Teaching the history of the Holocaust would be a challenge without people like Peter Metzelaar.
The 73-year-old Seattle resident is a survivor of the genocide that took place during World War II.
Metzelaar, who was born in Amsterdam, spent five years in hiding to avoid the Nazi raids. His entire family was killed before he and his mother escaped to the United States when he was 13.
“I never talked much about it,” Metzelaar said.
That changed when he returned to Europe in the early 1990s and found the cave he and his mother once hid in to avoid persecution, or worse, death.
It was then that Metzelaar joined forces with the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center speaker’s bureau to tell his story to as many people possible. On Friday, Metzelaar spent the day in the library at East Valley Middle School with about 35 high school and middle school teachers.
Metzelaar said he has a lot of respect for teachers. “Once we are all gone, they will be the ones who have to pass it on.”
With grant help from the Seattle-based Holocaust resource center, the teachers hope to do just that. Educators from the Spokane area, Idaho and even as far away as Sitka, Alaska came Friday to learn more about how to effectively teach a unit on the Holocaust. Friday was a teacher in-service day for many Spokane-area teachers.
The horrific chapter in world history is usually sandwiched into a broader history curriculum.
“It’s such an overwhelming and complex subject,” said Ilana Cone Kennedy, the director of education for the resource center. “We give them some tools on how to best bring the information to their students.”
In addition to hearing Metzelaar’s story, teachers heard presentations from other educators in the area who have taken Holocaust history and turned it into a semester-long course or unit in their schools.
Brad Veile, a teacher at Lakeside High School in Plummer, Idaho, gave an overview of the Holocaust for the teachers. He has taught the Holocaust as a separate semester course since 1996, and interest is so high he usually has a waiting list.
“The students really make connections,” Veile said. He said teachers use the lessons learned from the Holocaust as a platform to discuss current crimes against humanity, like the genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan, Africa.
“It’s not the gore; it’s the humanity they connect to,” Veile said.
Staying away from using the horrors of the Holocaust as a teaching tool is one of the things the resource center tries to focus on.
Julie Scott, who teaches 8th graders at East Valley Middle School, started teaching about the Holocaust about 15 years ago. She is also a teaching fellow for the Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Teachers like Scott have come up with curriculum that is appropriate, and discourages use of simulations and graphic images.
Steve Bernard, another museum teaching fellow and 34-year teaching veteran, created a curriculum at Central Valley High School. He said to teach the history of Holocaust in one chapter of a book does the subject “injustice.”
Next year, more than 300 students have expressed interest in his semester-long course.
“I have so many sections I can’t teach them all,” Bernard said.
He’s recruited Geoff Arte, a 26-year-old CVHS social studies teacher to take over some of the classes. Arte was Bernard’s student teacher a few years ago while working on his master’s in teaching at Whitworth University.
“I was the only person at Whitworth that had a class that was this focused,” Arte said. “I feel pretty lucky to have had this experience.”