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Chiles plans to keep Holocaust’s memory alive

Chiles High School student government leaders Robyn Seniors, Zach Wollerman, Micah Joyner and Katie Zollner were born nearly 70 years after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, marking the beginning of the end for two out of three European Jews.

Hitler’s 12-year reign of terror left 6 million Jews dead and a permanent stain on civilization. At Chiles, the Holocaust’s lessons will be more than sobering words on pages, thanks to the efforts of several of the school’s teachers, administrators, a handful of students and local citizens who believe that this dark chapter in history can’t be allowed to be forgotten.

From March 22 to 27, Chiles will hold Holocaust Living Memorial Week, a series of classroom events designed to inspire reflection and discussion about the horrors of that era – as well as the hopes that sprang from it. It’s part of Holocaust Education Week, which includes several community events that the local Holocaust Education Resource Council (HERC) is coordinating.

Seniors, Chiles’ student-body president, said she began watching documentaries on Hitler in middle school.

“It was frightening what a leader would say to people in need of hope … that we’re going to marginalize people — which were the Jews — and we’re going to blame them for your problems,” Seniors said. “That’s how he rose to power.”

Florida is one of eight states that require Holocaust education in public schools. But the law isn’t specific about what’s to be taught. Chiles’ plans for Holocaust Living Memorial Week – with an underlying theme of “courageous defiance” – go significantly beyond compliance with state law.

Those plans germinated last spring after HERC executive director Barbara Goldstein brought her father from South Florida to speak to Chiles students about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. His presentation left Wollerman, the junior class representative, with “an overwhelming sense of horror,” and a sense that lessons about the consequences of hate, intolerance and bigotry must be shared.

Goldstein and Principal Joe Burgess soon began brainstorming with a handful of teachers about how to make such lessons even more effective. By the time a districtwide Holocaust education workshop was held in October, the general outline for Holocaust Living Memorial Week was set.

The details are still in development, but classroom events will include grade-appropriate films and discussions about the range of impacts the Holocaust has had, ending with a survivor’s account. Teachers expect that some students will find it emotionally difficult to process the information. They plan to deal with it by encouraging further reflection and discussion.

“History is like a closet,” said Burgess, a former history teacher. “You open it up and there are some great clothes, there are some OK clothes, and there are some clothes you didn’t want anybody to see. But it’s the real story.

“The only way we get better is we have to confront it. You have to be honest.”

Burgess said he hopes students will learn that they shouldn’t stay on the sidelines when moral and ethical challenges demand a response.

“I don’t have to be a woman to know when I see sexism occur. I don’t have to be Jewish to understand that somebody’s an anti-Semite,” he said.  “Whether you get that from your family teachings, or your faith, I don’t care how you get there, you need to get there.

“Many times not saying something is an endorsement of ‘yes,’” he said. “You may be in the in-group today, but you could be in the out-group tomorrow.”

Goldstein hopes that the living memorial at Chiles will teach students about the wide range of effects the Holocaust has had on art, literature, music , international relations and public policy, and encourage the young people to be “up-standers and not bystanders” through moral leadership.

“We are living in a fragile society,” she said. “The lessons of the Holocaust will teach about the consequences of indifference. As Elie Wiesel said, ‘It’s up to you now, that my past does not become your future.’”

Bill Berlow, a former Tallahassee Democrat associate editor, serves on the education committee of the Holocaust Education Resource Council.

Support the HERC:

The mission of the Holocaust Education Resource Council is to provide instructional guidance, support and resources for educators who teach the history of the Holocaust in addition to educational programs for the community at large.

To support HERC and become a member go to www.holocaustresources.org

Reprinted from the Tallahassee Democrat


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