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Jewish Journal

Catholic Teachers Learn Shoah Lesson

by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

September 2, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Early in her teaching career, Marilyn Lubarsky introduced her ninth-grade history students to the Holocaust by showing "Nuit et Brouillard" ("Night and Fog"), a 1955 film containing vivid images of the horrors endured by Jews in concentration camps.

"I thought, 'I'm going to make my students feel my pain,'" Lubarsky, an Upland High School social studies teacher and Mandel Fellowship graduate of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C., told a classroom of Catholic educators at Mount St. Mary's College Chalon Campus in July. "But I'll never forget when my most gifted student put her head down on her desk [during the movie]."

Lubarsky's anecdote about a misguided attempt to teach students about the Shoah was met with sympathetic nods and collective sighs from the Southern California-based participants in the Anti-Defamation League's Bearing Witness Institute, held July 26-30. The four-day workshop focused on the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and addressed the issues of diversity, prejudice and bigotry and how to teach these topics in a Catholic school setting.

As global anti-Semitism continues to rise and the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States remains constant, Holocaust education for non-Jews is more crucial than ever.

"In some ways, it's more important for non-Jews than Jews to study the Holocaust, just like the issue of racism," said Deborah Lipstadt, the director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University and a council member of the USHMM. "It's more important for the perpetrators to study it than for the victims to study it."

With Pope John XXIII's admittance of the church's anti-Semitism and failing to help the Jews during the Holocaust, as well as Pope John Paul II's recognition of the State of Israel, the Vatican has legitimized Catholics' responsibility to learn about the Shoah and the religious group's moral failure during that time period.

Lipstadt feels that when Catholics study the Shoah, it is not necessarily a lesson in Jewish history for them.

"Catholics learning about the Holocaust are learning about what Christian Europe allowed to happen in that period. They're not learning about Jews," said the historian. "It's important to Catholics and Christians as Catholics and Christians."

Many of the teachers at the Bearing Witness Institute felt that this newfound knowledge made them accountable.

"It's our responsibility to make sure our students are aware of the past and make sure the future isn't repeated in this manner," said Bryant Jozef Begany, a religion teacher at St. Pius X School in Santa Fe Springs.

"Teaching [Catholics students] about the Holocaust is important because they must understand our common heritage with the Jews," said Marisa Meyka, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at St. Mary of the Assumption in Whittier. "Finally we have this opportunity to undo the mistakes from our past."

While finding a connection to the Shoah is clearly a crucial component within Jewish identity, is there such a thing as "too much" when it comes to Holocaust education?

"No," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "In Judaism the view is that every life is precious."

Rather than worrying about an over-abundance of information on the Holocaust, Cooper is more concerned about the victims' memories being manipulated to decouple the continuity of Jewish history.

"There are universal lessons to be learned by the Shoah, but we have to be on our guard to be sure the non-Jewish world does not see a connection with [the idea that] we don't need a Jewish homeland," Cooper said. "For someone to say they relate to the victims of the Shoah, but they're not sure that Israel has a moral right to exist, that person hasn't really learned a thing."

The existence of Israel was not a key topic during Bearing Witness, but the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment came up during some of the discussions. While the workshop focus was Holocaust education, the idea of eliminating prejudice and bigotry serve as a backdrop for the experience.

Back in the classroom, Lubarsky discussed the idea of translating statistics into people, avoiding the comparison of pain endured during the Shoah versus other suffering in history and other sensitive and thorough methods of relaying the information.

"I don't give a test on [the Holocaust] unit and I urge you not to," Lubarsky said. "I don't want a child who has decided to eliminate a particular vulgar word from his vocabulary to then get a C on a Holocaust test."

For more information on the program, visit www.adl.org/bearing_witness .

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