Pensacola, Florida
Saturday February 23rd 2019


Teaching About the Holocaust

By Sammi Sontag

Approximately 6 million European Jews, around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, were systematically murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. Teacher Lauren Samoszenko educates her Ransom Middle School students about the Holocaust and was recently honored for her efforts.

Samoszenko, 29, was chosen as a 2018 Jewish Foundation for the Righteous Alfred Lerner Fellow, along with 29 other educators from 12 different states, Poland and Croatia. During a five-day seminar at Columbia University, she and her colleagues delved deep into Holocaust history.

“This was definitely an intense week,” she said. “We learned more than I ever thought I could have in a week. The professors and the doctors and all the lecturers that were brought in were very well-versed and so knowledgeable.”

She added, “And it was wonderful that they didn’t talk over your head. It was content you could actually understand.”

Samoszenko has taught middle school civics for six years. She became passionate about the Holocaust after she learned about her grandfather’s experience in Bremerhaven, Germany, when she was in college.

Her grandfather was born in the concentration camp when it was under Nazi control and lived there until he was eight years old in 1950. After the camp’s liberation, it became a displaced persons camp. Her grandfather’s experience struck a chord within her, so she began to educate herself further.

“I didn’t learn about the Holocaust in depth until I was much older,” she said. “And I want my students to have exposure to it much before the end of their high school career. So at the end of every school year, after I teach civics, I’m allowed to teach whatever I want, and I teach the Holocaust. It’s usually the first time they’re learning about it, so it’s interesting to them.”

She realized how critical Holocaust studies are because the Panhandle lacks true concentrated Holocaust education, she said. So, she created a Holocaust studies curriculum for her seventh-grade students.

“The state of Florida legally mandates Holocaust studies for grades K-12,” Samoszenko said. “It depends on the teacher, but it’s not something that is often pushed. I think in South Florida it happens more often because there are more Holocaust survivors and people who are more vocal in that area, but especially in our region it just doesn’t get taught as much.”

She added, “But then when it is taught in world and U.S. history, those teachers just have such a broad span of content to cover that a lot of time they can only spend a class period on the Holocaust, so they don’t get behind on other material.”

The Gulf Coast Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education in Mobile, Ala., nominated Samoszenko for the Alfred Lerner Fellowship program this year.

The center provides training for teachers and educators who want to learn about the Holocaust and how to teach it. It also honors Holocaust victims and supports Holocaust scholarship so those who wish to educate themselves can.

“The center brings in different speakers to talk about the Holocaust and to teach on different aspects of the Holocaust,” Samoszenko said. “They also include a lot of pedagogy. There is also a survivor who lives in Mobile who is very prolific in speaking, Agnes Tennenbaum. They would bring her out to speak, but their primary focus is different one-day workshops that included lectures and pedagogy that get teachers connected to different resources.”

Programming through The Gulf Coast Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education is entirely free and available to anyone who wishes to learn more.

Many boxes must be checked to qualify as a Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) Alfred Lerner Fellow. Participants must teach English or social studies at the middle or high school level, must have taught at least five years, are at least five years from retirement and currently teach the Holocaust in his or her classroom.

Participants also must come from an area where the JFR operates Holocaust Centers of Excellence with a local Holocaust museum or center, and Samoszenko fit the bill.

“There were only four or five middle school teachers at the seminar,” she said. “Most of the participants were high school teachers, with a few museum or center staff members in attendance, too. The whole group listened to lectures that were followed up by Q&A. I did take a ton of notes and did a lot of intense listening.”

The Fellowship program is named in commemoration of Alfred Lerner, who died in October of 2002. Lerner was an advisor and supporter of JFR for many years. He was committed to JFR and, particularly, Holocaust education.

The summer program is held at Columbia University in New York. A number of Holocaust scholars lecture throughout the five days, providing information, sharing stories and teaching about World War II.

“Probably one of the most interesting lectures we had was on medicine during the Holocaust,” she said. “Talking about the ethical standards of the Nazis and how they learned so much during the Holocaust about medical advancements, but the participants weren’t really willing participants.”

She continued, “So there’s this ethical standard—we learned so much but do we not use the different techniques for pilots such as needing to have their necks covered when they go into space or fly at a certain altitude because the participants were concentration camp people. Can we soundly use that information now because they weren’t willing participants?”

The academic seminar is designed to promote conversation about Holocaust education and gather new information that can be brought back to the schools, Samoszenko said.

“For my classroom, I think what I took back most from the lectures was that the roots of anti-Semitism didn’t just start with Hitler,” she said. “That’s something that my kids struggle to understand—not because it’s not taught well, but it can be confusing. But back in the 1200s, Jews were pushed into the ghettos of Venice. I think that’s something my students need to really understand.”

To date, there are more than 600 Alfred Learner Fellows, educators who dedicate themselves to inform the younger generations about the horrors of the Holocaust to make sure that the history is known and does not repeat itself.

“Being an Alfred Learner Fellow makes me feel like I’m part of a larger community,” Samoszenko said. “It makes me want to continue my education and to hear more about the history of the Holocaust, much more than I have done in the past.”