Skip Aldrich signals a student to turn down the lights and flips on the projector. An image of a gaunt concentration camp inmate hunched over a workbench evokes a collective gasp from the 10th-grade world history class at John C. Fremont High School in South Los Angeles.
"What do you see in this picture?" Aldrich asks his students, all of them Latino.
"Sadness," says a student, and others repeat the word, nodding their assent.
"No hope," says another.
"Despair," others agree.
Aldrich's students are two weeks into their three-week unit on the Holocaust. Like all students in California public schools, these teens will learn about the genocide and its context as part of the state's mandated social science curriculum. These teens have the added benefit of learning about it from Aldrich, a leader in a growing network of educators who have learned how to teach the Holocaust and who are helping other teachers to do the same.
As more states, including California, have mandated Holocaust education, Holocaust organizations have made teaching the teachers a priority. The goal is to produce a cadre of teachers who can more effectively teach an entire generation of students how to apply the lessons of modern history's greatest man-made atrocity. Although some Holocaust scholars worry that the Holocaust could become overly universalized or sanitized for mass consumption, nearly all agree that educators must build a bridge to a future when there are no longer Holocaust survivors to tell their own stories.
Building that bridge has become a personal mission for Aldrich.
Students in this class spend several minutes analyzing each slide, all the while, Aldrich drills the students on the causes, events and effects of the Shoah. The kids know their stuff, calling out in the darkened room the keywords he's looking for -- "isolation," "dehumanization," "Christian anti-Semitism," "Nuremberg laws."
Aldrich, an L.A. public school teacher for 26 years, says the Holocaust is the most important subject he covers, with its implications of how tolerance and individual choices can affect lives. It's also the historical event that grabs and keeps the kids' attention the most -- an assessment confirmed by nearly everyone who teaches the subject.
Aldrich, 50, is the church-going Protestant son of a history teacher. He grew up with Holocaust survivors in the Fairfax area and became fascinated with the history of World War II. In 1997, he traveled to Europe with Warsaw Ghetto uprising leaders Benjamin and Vladka Meed. He later participated in a teaching fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. Last January, Aldrich was one of 17 teachers nationwide to join the museum's Regional Educational Corps.
"My guess is I've taught about 6,000 students by now," said Aldrich, who teaches in Fremont's magnet program, which offers accelerated academics with a particular emphasis on math and science. "I'm just one teacher. Imagine how many people you can reach over time."
Thousands of teachers nationwide have participated in Holocaust workshops, but many thousands more have not. While more than half the states mandate Holocaust education, few pay for teacher training, leaving teachers on their own to master a topic that can be overwhelming. Online resources abound, but so do Web sites put together by Holocaust deniers. And if a teacher is uninformed or uninterested, the Holocaust unit is more than likely to get lost amid the history curriculum's mountain of names and dates.
California required public schools to teach the Holocaust in the mid-1980s, primarily in world and U.S. history classes in high school. A 2002 Assembly bill, sponsored by Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), established the California Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance at California State University, Chico. The center trains teachers and has a model curriculum for fitting the Holocaust into state academic standards for each grade. It also has created a bank of resources and lesson plans.
State lawmakers have extended the life of the center to 2007, but cut state funding. The center now operates with private support.
The center's director says his tiny agency plays an essential role in the appropriate teaching of the Holocaust.
"It is not enough that the state has mandates and standards, it is critical to be able to get content out to teachers, and to motivate them to use the material," said Sam Edelman, a professor of Jewish studies who is the Cal State Chico Center's director.
Other organizations have a similar agenda. The USHMM has nearly 200 graduates of its intensive summer fellowships and almost 3,000 teachers have gone through its training programs, such as a three-day seminar at CSUN in March that attracted 200 teachers.
About 110,000 students a year visit the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, which provides classroom materials to teachers. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been running teacher seminars for 22 years and, in February, teamed up with the Cal State Chico Center, the Wiesenthal Center and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust for a four-session seminar in Los Angeles that pulled in 55 teachers. ADL also partners with USHMM and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to train Catholic school educators in the Bearing Witness program.
Facing History and Ourselves, a Massachusetts-based organization dedicated to making history -- particularly Holocaust history -- come alive for teachers and their students, has 1,500 teachers in its Los Angeles network.
At the February conference, the presenters included Marilyn Lubarsky, a social studies teacher at Upland High School, who explained how to make the most of the 10 54-minutes periods allotted to the Holocaust in world history class. When she started teaching the Holocaust 18 years ago, Lubarsky said, she used "Night and Fog," the seminal 1955 French documentary that shows piles of bodies being bulldozed and buckets full of skulls. Lubarsky, who has since studied in an intensive fellowship program at the Washington museum, no longer shows the film. Instead, she's developed an interactive, contextualized unit that moves her students without devastating them.
For Lubarsky and others, the key is to make the history both personal and contextualized. Lubarsky gives her students a photo of a teenager from that era, and then asks them to pick a caption for it from Elie Wiesel's "Night," a semi-autobiographical account of a teenager's life in the camps.
Aldrich, in his class, has students research a pre-war photo, then compare it to a picture of themselves in similar circumstances -- at the beach, on a picnic, at a family dinner.
Both teachers allow for discussion and ask students to keep journals, and also to think about how choices and circumstances faced by Holocaust perpetrators, victims and bystanders relate to their own lives and to contemporary human rights atrocities.
Lubarsky includes in her unit "The Enemy has Surrounded Upland," an exercise in which students consider choices they would make under Nazi-like circumstances. She gently prods them to be thorough. If they decide to run to the hills, would they take their frail grandmother? What would they eat?
Carol Edelman, who with her husband, Sam Edelman, runs the Chico Center, cautions against taking such activities too far.
"It is impossible to simulate what the victims went through, so don't even try because often it ends up traumatizing the kids," she said.
As an alternative, teachers can use case studies of actual victims or perpetrators, or even better, bring in a survivor -- one of the most powerful educational tools available.
"One of the subliminal messages a survivor gives is, 'You don't have to be shaped by your history,'" said Michael Berenbaum, director of the University of Judaism's Sigi Ziering Institute on the Holocaust.
Having it bad "doesn't mean you have it bad forever and ever," Berenbaum said, adding that the message is one high school students, with their own dramas both real and imagined, need to hear.
Berenbaum lamented that survivor visits to schools are getting scarcer, but is heartened that so much recorded testimony is available to teachers through the USHMM, the Shoah Foundation and the Wiesenthal center, among others.
The Chico Center, too, helps to make these resources available for students of all ages, while vetting Web sites for reliable and appropriate material. Center materials also help teachers imbed information about the Holocaust in learning activities encompassing everything from literature to art. Even in kindergarten, teachers can include a Holocaust rescuer in a unit on heroes, for instance.
Most organizations are cautious about using graphic images, even in high school. On one hand, teachers find that students already have been desensitized to violent and gruesome images. At the same time, they're concerned that overly explicit photos can distract from what's being taught.
"The more graphic stuff can sometimes get in the way of the analysis that needs to take place," said Bernie Weinraub, program associate for the L.A. office of Facing History and Ourselves. But losing too many of the images might dilute the impact.
"Essential to the arc of the American narrative is hope -- we all came from somewhere and reconstructed our lives with decency," Berenbaum said. "Unless we can tell the story with integrity, and that means to use all the power of its bleakness, we run the risk of sanitization."
The Museum of Tolerance, where children under 12 are not allowed, uses images to tell a story that words cannot.
"The material is very graphic and the exhibits are deliberately powerful and they need to be in order to make a strong impact," museum director Leibe Geft said.
Making the experience relevant is driving a rethinking of old Holocaust taboos. For one thing, educators are increasingly willing to compare other atrocities to the Holocaust, a practice that was once thought to diminish the uniqueness of the Shoah. And the Holocaust no longer seems to be taught as history for history's sake or tragedy for tragedy's sake, but as a living lesson in tolerance, personal responsibility, and the fragility of a free society.
"A generation ago we were teaching the Jewish tragedy, something that made the Jews bearers of a particular legacy," Berenbaum said. "That is no longer the case. The event is particular but its implications are universal. And unless you see the implications in a universal way, you don't quite reach the students in the same way."
For More Infomation
These sites all contain links to other vetted Web sites.
www.ushmm.org The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with a vast database of photos, survivor testimony and primary sources.
www.csuchico.edu/mjs/center California Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance at California State University, Chico, with model curriculum imbedded in the history-social science standards of the State of California.
www.adl.org The Anti-Defamation League, including sample lesson plans and resources for students and teachers.
www.facinghistory.org Facing History and Ourselves, with lists of teacher seminar dates and locations and teaching resources.
www.remembertoteach.com/museum.htm The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, with listing of traveling exhibits available for classroom use.
www.museumoftolerance.com Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, with a multi-media learning center, exhibits, and downloadable resources for teachers.
www.shoahfoundation.org Steven Speilberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which develops products and programs using Holocaust-related archives.