Tuesday, August 29, 2000

Holocaust education: Teach and don't forget

New Cincinnati center's director stresses looking ahead to tolerance

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Racelle Weiman, head of the new center, with a torah scroll saved from the Nazis.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        Dr. Racelle Weiman dreams of a day when schools are named after heroes of the Holocaust, not trees or meaningless landmarks. She works toward a time when the lessons of the Holocaust are incorporated into science and literature classrooms, not just as a footnote in history books.

        With this vision in tow, Dr. Weiman moved from Israel a month ago to head the new Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, which opened Aug. 1. A joint project of the local Combined Generations of the Holocaust and Hebrew Union College, the center augments Cincinnati's reputation as a destination for Jewish studies.

        On a national level, Holocaust education also could receive a boost. Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

        If the Gore/Lieberman team is elected to office, “I would feel as if we had a watchdog for human rights in the White House,” says Jeff Seibert, a Blue Ash resident and son of Holocaust survivors.

        Survivors and their descendants know the lessons of the Holocaust, he says, and their experiences bind them together in a “solemn promise to never let hatred, genocide, oppression or racism dominate our thinking or the behavior of our elected officials.”

Jeff Seibert's portrait of his parents, who survived concentration camps.
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The legacy

               Florence and Israel Seibert didn't talk often about the Holocaust to their young children. They didn't have the fading tattoos of many survivors. But their scars ran deep.

        They each survived more than four years in concentration camps — and lost all of their immediate family. The couple met in Sweden after the war, as Mrs. Seibert recuperated from typhoid fever.

        They emigrated to the United States in 1952, landed at Ellis Island and picked Cincinnati from a map because Mr. Seibert spotted a dot marked Hebrew Union College.

        Even though the subject of the Holocaust was rarely broached in the early years, the Seiberts instilled in their children a sense of social justice, of treating people fairly, of not letting biases pre-determine feelings. They couldn't talk about the Holocaust, but they would teach the lessons.

        Their son, Jeff, 43, carries on that legacy.

        His parents helped found the Jewish Survivors of Nazism, which became the Combined Generations of the Holocaust. His father was treasurer for 25 years. Today, the son serves in the same role.

        With the mortality rate of survivors increasing, soon there will be no one to offer first-hand testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust. The group wanted to find a lasting way to make sure the lessons were not forgotten.

        They decided to establish a center for education.

The lessons

               The group began fund-raising and found a ready partner in Hebrew Union College. They raised $700,000 to pay for the first three years and are kicking off a $3.5 million endowment campaign to ensure the center's continuation.

        The group hired Dr. Weiman, who was serving as director of the Israel branch of Temple University and whose studies emphasized interfaith relations and tolerance education.

        “Some people say, "Oh, you're a Holocaust scholar, and I say, "No. I'm an anti-Holocaust scholar.' I teach about how you don't have Holocausts anymore,” Dr. Weiman says. “And I do it by learning of the Holocaust. You learn it in such a way that it is not out of blame or pointing fingers at people ... It's how you begin taking that information and saying, "What are the deep parts of humanity that we would have to affect to make a world so these kinds of things never could exist again.”'

        The mission for the center is to serve as a clearinghouse for Holocaust education. There will be workshops for rabbis, Hebrew Union students, and leaders of other faiths to discuss how to integrate the lessons of the Holocaust into their teachings. The center will have resources and materials for teachers and church groups and will encourage scholars to explore the college's archives. It will be open to anyone interested in learning more.

        The center plans to host art exhibits, community events and outreach projects to spread the word about the Holocaust.

        It also will focus teaching on tolerance, not history lessons. Already, the center is surveying local schools to assess how much Holocaust education exists — and of what quality.

        “The Holocaust is often taught badly,” says Dr. Weiman. “Let's not just teach Holocaust by the names of the SS guards and the heads of the German high command of the Third Reich. Let's begin teaching the Holocaust in ways that don't terrorize kids, but the opposite, where they begin to identify with heroes, with hero behavior.”

        She suggests talking about the Holocaust in terms of encouraging integrity, providing models of heroism, understanding the roots of prejudice and recognizing the benefits of civil disobedience. At the same time, Holocaust education can't ignore the atrocities of medical experiments, gas chambers and death marches.

        “We have to know where we don't want to go,” says Dr. Weiman. “We were there already.”

A leader

               On the heels of the center's opening, Mr. Lieberman became the first Orthodox Jew on a major party's presidential ticket.

        In some of her first comments on the campaign trail, Mrs. Lieberman refers to her roots, as she did in this speech at a veterans memorial in Tennessee:

        “Here I am, the daughter of survivors from the Holocaust, the most horrendous thing that happened,” she says, as quoted in a New York Daily News story, “and here I am in the place that commemorates the American heroes, the soldiers who actually liberated my mother in Dachau and in Auschwitz, and so I stand before you very deeply, sincerely thankful that I am an American.”

        Whether Mrs. Lieberman would capitalize on the opportunity to encourage Holocaust education if her husband is elected is unknown. But the possibility is exciting, says Dr. Weiman.

        “If Mrs. Lieberman would take that experience and use it for healing, that would be a wonderful asset,” she says. “If she doesn't, I wouldn't blame her.”

        Dr. Weiman says sometimes survivors and their descendants respond to the Holocaust experience by becoming more sensitive, tolerant and involved in the world. In other cases, the event was so cataclysmic that they turn from the world and into themselves to heal.

        “I always feel we have to respect either decision.”

        Gail Mermelstein, president of Combined Generations and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, says she hopes Mrs. Lieberman finds strength from her parents' experiences and feels a special sensitivity to injustice.

        “The pain and devastation from the Holocaust that affected our families makes many of us in the second generation highly aware of suffering and how easily democracy can be perverted, as was the case in Nazi Germany, and that genocide in countries around this world can still be a real possibility,” says Ms. Mermelstein, 43, of Finneytown.

        “Mrs. Lieberman knows first-hand how important it is to support a strong democratic system and to practice the Jewish concept of "tikkun olam' - repair of the world.”

Center to sponsor opera

               One of the first public education projects of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education is its participation in the opera, Brundibar. The Cincinnati Opera Outreach, along with the Holocaust center, Hebrew Union College, and the Cincinnati Arts Association, will present the family opera this fall.

        Brundibar is a simple folktale written by a Jewish composer in 1938. It was to be performed in Prague in 1942 but its composer, Hans Krasa, and others involved were taken to Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp.

        The opera debuted in the camp and became part of Nazi propaganda to deflect attention from what was actually happening. It was performed more than 50 times during the war, often with new actors to replace those shipped off to other camps, such as Auschwitz.

        Performances at Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater run from Oct. 22 to Oct. 28. Each performance will feature special guest Ela Weissberger. A Holocaust survivor, Ms. Weissberger performed in Brundibar as a child at Theresienstadt.

        Teachers interested in bringing groups to the school performances can contact the Cincinnati Arts Association at 721-3344, ext. 3801. Also, the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education is available to host additional workshops for students or to teach training classes. Information: 221-1875.

        Tickets go on sale Sept. 11.

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