A Superior High School teacher had the opportunity in July to take home lessons of the world’s largest genocide directly from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Mary Anderson-Petroske was one of 260 participants from across the country to attend the museum’s annual Belfer National Conference for Educators. The three-day workshop for teachers is part of the museums ongoing effort to equip educators through the county with the knowledge and skills to effectively bring lessons of the Holocaust to the classroom.
“Educating students about the history of the Holocaust provides an opportunity for young people to think critically not only about the past but also about their roles in society today,” said Gretchen Skidmore, director of education initiatives for the Museum’s William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education. “As the global leader in Holocaust education, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum works to ensure teachers have the training and resources they need to introduce their students to this important and complex history — and show them how its lessons remain relevant to all citizens today.”
Anderson-Petroske teaches ninth through 12th grade English to students in Northland Academy. The academy offers smaller class sizes and more consistent relationships for students that struggle in traditional classrooms.
She said she first learned about the conference in 2001 while taking a school district training in Washington, D.C., and decided to apply for it this year.
“They really are good at making sure you have guidelines to follow to teach the Holocaust,” Anderson-Petroske said. “They are just invaluable when you think about such a sensitive topic, and how do you transfer the lessons of the Holocaust for today, and how is that going to be most impactful and effective.”
Among the guidelines offered included sharing the story in precise language because concentration, labor and transient camps, and killing centers all had different purposes, and to avoid conveying the message the Holocaust was “inevitable,” she said.
“There were people that had choices,” Anderson-Petrowske said. “There were bystanders, perpetrators, collaborators, victims … there were spectrums of behavior. It’s not just ‘Boom, the Holocaust was inevitable. We couldn’t have stopped it.’ There were a lot of steps taken to become the tragedy it did. So identifying those steps are really important, from creating the ‘other,’ from allowing hateful rhetoric to happen to creating this snowball effect.”
Another guideline is avoiding simple answers to complex questions, she said.
“Sometimes kids will say to me, 'Why didn’t the Jews just leave?’” Anderson-Petroske said. “The real question is, 'How could so many have gone?’ It’s amazing how many did get to leave, because thousands tried but the immigration process was very extensive back then, and expensive and lengthy.”
As someone who is in a position to influence a lot of people, Anderson-Petroske said it’s important to understand the history of the Holocaust to understand how to create a kinder, more compassionate human race because what happened in during the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jews, are still relevant today.
“It’s a human history,” Anderson-Petrowske said. “It’s about humanity, and we still struggle with this today — the human potential for evil. We still struggle with being humane. Our human decency sometimes deteriorates.”
When it happens, she said, it looks like the events that led up to the Holocaust.
Citing the plight of the citing the Rohingya, Muslims in Buddist-majority Myanmar. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar, where they were denied citizenship and faced human rights abuses for decades, following a military crackdown in August 2017, according to a report from the United Nations after a fact-finding mission to Myanmar. The mission found: “Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest of crimes under international law.”
Medicins Sans Frontieres, a medical charity also known as Doctors without Borders, told ABC Australia in December 2017 that between 9,000 and 13,700 were killed based on six surveys of refugees that escaped the violence.
“When history’s repeating itself, be aware of that,” Anderson-Petroske said. “Stay involved.” She said she wants to give her students the tools to be informed and to stand up for others.
“What is our responsibility, and to think about that as a society,” Anderson-Petroske said. “I would love to open up dialogue about the immigration issues of today, and what was happening (during the Holocaust). What is our responsibility to one another?”
The Northland Academy teacher, who has been part of the Baeumler Kaplan Holocaust Commemoration Committee at the University of Minnesota Duluth for 20 years, said she is the group is successful in bringing the museum’s traveling exhibit, “Americans and the Holocaust,” to the Twin Ports. It provides a portrait of American society in the 1930s and 1940s, and the many factors that influenced decisions made by the U.S. government, news media, Hollywood, organizations and individuals as they responded to Nazism.
The exhibit dispels misperceptions that Americans lacked access to information about the persecution of Jews as it was happening.
After having a chance to work with curators of the exhibit, Anderson-Petroske said she is planning to have students look up the April 12, 1942, edition of the Telegram to see what was reported that day about World War II.
“What was happening?” she said. “What did we know? It’s called ‘History Unfolded.'”
Anderson-Petroske said she hopes to continue her education with a museum fellowship during the next two summers.
“You become an educator for educators is their goal,” she said. “So … I’m hoping to get the next step because it’s pretty competitive and continue my education and connection with the Holocaust museum.”