No Longer The ‘Nazis’

Friday, August 6, 1999
Staff Writer
Eleven days in Germany provided an education for teachers who teach about the Holocaust. The group of 28 educators from Westchester and Rockland counties visited schools and memorials recently to observe how the genocide of World War II is taught in the land where it began.It was a trip marked by changes.Some of the teachers said their view of Germany — and of contemporary Germans — was changed by meetings with teachers and students. Others said they will bring a new perspective to their classrooms.For one participant, the biggest change was the scope of Holocaust education he saw in Germany, his homeland.   The mission was sponsored by the Westchester Holocaust Commission as a follow-up to a Poland trip two years ago, said Sheldon Grebstein, director of education for the 9-year-old, independent group. Forty-one teachers participated in the Polish journey, which concentrated on visits to death camp sites —“the results” of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution.The German trip was designed to see “the beginning” of the genocidal campaign.“We wanted to find out how they are studying, teaching about the Holocaust in Germany today,” Grebstein said. “How do Germans think about it?”   The itinerary included Berlin, Weimar, Nuremberg and Munich; the Wannsee House near Berlin where the destruction of European Jewry was plotted and the streets of Weimar where early Nazi rallies were held; and informal discussions with students and German citizens. The delegation was evenly divided between Jewish and non-Jewish teachers.“For many of us, our attitudes toward Germany changed,” said Steven Goldberg, chairman of social studies at New Rochelle High School. “When you walked” where history happened, you teach it very differently.”“When I talked about Germany before, I talked about it vis-a-vis the Holocaust,” said Ronnie Hirschhorn, who teaches social studies at Somers High School.   “Now when I go back into the classroom, I will give a much broader view. When you meet your contemporaries, it blows the whole stereotype away.”   Though findings from the trip will be incorporated into a teachers institute offered in February by the commission, it is too early to determine what specific changes in the individual teacher’s classes will take place, the participants said.Hirschhorn was among a half-dozen colleagues who sat around a table last week in the library of the commission, based at Manhattanville College in Purchase, sharing memories and photographs of the trip. The seminars with German educators and dialogues with ordinary citizens added a perspective about Germany before and after the war, all agreed.   “I [previously] thought German [and] Nazi synonymous,” Hirschhorn said. “I can’t say ‘the Germans’ ” now.“It’s not going to be easy to change,” she added.Louise Challop director of staff development for the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District on Long Island, “went there thinking about the past in Germany.” Most of her father’s family died in the Holocaust. But, she said, “I came back thinking about the future, about the possibility of people living together.”The teachers said they were impressed by the breadth of Holocaust education in Germany, which takes place in a variety of classes over several years at the middle school and high school level. They were surprised by the shadow that the Shoah continues to cast over the country’s youth. “German kids did not show a very positive feeling about their own country,” Goldberg said — not necessarily guilt about what happened there 40 years before they were born, but embarrassment at being identified as German when they meet foreigners.“   They can’t be proud about their nation,” said Michael Bobkoff, an English professor at Westchester Community College. “They want to be teenagers like in any other country.”Surrounded by reminders of Germany’s wartime legacy, young German students told the visitors that they find the ongoing Holocaust curriculum — combined with mandatory visits to death camp sites — to be tedious.“Weariness, not a resentment,” Bobkoff said. “There is an impulse to move beyond it.”The students’ feelings are due, in large part, to the lesson plans that are dictated by administrators, with little room for teachers’ initiative, the local teachers said.   “It’s not a child-centered curriculum,” said Challop.The German teachers, said Bobkoff, “have the problem we do — how do you keep [the subject] fresh?Klaus Floer, a German-born teacher at The German School, a private school in White Plains, said he noticed an improvement in the quality and quantity of Holocaust education on the trip.“It is done much more extensively,” he said. As a student in the 1960s, he had “a few weeks” of Holocaust education. “Nothing much was taught.”Spurred by the broadcast of the NBC “Holocaust” docu-drama in 1978, which piqued the country’s interest in the Shoah, German students now receive a total of “a couple months” education on the topic, Floer said.“We learned the [bare] facts,” he said of his school days in Germany. “We didn’t learn anything about how we should cope with it.”Back in Germany last month, he saw students discussing a more-fundamental aspect of the Holocaust: “What are the lessons?”