Constable: Teaching 'Never Forget' to kids who don't yet know Holocaust
The haunting mantra of "Never Forget" is part of the fabric of an American culture committed to remembering the evils of the Holocaust.
But it's difficult to "Never Forget" something you never knew about.
Selected to take part in a prestigious Holocaust educators conference this week in New York, teachers Keisha Rembert of Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville and Stephanie Krzeminski of Oswego East High School point to a recent study showing gaps in Americans' knowledge of the Holocaust, particularly among millennials ages 18 through 34.
"Sometimes my kids come in with no knowledge of the Holocaust," says Rembert, who teaches English, language arts and U.S. history to eighth-graders.
More than a fifth of millennials don't know about or have never even heard of the Holocaust, and two-thirds of them do not know that Auschwitz was a concentration camp complex in Poland where more than 1 million people were killed. According to a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 31 percent of Americans (41 percent of millennials) believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust while the actual number is about 6 million, and 52 percent of Americans mistakenly think that the democratically elected Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany through force.
The number of people old enough to remember the Holocaust, which ended in 1945, is dwindling.
Scheduled to speak to Krzeminski's students in April, Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster of Lincolnshire died at age 86 a week before he would have gotten the chance to tell Oswego East teenagers about his experience. "That had a profound effect on my students," Krzeminski says.
Selected as Alfred Lerner Fellows, Rembert and Krzeminski are among 29 Holocaust educators from 12 states, Croatia and Poland taking part in this week's five-day course for Holocaust educators held at Columbia University in New York and sponsored by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.
"I feel like I've taken a college class, a few college classes, with these professors from around the world," Rembert says.
Krzeminski says "a tremendous collection of lecturers and scholars" has enabled the local teachers to make connections and learn methods that will help them teach the Holocaust.
"The main goals of our program are to provide teachers with graduate-level courses on the Holocaust, pedagogical connections with other teachers and their curriculum so they learn what's worked and what hasn't and giving them resources for the classroom," says JFR Executive Vice President Stanlee Stahl, who adds that she is "thrilled" to have Rembert and Krzeminski take part.
In 1990, Illinois became the first state to require the teaching of the Holocaust in public elementary and high schools. Last month, Connecticut became the 10th state to mandate teaching the Holocaust.
"It's so important, especially in light of our world today," Rembert says. The teacher says an attempt to equate the Holocaust with present strife in our nation "diminishes the complete atrocity of the Holocaust," but she acknowledges people still can be "alarmed" at troubling trends in today's society.
"Any good teaching connects to the current. Kids have to be able to see the connection to the past but also connect to the present," Rembert says. "While they see the Holocaust as history, they see it as recent history that has applications today."
"Given the political and social climate we're living in now, the story of Jews and the Holocaust is important," she says.