Holocaust education ramped up at Milwaukee Public Schools

 

MILWAUKEE – Shay Pilnik, local Holocaust educator, asked about 35 kids a question: What does “standing by” mean?

In the very back of the room, 14-year-old Melissa’s hand flew up, followed by an answer: “To not do anything at all.”

Yes, said Pilnik, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Pilnik’s exchange with Melissa – on lessons of the Holocaust – was at Betsy Markwardt’s eighth grade class at Humboldt Park School, on Milwaukee’s south side.

Shay Pilnik, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, spoke at Humboldt Park School on April 27.

The Melissa moment is a sliver of HERC’s growing new initiative. It’s called “Respecting Individual Differences” and it’s increasingly bringing more Holocaust education into Milwaukee Public Schools.

Though suburban schools will sometimes contact HERC with a request for a Holocaust speaker, requests from Milwaukee Public Schools teachers and administrators are rare.

“These are students in our community who need Holocaust education,” said Brittany Hager McNeely, director of education with HERC. “If we can provide good, quality education on a topic like the Holocaust to these students we should be doing it.”

In the last academic year, Respecting Individual Differences started as a pilot program with two schools, including Markwardt’s class. As this year comes to a close, it’s in six schools. Next year, Pilnik hopes to reach even more.

The program is designed to make Holocaust education easy and effective for busy MPS teachers. It includes maps, videos and text materials available on Google Drive for teachers to use before and after HERC educators arrive. There’s also a curriculum available there, developed by Dan Haumschild, Holocaust education fellow with HERC.

Markwardt said her central office initially put her in touch with HERC. “They have been wonderful,” she said, adding that she and her students “have learned a lot from them.”

In fact, Pilnik said HERC has built a good relationship with the social studies team at the MPS central office. Michelle Wade, social studies curriculum specialist, and Jenny Eckstein, social studies teaching specialist, collaborated with the HERC education team to design the Respecting Individual Differences program.

Bev Greenberg, the past immediate chair of HERC, came up with the title “Respecting Individual Differences” for the MPS effort. It was “a way of highlighting the essence of our mission, to rid our community of intolerance,” Pilnik said. Greenberg helped initiate and design the program.

The program was initially born out of a meeting between Pilnik and Darienne Driver, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, in the winter of 2016. “That conversation led to this program,” Pilnik said.

“The ultimate goal of Holocaust education is to affect person-to-person relations,” Pilnik said. “By having students explore one of the darkest moments in the history of mankind, we help them find the connection between the Holocaust and their own lives.”

“Fortunately, our students in Milwaukee today are not confronted with the incredibly difficult choices and dilemmas that people had to make during the Holocaust. Our programs help demonstrate to our students that there are always ethical choices to be made … when you can speak out in the face of injustice, rather than be silent and perhaps safer. I believe that our programs are not merely a history lesson.”

The HERC educators who visit MPS schools – they can be staff, like Pilnik, or volunteers ­– have got enough material to teach up to four class periods. Some schools will take all four of the one-class sessions:

  • “Context of the Holocaust,” an introduction and a discussion of pre-Nazi Germany.
  • “History of the Holocaust,” picks up where the “Context” class leaves off, with Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and ending with the Nuremberg trials.
  • “Confronting Genocide,” where other instances of genocide will take center stage.
  • “Standing Up Instead of Standing By,” which examines roles in the Holocaust, including victim, perpetrator, bystander and upstander.

In his “Standing Up Instead of Standing By” session on April 27, Pilnik talked to the students about his own family’s ties to the Holocaust. He also told the children that he’s an immigrant to the United States from Israel and could therefore relate to them ­– by a show of hands about half the children indicated that English was not their first language.

Pilnik got the kids engaged by asking them to name superheroes. This morphed into a discussion of the real-life heroes of the Holocaust who chose not to merely stand by.

“Superheroes do not actually exist,” Pilnik said. “Heroes actually do exist.”