February 1, 2001
Women of the Shoah
ADL highlights women's experiences during the Holocaust for teacher-training program.
Seventy elementary, high school and middle school teachers, principals, counselors and psychologists gathered Jan. 18 at the Museum of the Holocaust for the first of four sessions in the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) 18th Annual Teacher-Training Workshop on the Holocaust, titled "Women in the Holocaust: Resisters to Perpetrators."
Workshop coordinator Marjan Keypour noted that the theme of women's roles in the Holocaust was a new one for the conference. "We try to present different angles in order to add variety and relevance to our presentations," she said. "The teachers have to present the subject to kids who have grown up primarily with MTV and make it applicable to current-day experiences."
While participants receive an in-service career advancement unit for taking the course, the decision to attend is voluntary.
"I don't want to stereotype," Keypour said, "but we do get a lot of teachers who work in the inner cities and who find it very useful to find out our pedagogic styles here. These educators, who are dealing with kids who have seen a lot of death and violence, and have experienced tragedy at an early age, tell us that these students have the capacity to absorb quite a bit of information about the Holocaust."
"These are teachers who essentially choose to attend these lectures, which are so difficult to listen to," said Dr. Samuel Goetz, who started the ADL Holocaust Education Program 23 years ago and serves as its chairman. "It says a lot about them that they elect to sit through these horrifying narratives."
Dr. Michael Berenbaum, historian and author, spoke to the conference about the specific vulnerability of women during the Holocaust.
Berenbaum said that women were primarily chosen for dangerous missions between ghettos for the Jewish underground. "Circumcision meant that any male who was Jewish was vulnerable if he was asked to lower his trousers. Consequently, the couriers ... were almost invariably women."
"Women were more numerous among the victims of the Holocaust than men," he stated. "Upon arrival in the camps, it was axiomatic that women with children were sent to their deaths."
There was inevitably exploitative sex, Berenbaum noted. Sexuality was traded for favors, "not money, but survival." He cited the example of a woman who had shoes but no shoelaces. "Someone offered to get her shoelaces, but the price was sexual violation. She was ultimately willing to do anything for a shoelace." But there was also nonexploitative sex, a way of getting out of isolation and loneliness, "a way of reaching out, touching and coming in contact with basic life forces."
The greatest source of women's vulnerability and victimization by the Nazis, Berenbaum said, "was that within their bodies they could breed more Jews. So the goal was to stop any measure of procreation."
The Nazis tried sterilization using X-rays as a means of eliminating the possibility of Jewish procreation. When these attempts failed, the Final Solution of systematic slaughter and murder was implemented. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Berenbaum said that the most interesting and counterintuitive thing that occurred was the massive birthrate that took place in displaced persons' camps -- an "enormous symptom of health, regeneration and rejuvenation." Additionally, "the most astounding second part of that, thoroughly nonreasonable and in one sense absurd, was that even in those circumstances, Jewish boys were circumcised."
Following a question-and-answer period with Berenbaum, Ronald Frydman, principal of Robert Frost Middle School in Granada Hills, gave a comprehensive overview of the history of the Holocaust. Three interactive sessions concluded the first conference. Harry Drotow, chief docent of the Museum, gave a museum tour. Michael Jacobs, Marie Kaufman and Barbara Gerson gave survivor testimonies, and Adele Levy, a teacher at Vail Continuation High School in Montebello, spoke of the use of art in understanding the Holocaust.
"You so rarely hear about women in history and about what happens to them," said Debra Manahan, a special education teacher at various high schools. "I think women are slighted in school history books. It's just Martha Washington and Harriet Tubman. You don't hear about women who put their lives on the line, were couriers against the Nazis. When you heard about the Holocaust up to now, you only heard about the men."
Paul Manocchio, 41, a special education and language arts teacher at Olive Vista Middle School in Sylmar, said, "Berenbaum brought up a million things I hadn't even considered, stories I'm not going to forget. "They're kids who don't know about the Holocaust," noted Manocchio, whose students are mainly Hispanic and poor and have severe learning disabilities. "I want the children to understand that though you may struggle in many different ways at the beginning, there is still a chance for happiness, success and fulfillment. These kids can identify most definitely with struggle. Knowing about other people who struggled and succeeded, like many of the survivors, is very, very important to them."
Felicia Palmer, a young African American history teacher at Artesia High School, already teaches the Holocaust but came to the conference "looking for ways to do it better and to get more information." "The fact that people could actually deny the Holocaust motivated me more than anything else. It made me angry," said Palmer, who studied the Holocaust at Concordia University. "I also wanted to teach students responsibility, a little bit of morality, about the sanctity of human life."
"You can't believe a human being could treat another human being the way they treated the Jewish people," Ester Macias, principal of Pinewood Elementary School in Tujunga, told The Journal.
Macias said she had known about the Holocaust, but the large number of people killed was the most upsetting information the conference provided. "People stood by and watched the Nazis kill all these people. It makes you sick."
After the conference, Macias said, "I went home and I couldn't even sleep." As a result of the session, she is now considering going into tolerance training after her retirement.
"If we can't teach kids to work together and get along," she said, "it doesn't matter what else you teach them."
The fourth session of "Women in the Holocaust: Resisters to Perpetrators" is scheduled for Thurs., Feb. 8, at 4:30 p.m. Dr. Carol Rittner will speak on "The Women in the Holocaust: Silent No Longer," and Dr. Samuel Goetz will speak on "The Dilemma of Mothers and their Children." The program will conclude with a presentation by The Living Voices, a one-woman show based on "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank." For information, call the ADL at (310) 446-2000 or the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust at (323) 761-8170.