With Anti-Semitic Incidents in Schools on the Rise, Teachers Grapple With Holocaust Education

PRIL 30, 2019 / by MARCIA ROBIOU Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

On June 12, 2013, kids in Cayuga County, New York, were getting antsy: the sun was shining, the sky was bright blue, and the school bell was about to ring. Excitement built as the students gathered outside, some staring longingly at the nearby playground.

For the adults present, however, it was a somber occasion. Southern Cayuga Central School was about to plant one of the saplings of the Anne Frank tree — a horse chestnut that served as a symbol of hope to the teenager. Frank watched it for years from a window of an attic in Amsterdam, where her family lived in hiding.

“From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine,” Frank wrote in her diary on February 23, 1944. “As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances might be.”

Frank’s tree fell during a storm in 2010, after years of suffering from a fungal disease. But in the years leading up to its collapse, New York City’s Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect secured 11 saplings to distribute across the U.S. One is planted on the west lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Another sits in New York City’s 9/11 Memorial at Liberty Park. And, thanks to Southern Cayuga Central School English teacher Bill Zimpfer, another has taken root in a rural dairy farming community.

When Zimpfer first read about the sapling initiative, he immediately went to his superintendent for permission to apply. “This chestnut tree — this was like the Dutch Statue of Liberty,” he told FRONTLINE. “It symbolized their resistance to the Nazis and the Nazi philosophy.”

The superintendent gave him the green light. About three months later, the school — which has about 700 students — learned that it had secured a part of the historic tree.

“We’re just a little school district that nobody knows out in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York, and we’ve got something that is really special,” Zimpfer said. “It’s a source of pride for [the students].”

As the planting ceremony began on Anne Frank’s birthday in 2013, Zimpfer thought about the enormous responsibility that came with the sapling, which was then barely more than a twig with a bundle of roots the size of a softball. “This is an educational tool — not a tombstone with leaves on it,” he said. “Now, we have to follow through.”

The arrival of the sapling, nicknamed Annie, has helped transform Holocaust education at Southern Cayuga Central from a blip in a sprawling social studies or literature class into a year-long learning process. The school has since launched a nonprofit, the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, that brings in survivors from the Holocaust and other genocides, including Sudan, and arranges field trips to war memorials.

“I think everybody — especially students — when they have something physical they can see, something they can touch, it connects them to concepts that are very far away and makes it easier for them to understand,” Zimpfer said.

But the school’s concerted efforts to keep the memories and teachings of the Holocaust alive for the youngest generation is far from the norm. Educators across the country are grappling with how to make the lessons of the Holocaust relevant to children at a time when it is vanishing from the collective memory. Sixty-six percent of millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was, and 22 percent had not heard of or were unfamiliar with the Holocaust, according to a 2018 survey by Claims Conference, a group that negotiates restitution for Holocaust survivors. Additionally, 68 percent of millennials wrongly think Hitler came to power by force.

These gaps in awareness are underscored by an alarming uptick in schoolyard anti-Semitism. The number of hate incidents directed at Jews quadrupled in K-12 schools from 2015 to 2017, a study by the Anti-Defamation League shows, jumping from 114 to 457 reported incidents. School grounds surpassed other public spaces, such as parks and streets, to have the highest number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. And it’s all going viral on social media: a photo posted to Twitter and Snapchat earlier this year showed a Nazi-themed party where California high schoolers played a drinking game with red cups arranged in the shape of a swastika while laughing and doing a Sieg Heil salute.

“The internet helps amplify these ideas that spread hatred and violence,” Elisa Rapaport, Chief Operating Officer of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, told FRONTLINE. “Interactions are no longer limited to a small community. With opportunities to connect, we have also witnessed a rapidly-spreading virus of hostility.”

The rise of anti-Semitism in K-12 schools is “impossible to ignore at this point,” according to Peter Nelson, director of Holocaust education at the ADL. Nelson provides education support to schools, sometimes in the wake of an incident. “It’s not clear that these [students] are neo-Nazis necessarily,” he said. “It may not even be directed at Jews in particular. But it is woefully ignorant.”

Educators like Zimpfer believe Holocaust awareness can serve as a line of defense against anti-Semitism, and the American public strongly supports Holocaust education in schools: according to the Claims Conference survey, 93 percent believe that students should learn about the Holocaust in school, and 80 percent think it is important to learn about the Holocaust so something like it does not happen again. Yet only 10 states require schools to teach students about the Holocaust.

The recent surge of anti-Semitism has reignited legislative efforts to expand Holocaust education. In January, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney introduced a bipartisan bill that would establish a federal fund at the Department of Education for schools to develop and improve the quality of their teachings on the Holocaust. The proposed legislation, titled the Never Again Education Act, would prioritize schools that do not already cover the Holocaust. The bill has 99 co-sponsors.

There are also a number of additional states that are working to require Holocaust education in their schools, including Maryland, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Still, not all states believe that Holocaust education should be required, highlighting the prickly politics behind public school curriculums. Some — including Colorado, Tennessee and Vermont — have pushed back because they did not want to support a bill that singles out the Holocaust, had concerns around extra costs to schools, or had competing legislative priorities.

Some educators fear that mandating a topic will result in an overloaded curriculum. “In your global history course, you have just covered everything from the Reconstruction to the Iraq War in nine months or something crazy,” Elizabeth Edelstein, vice president of education at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage said. “So, you have much less time per topic.”

Research has shown that mandating Holocaust education to teachers, who don’t always have the proper guidance on how best to approach the complex topic, can backfire. A study by the University of College London found that even though British students overwhelmingly were familiar with the Holocaust, most had a flawed understanding of it.

In New York, teachers have increasingly reached out to the Museum of Jewish Heritage for guidance on how to best teach the Holocaust, requests that tend to come on the heels of an anti-Semitic school incident. “One question we hear frequently is, ‘We don’t know how to start,’” Edelstein said.

The museum — in partnership with the NYC Department of Education — recently launched a free education portal for teachers in an attempt to promote best classroom practices. This includes relying on primary sources such as survivor testimony or artifacts, a change from outmoded textbooks that tend to highlight the chronology of Nazis at the expense of the Jewish experience.

“Kids perceive Jews, if they know anything about the Holocaust, as victims,” she said. “Of course they were victims of the Holocaust. But they were also active agents in their own fates to the utmost possibility that they could be.”

Although it’s become much less prevalent in the past 20 years, some schools still rely on dubious Holocaust education practices. Some teachers divide classrooms into two groups — Nazis and Jews — based on the color of their shirts and have them simulate scenarios such as a deportation. Others show graphic photos from concentration camps to the class with no context. “[The teachers’] intent is to show them the horrific outcome of when hatred is unchecked,” Edelstein said. “But when students are shocked, they shut down. They are not open to learning.”

Teaching the Holocaust just to tick a box is not enough, educators say. “That is not using the Holocaust to give us the lessons we need to be good citizens in a democracy — to not be complacent and take our responsibilities seriously,” Nelson said.

Back in Cayuga County, Annie the sapling was deliberately placed right next to the playground, so that the youngest children would always see it. “Every kid, grade K-12, can tell you about Anne Frank, can tell you about the sapling, can tell you about the Holocaust,” Zimpfer said. “It’s incredible what having this tree has done to draw attention to and enlighten everybody on the campus and in the community about the Holocaust.”

Cayuga County’s small part of the Anne Frank tree has sparked not only a comprehensive education about a horrific moment in our history, but a pathway to apply the lessons to the future.

“When you have a deeper knowledge of a subject and not just a passing knowledge,” Zimpfer said, “it gives you a deeper understanding of it, and then I think you connect it to your own life. I think you connect it to other events that are similar to it in some way.”