwartz, a supervisor of social studies for the Randolph Township public school district in New Jersey. And the pressures of limited classroom time have kept many teachers from trying to change that perception. “As a teacher and editor, the piece about partisans is left out because you’re spending more time on the nuts and bolts of how and
why” the Holocaust happened, said Schwartz, whose township runs a full-semester Holocaust course.
But with California, New Jersey and possibly Florida devoting more time to the Shoah and focusing on resistance, the tide could be starting to turn.
“With an increase in the number of hours the Holocaust is taught, and with it, increased time to include a variety of topics about the Holocaust… there is a trend for teachers to teach this topic,” said Colleen Tambuscio, president of the 500-member Council of Holocaust Educators. Tambuscio is a high school teacher in New Milford, N.J.
In New Jersey, individual school districts ultimately choose whether to implement the state-recommended material, but several educators said the lesson about the partisans answers students’ dominant question: “Why didn’t the Jews fight back?”
According to Doug Cervi, who is a teacher at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing and one of nine authors of New Jersey’s official Holocaust curriculum: “The capacity for humans to commit crimes is unfortunate. Conversely, we want to teach kids the capacity of people to do good things, too.”
In California, Sam Edelman, director of the state’s Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance, added that the partisan legacy teaches that “it’s not a matter of rolling over and dying.”
Echoing that sentiment, Eileen Shapiro, a Holocaust studies program planner for Palm Beach County, Fla., said she plans to introduce the partisans’ focus to the Florida Commissioner’s Task Force on Holocaust Education, of which she is a member. “It’s very important for children today to see all aspects of the Holocaust,” she said. “We teach the Holocaust because when they see something happening, we want them to stand up and take action.”