October 16, 2021

As awareness declines, schools teach of Holocaust

Image from Yad Vashem Photo Archive

A Holocaust survivor sits alone after his liberation at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

Michael Pollak of Homer first learned about the Holocaust as soon as he could remember, he said.

Pollak, a retired graphic designer, heard his parents and grandparents frequently talk about their experiences as Jews fleeing Austria in the late 1930s after being targeted by people they once considered their neighbors and by a Nazi Party that had taken control of the nation.

While his parents and grandparents were able to flee the country for America, Pollak, who was born and grew up in Westchester County, shared their sense of fear of the events.

“The trauma of survival still transmitted to the first generation,” he said.

Growing up as a child in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was never formally taught about the Holocaust or World War II, he said, but the 1940s were still recent history.

His history courses covered Ancient Egypt to World War I and may have touched on the Great Depression.

“No one talked about it,” he said. “People tried to forget it, brush it under the carpet.”

A poll of 1,350 adults conducted by Schoen Consulting, show 22% of millenials have either never heard of or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust. Another 41% of millenials believe that 2 million Jews or fewer were killed during the Holocaust, roughly a third of what history records.

More so, 66% of millennials could not explain what Auschwitz was — much less the 1.1 million Jews killed there.

The annual Days of Remembrance recognizing the Holocaust begin Sunday, but greater Cortland area teachers work year-round to teach their students about the Holocaust and the lessons it offers.

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

This image shows the family of Michael Pollak, of Homer. Pollak’s parents and relatives fled Austria in 1938 as the Holocaust began rounding up Jews across Europe, eventually killing 6 million of them and millions of other prisoners.

Fleeing persecution

Michael Pollak’s father, Reinhold, was born in 1910 and grew up in the suburb of Klosterneuburg, just north of Vienna, Michael Pollak said. Beyond living through World War I, Reinhold Pollak led a happy life growing up, frequently traveling across Europe.

As a teenager, he met a girl named Meta, and they later married.

As Reinhold grew older, he took his passion for art to academic level as he studied graphic illustration at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, the same school Adolf Hitler was denied entrance to nearly 30 years earlier, Michael Pollak said.

Reinhold Pollak graduated with honors in 1935, married Meta in 1936 and moved to Vienna in 1937, just as the Nazis were rounding up and deporting Jews, made fully complete in Austria with its annexation by Germany in 1938.

Reinhold and Meta Pollak realized this was not the country they knew growing up.

“These were assimilated Jews who thought this was their country,” Michael Pollak said of his parents. He heard many stories growing up about what it was like growing up in Austria in the late 1930s.

“He (Reinhold) watched elderly people forced to eat grass,” Michael Pollak said. “He saw people forced to wash Gestapo cars.”

Reinhold and his family saw Jews rounded up and disappearing frequently.

“They (Reinhold and Meta) didn’t know how bad it would become, but it was enough to leave,” Michael Pollak said.

While Michael Pollak wasn’t quite sure about the details, he said Reinhold Pollak fled Austria for New York City in 1938 before Kristallnacht, which saw the destruction of Jewish businesses and synagogues. A year later, Meta, their 3-year old daughter and Michael Pollak’s mother- and father-in-law joined him.

Michael Pollak learned the cruelty of people. Events like the Holocaust “can turn decent people to do very indecent things,” he said.

Teaching at middle-school level

The question Caitlin Goodwin, a seventh- and eighth-grade U.S. history teacher at McGraw Junior High School, focuses on is this: How?

“Students want to know, and should know, how it is possible that the Nazi regime was able to brutally and systematically murder 9 million people while so many watched and did nothing,” she said. “When we teach about this, we want to make sure that students are aware that this didn’t happen overnight, that there was a trajectory of manipulation, propaganda, scapegoating, micro-aggressions, etc. that all progressed gradually and culminated in this atrocity.”

Goodwin uses photographs, propaganda and survivor ID cards to show what the persecution of the Jews looked like and to convey the horror and destruction the Nazis created, she said.

She said her lessons mention the denial of the Holocaust, but don’t go in depth because it can be hard for middle schoolers to understand.

The lessons on the Holocaust came during the World War II portion of the class, taught recently remotely. However, the remote-learning environment meant the Holocaust was discussed in a more factual wa than an analytical way because interaction is more difficult on a videoconference.

“It’s a sensitive topic with lots of layers,” she said. “It’s important to have an open dialogue with students,” but a difficult conversation on a computer screen.

In years past, Goodwin has invited guest speakers, such as a man who was in a Japanese internment camp, to help the students understand the enormity of the war.

“Hearing about that is powerful and puts a face on the concepts you learn about,” she said.

She hopes that next year she will be able to do something like that.

Goodwin also hopes that by showing how the Holocaust came to happen, by people not standing up to prejudice, her students will become active participants when they see discrimination.

“When we can’t recognize those things, that’s when these terrible things happen,” she said.

High school: More details

“By high school, most students have heard of WWII and the Holocaust, either in previous history classes or in passing,” said Mauricio Streb, an Ithaca College graduate student who helps teach an elective course on the Holocaust at Dryden High School, in an email. “However, there’s a big difference between knowing that the Holocaust happened and understanding the specifics of what it entailed.”

Students learn about Jewish life in Europe from the Middle Ages up to the 20th century before learning about Germany in the 1920s and ’30s leading up to World War II, Streb said.

The students learn how Nazi extermination policy changed over the course of the war and from country to country based on local cooperation or resistance before ending with the Nuremberg trials and the survivors’ long recovery process.

Holocaust survivors in the past have also come to visit and speak with the class, said Kara Wilcox, the course’s main teacher.

“Watching my students engage in conversation with first- and second-generation Holocaust survivors has been the most memorable part of teaching this course over the past few years,” she said.

Both Streb and Wilcox said students record their thoughts in a journal.

“The reflection piece is particularly important,” Streb said. “The Holocaust is a huge topic and it’s hard for anyone to wrap their heads around even once you’re familiar with the background. Students need to be given the intellectual space to explore the information they’re receiving as well as their own responses to it.”

While the subject may be harrowing, Wilcox said that she also teaches about resistance during the Holocaust.

“I try to teach my students that even small acts of resistance make a difference during a time of injustice,” Wilcox said. “Similarly, I think it’s important to teach that there were many ways to resist and that resistance during the Holocaust wasn’t always violent. There were many examples of cultural and spiritual resistance in the ghettos and in the camps that gave people hope.”

Like Wilcox and Streb, Ashley Miller, a Cincinnatus High School teacher, teaches an elective course on the Holocaust. Her Holocaust course covers the origins of anti-Semitism, its resurgence following World War I, the rise of the Nazi Party and the methods of control it used in the Third Reich, from policies to ghettos and death camps.

She uses primary documents and memoirs from survivors, too, including “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and films like “Night and Fog,” a French documentary.

“My students feel deep shock and shame that other human beings could treat other human beings so cruelly,” she said. “My students also always wonder why more people didn’t do everything they could to help those the Nazis considered ‘undesirable.’”

The class, she said, has helped the students notice their own prejudices.

“One of my students confided in me that they used to be homophobic and say hurtful things about the LGBTQ community,” Miller said. “But that through what they learned in my class, they realized how wrong it was to say those things.”

If the school shutdown continues, she expects to teach the course remotely in May.

“I want my students to never be a bystander in their lives,” she said. “So much of what happened during the Holocaust happened because people stood by and did nothing, even when they knew it was wrong. I want my students to know how important it is to stand up to mistreatment, stereotyping, and discrimination.”

Photo provided by United Kingdom

Bergen-Belsen prisoners, themselves exhausted, carry the dead in blankets from the barracks to put them outside for burial on April 17, 1945.

Never forget

Michael Pollak wants students to learn everything they can about the Holocaust: the brutality; the prejudice; the neighbors turning on each other.

But he also wants people to understand when they may be complicit.

He used the example of Albert Speer, an architect for the Nazis who helped design parade grounds for the Nazis before becoming the minister of armaments and munitions. Speer initially denied his complicity in the Holocaust at his Nuremburg trail in 1945. Later, he admitted knowing about it.

Pollak hopes that by having students learn about the Holocaust, they learn to work against bigotry.

“Do you want to join in as a hater, a racist?” He said. “Or do you want to take on a responsible role to prevent this kind of crap?”