School Choice & Charters

Catholic Educators Attend Holocaust History Seminar

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 11, 2004 4 min read
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Teachers from Roman Catholic schools who attended a recent course on the Holocaust here say the workshop has motivated them to work through education to ease the lingering effects of historical tensions between Catholics and Jews.

Two days into the July 26-30 workshop, “Bearing Witness: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and Contemporary Issues,” some of the 40 teachers and administrators said they were deeply moved by the content of the seminar and were thinking of ways to integrate it into their teaching.

Catholic-school teachers tour the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Catholic-school teachers tour the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington last month as part of a week-long seminar on the Holocaust.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

Marietta D’Alessandro, a U.S. history and social studies teacher at St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin School in Pittsburgh, said she had learned for the first time specifics of how some Catholic Church leaders fueled anti- Semitism over the centuries.

“Pope John Paul II’s role is to mend the fences,” Ms. D’Alessandro, who is Catholic, said. “As Catholic-school teachers, our job is to continue that mending.”

For nearly a decade, a quiet but strong partnership of Catholic and Jewish organizations and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has enabled some 300 educators from Catholic schools to attend, for free, the annual summer workshop in the nation’s capital.

“I’ve learned that the violence seen in the Holocaust was more real and personal than I ever imagined,” said Michael P. Leonard, who is Catholic and a teacher of religious studies at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Mass. He plans to use what he’s learned in the workshop to include the Holocaust in an ethics course this fall.

Early in the seminar, he and the other educators—many of them secondary school teachers of history, religion, or social studies—listened to a presenter talk about how the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages restricted Jews, encouraged separation of Jews and Christians, and promoted falsehoods about Jews.

This summer’s participants in “Bearing Witness” included Bruce J. Kirsch, who is Jewish and teaches history at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas.

Mr. Kirsch said the seminar was helping him envision the possibility of teaching a semester-long course on the Holocaust, or leading a study trip on Jewish and Catholic history that would take his students to Israel, Rome, and a former concentration camp in Poland.

Partnership Approach

Since opening in 1993, the Holocaust Museum in Washington has given workshops to thousands of public and private school teachers. The museum runs a Web site,, that is rich with teaching resources, and it often partners with education groups to sponsor free teacher workshops across the country on teaching about the genocide of some 6 million European Jews under the Nazi regime.

The “Bearing Witness” seminar is unusual, though, because it admits only educators from Catholic schools.

The idea for the workshop grew from conversations between Cardinal James A. Hickey, the former archbishop of Washington, and David C. Friedman, the regional director of the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit organization that fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred.

“Bearing Witness” was launched in 1995 and was open only to educators at Catholic schools in the Washington area. It was sponsored by the Anti- Defamation League, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Holocaust Museum. In 1998, the program was opened up to educators at Catholic schools across the country. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Washington-based National Catholic Educational Association then also joined the partnership.

Jewish foundations and organizations, such as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, pay for the seminar through the Anti- Defamation League. Catholic groups and the museum help recruit teachers and provide in-kind support, such as seminar space and speakers.

“Bearing Witness” speakers gave examples throughout history in which Muslims and Protestants, as well as Catholics, restricted Jews or promoted anti- Semitism.

Mr. Friedman said that his organization has focused on educators at Catholic schools because the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s signaled revolutionary changes in Catholic teaching regarding the Jewish people. The council emphasized the ties between the two religions and repudiated the idea that Jews collectively bore responsibility for the death of Jesus.

The Anti- Defamation League wants to see Vatican II’s changes “institutionalized in the pulpit and the classroom,” Mr. Friedman said.

Carmen Nanko, a Catholic theologian at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a speaker at this summer’s seminar, credited one particular Vatican II document with providing a rationale for Catholic participation in programs such as “Bearing Witness.”

“Since Christians and Jews have such a common spiritual heritage,” the document says, “this sacred council wishes to encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation.”

Steve Werle, a social studies teacher at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, Minn., and an attendee at last summer’s “Bearing Witness” program, said the seminar freed him to talk with his students about the role that the Catholic Church played in the history of anti-Semitism.

“If the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is willing to disseminate such information, I felt liberated to discuss it with my kids,” he said.

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