Facing History

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You would think that the man hurling himself from the witness stand and crumpling to the courtroom floor was having some kind of seizure. Knowing the circumstances--that he is testifying at the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the man who personally sent him to Auschwitz--you would think his reaction was triggered by some awful memory. By the sight of the renowned mass murderer. By the thought of millions killed.

But the 35 teachers sitting in the darkened room watching "The Devil Is a Gentleman,'' a 1983 60 Minutes production, learn that the convulsions were prompted by an even more terrifying realization. "It's not a God!'' the Holocaust survivor says of Eichmann. "It's not a Hitler! It's not Adolf Eichmann! It's me!''

The man collapses, the narrator explains, after realizing that "the Eichmann who stood before him at the trial was not the godlike army officer who had sent millions to their death. This Eichmann was an ordinary man, an unremarkable man.'' If this Eichmann was so ordinary, so human, the narrator adds, then any man could do what Eichmann did.

When the lights come on, tensions run high. The teachers in the room are halfway into a weeklong summer institute that uses lessons from history, particularly the Holocaust, to explore the consequences of racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice. Many have come from other parts of the country to attend the Boston meeting. They immediately start discussing whether some people are innately cruel--or crazy.

Could insanity explain the behavior of the thousands of people who contributed to the Holocaust, an institute staff member asks the teachers. "Do you buy into this, about Eichmann being in all of us?'' Most raise their hands. "All of you? 100 percent?'' she presses. A few dissent.

Was the person who forced the Jews into the cattle cars that transported them to the concentration camps an Eichmann, as well, one teacher wants to know. "What about the guy sitting in the office, making the train schedules?'' another asks. "I think I could be a bystander,'' someone ventures. "But could I be an Eichmann? I don't know.''

This discussion, and the questions it raises, are what the teacher-training institute is all about. It is one of many offered each year by the nonprofit foundation Facing History and Ourselves. The foundation's name says much about its mission. Simply put, the goal is to prepare teachers to help students think critically about human behavior, history, and the power of people to shape its course.

Through staff-development initiatives such as this one and other outreach efforts, the acclaimed program reaches more than 10,000 teachers each year, and through them, more than half a million middle and high school students.

The teachers attending the Boston institute began the day with a lesson titled "The Stages of Mass Murder.'' That was followed by a less-intense session on ways to incorporate literature and art into the study of social responsibility. Some of the teachers, working in small groups, created a moving series of skits based on a reading.

After that, Sonia Weitz, a survivor of five Nazi concentration camps, spoke about her experiences and read from her poetry. Then, just before the Eichmann video, the participants divided into groups again to read and discuss selections from the diaries of Nazi party members.

The Holocaust serves as a starting point for most Facing History programs, not for the shock value but because it gets teachers and students thinking about the moral choices they face in their own lives. Teachers spend time examining the small steps that can lead to such a catastrophe, says program director Marc Skvirsky. "How people become bystanders, how people become perpetrators, how neighbors turn against neighbors.''

The institutes take teachers through a whirlwind course that might start with discussions about identity, stereotyping, and conformity, and wind down with lessons on caring and how to take a stand in one's own community. Early lectures at the Boston institute focused on the power of propaganda, the religious roots of intolerance, and the development of racial identity, among other things.

Founded 18 years ago by two Brookline, Mass., middle school teachers--Margot Stern Strom and William Parsons--Facing History now has a $3 million annual operating budget and regional offices in Chicago, Memphis, and New York. The Boston institute was one of 13 the foundation offered last summer. It also sponsors many shorter workshops and special events around the country and has even offered programs in a handful of other nations, including Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and Britain.

One of the features that distinguishes Facing History from many other staff-development efforts is the support teachers continue to receive after the seminars end. During the school year, foundation staff members regularly consult with participants, helping them develop and sustain a program appropriate for their students. "There's a lot of hand-holding,'' Skvirsky acknowledges.

Teacher Carol Resnek, who had taken part in other foundation offerings before attending the Boston institute, says she and her foundation contact person spoke on the phone every three or four days during the 1993-94 school year. Resnek, who teaches community-service classes at Chelsea (Mass.) High School, now uses program materials for about one-third of her instructional time. She relies heavily on a program text titled Choosing to Participate, which picks up where the Facing History and Ourselves Resource Book leaves off. Resnek also uses videos from the organization's extensive library. "Facing History helped me build community in my classroom,'' she says.

Unlike Resnek, many of the other teachers attending the institute are being introduced to the program for the first time. Michael Sullivan, a psychology teacher from Hudson High School outside Worcester, Mass., has come with two colleagues because he'd heard about Facing History and wanted to integrate it into a new, required civics course. Sullivan believes the program will work well at Hudson, which has a large Portuguese-American population. Still, he anticipates resistance. "One of the arguments I've heard from some of the teachers,'' he says, "is, 'Why the Holocaust? Why not something closer to home?' ''

Officials at the U.S. Education Department wondered the same thing. Three times, twice in 1987 and again in 1988, the department declined to fund Facing History through its National Diffusion Network, which makes exemplary programs available to schools. Finally, in 1989, the foundation received a grant of nearly $60,000 a year--renewable for four years--to support its dissemination efforts.

Since that time, a number of states--California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, among them--have mandated that schools teach about the Holocaust. But most states don't give schools much guidance on how to address the topic. "There's a difference,'' says Ted Scott, a regional director for the foundation, "between teaching the Holocaust in a way that simply memorializes it and in a way that empowers students to make a difference in their own lives.''

Several of the teachers attending the Boston institute agree that the Holocaust is an ideal case study for students, particularly disadvantaged and minority students. "People tend to think black people are not interested in this, but there's a commonality to suffering,'' says Renee Gordon, coordinator of the arts and humanities at John Bartram High School in Philadelphia. "You would have thought that Germany in 1928 was America in 1994--not just for blacks but for all minorities. So the Holocaust is a mirror.''

It seems unfathomable that the world could stand by and allow the Holocaust to happen, another teacher says, "but where was the public outcry about Rwanda?'' Others point to the genocide in Bosnia and the violence in many U.S. communities.

"Facing History tries to help kids understand that in every situation they have choices,'' says Jennifer Clarke, a program associate. "Sometimes they're not good choices, and each choice has a lot of possible consequences. But for a lot of kids, that in itself is empowerment.''

Perhaps Strom, the foundation's co-founder and executive director, best sums up the reasons for the program's continued success and appeal: "It's compelling, it's relevant, it's timely, and kids remember it.''

--Laura Miller

Vol. 06, Issue 03, Page 1-24

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