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A look at Holocaust education in Minnesota following Jensen comments on Nazi Germany

In an interview with MinnPost, the interim director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota talked about efforts to train teachers on how best to teach students about the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews.

Joe Eggers
Joe Eggers: “We used to send out cases of ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ and other novels geared towards young adults. We finally just had to give the books away because no one uses them. No one is teaching with ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ often anymore.”

Late last month it was revealed that GOP nominee for governor Scott Jensen had drawn comparisons between government public health requirements during the pandemic and the rise of Nazi Germany and the persecution of Jews.

The comments were condemned as insensitive and historically inaccurate. Jensen, however, stood by his statements in subsequent videos, interviews and an appearance before a group of Republican Jewish Americans.

Subsequently, lawmakers including Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, a retired social studies and history teacher from Eden Prairie lamented the current state of Holocaust education in Minnesota schools.

“There are a few schools in Minnesota that do require a Holocaust course, per se. And they are in the social studies standards but it’s not as much at the forefront in the curriculum as I believe it should be,” said Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie. He said if it was, “people would be educated and know how insensitive those remarks are.”

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A 50-state survey of American millennials and Gen Zers by the Claims Conference shows that Minnesotans do better in a test of knowledge about the details of the Holocaust, finishing second to Wisconsin. But it is a low bar. Eleven percent of those surveyed nationally think Jews caused the Holocaust, 48% couldn’t name one of the 40,000 concentration camps or ghettos, and 63% could not cite 6 million as the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis.

On the positive side, 64% of millennials and Gen Zers surveyed said Holocaust education should be compulsory in schools. In Minnesota, that percentage is 72%.

The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota counts as one of its central missions the improvement of learning about the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews by Germany as well as other historic genocides and mass violence. Founded in 1997 by Steve Feinstein, a retired professor at the University of Wisconsin River Falls, the center offers teaching materials and training to teachers across Minnesota.

MinnPost this week asked Joe Eggers, the center’s interim director, about where Holocaust education stands in Minnesota, what the center is doing to improve learning about genocides and why he thinks comments like those made by Jensen are troubling. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

MinnPost: What is the current state of Holocaust education in Minnesota schools?

Joe Eggers:  The Holocaust is in the current state social study standards, and it is taught now. I think the problem with the standards is they don’t act as a mandate. So there are certain benchmarks that the teachers are expected to meet when they’re talking about the Holocaust. We can say pretty confidently that a lot of teachers are talking about it. But oftentimes we see – especially as an organization or a center that goes on and does teacher engagement teacher training – is that a lot of teachers are relying on resources or their own knowledge or expertise in teaching a Holocaust that they got from either when they were in college themselves or even high school. So there isn’t necessarily a lot of professional development once teachers are actually practicing.

MP: What needs to be done differently?

JE:  It’s really important to engage with educators while they’re actually getting their teacher licenses or working with districts to ensure that teachers have adequate access to training throughout their careers. That really runs the gamut. In the Twin Cities here, we have a number of organizations –  ourselves, our colleagues at the JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council), the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the museum in Skokie,  Illinois – that are providing teacher development. Once you get outside the Twin Cities though, it’s a little bit more sporadic in terms of availability, where you  might see teachers who don’t have access to those resources. That’s something that we, as a center working with the University of Minnesota, are actively trying to remedy. We’re doing our first teacher workshops this fall in the Iron Range in our center’s history, which we’re really looking forward to. That’s the number one complaint when we talk to teachers is they just don’t have either the expertise or access to resources to be talking about the Holocaust and there is a real need across the state to provide those.

MP: What are the center’s origins, and what do you think the center’s core mission is today? 

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JE: Our center was founded in 1997 by Dr. Stephen Feinstein, who was a retired University of Wisconsin-River Falls professor, who came to the University of Minnesota and said, ‘Look, there needs to be a center for Holocaust studies here,’ and began working with especially educators to deliver content training and resources, primarily to Twin Cities-area teachers. In that 25 years we’ve really expanded our mission to include teacher workshops, resource development. We started a program on the 1862 U.S.- Dakota War in 2018. Our work in the world of education has really expanded and probably encompasses about 50% of what our center does. It’s  a lot of teacher support and supporting the work of graduate students here at the university.

MP: Do you offer  a model curriculum that could be used by teachers, short of attending a workshop themselves?

JE: We don’t necessarily do curriculum. We have lesson plans and activities that are available on our website that are always free. We also have, since 2016, done this project called the Genocide Education Outreach Program, which connects graduate students working in the field with teachers in the classroom. So, if a teacher requests us to say, ‘Look, I need help with a lesson or an activity in a classroom,’ we will send a graduate student over to help them run an activity or something in their class. And that’s been used by dozens of teachers across the state. We’ve done some across the state of Minnesota now, but especially the Twin Cities here.

MP: I know this is a question so simplistic it might sound silly, but what do you think are the basic things that a teacher trying to communicate this history needs to get across to students?

JE: This is just a personal opinion, but I think one of the challenges that we face is, one, making sure that teachers are comfortable and equipped with resources, right? So if a teacher doesn’t feel that they are knowledgeable enough or have access to those resources, that conversation isn’t even gonna happen with a student in the classroom. So first is building up that relevancy and importance to the teacher themselves. And then the second is, how do we make this relate to a student in the classroom? Some way that we do that is just to really break it down. We try to avoid encouraging teachers who are using visuals or get stuck in an idea of numbers or things like this, but instead to  increase that relatability that we have with the students. Oftentimes, these people who were displaced or who were killed, these are people just like you and I. I think that as we’re looking at some of these historical episodes of the past, we lose sight of that. We think of people in events in the abstract. But really bringing home that relatability is important.

MP: I’m 65 years old. We read “The Diary of Anne Frank” (“The Diary of a Young Girl”) in school.

JE: That’s increasingly becoming uncommon. For one thing, teachers, when they’re talking about the Holocaust, you’re talking about the overwhelming majority are maybe spending a day at most, a couple of days on the Holocaust. We don’t have the time to sit down and read through”The Diary of Anne Frank” and really understand it. A lot of times the teachers are like, ‘Just give me nuts and bolts of what I need to be able to get across to my students.’ That’s usually not through books. We used to send out cases of “Diary of Anne Frank” and other novels geared towards young adults. We finally just had to give the books away because no one uses them. No one is teaching with “Diary of Anne Frank” often anymore.

MP: You mentioned this Iron Range training that’s coming up. Can you describe what that looks like? What happens at something like that?

JE: We’re really fortunate at the university to have world class scholars, both in faculty and our graduate students who have expertise in this field, and they provide really good resources for teachers. But then we also make a conscious effort to bring in communities that have been shaped by mass violence. Over the last few years we’ve really built up our relationship neighbors, which really humanizes the Holocaust or episodes of genocide to teachers and builds in that relevancy. … In the metro here, and even in outstate Minnesota, you have students who have been shaped by mass violence, who have relatives that have been shaped by mass violence. And then bringing in activities and relevant resources that they can then take to their classrooms to use once the workshops are done.

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MP: So perhaps a recent Somali immigrant, or a student whose family fled civil war? Is that what you mean? Or are you talking about going back a couple generations?

JE: We have a really good relationship with the Armenian community. The Armenian community here has been here for a century, even before the genocide. Every member of it has been touched and impacted by mass violence. And then you can talk to the Khmer community in Frogtown in St. Paul and the surrounding suburbs that has been here for 20 or 30 years now. I’m even thinking about our own Indigenous communities in Minnesota here who have been shaped by mass violence. Over the last several decades, tens of thousands of people have been resettled in Minnesota, often as the result of genocide. For better or worse, genocide has been woven into the cultural fabric of Minnesota. Issuing statements that devalue the experience of victims and survivors of the Holocaust is first and foremost damaging to Minnesota’s Jewish community, but it’s also damaging to all Minnesotans.

MP: Scott Jensen thinks that that was an apt comparison. I’m not going to involve you in partisan politics, but should you be asked to talk to someone who makes comparisons to the Holocaust in talking about anything but another holocaust or genocide, how would you approach them?

JE: One of the things I really love most about living in Minnesota is the diversity and our ability to welcome people. Oftentimes these people who’ve helped shape Minnesota really have been resettled here because they’ve been victims of, or been displaced because of, genocide and mass violence. When you start saying things that belittle or marginalize the impact of their experience as survivors, you’re really speaking to something that expands to a lot of what makes Minnesota special. I think that’s the really challenging part. So hearing from them, I think, is really important, right? It’s not just the Jewish community in Minnesota, right? As we continue to move on and we get further and further separated from the Holocaust, as we lose survivors, that perspective is lost. But that experience in Minnesota is still here and still real, still really relevant. I think the one thing that I’ve always been really impressed with working with communities shaped by violence is that it’s this very unfortunate sort of network and that there is a lot of compassion amongst each other. So, I feel like when you’re trivializing the Holocaust, you’re trivializing the experience of thousands of Minnesotans who have been shaped by similar experiences.

MP: Is there a valid separation between talking about things that might look like the rise of fascism and things that might look to someone as comparable to a Holocaust with 6 million victims? Meaning, could someone like Scott Jensen say the way government treats people looks like the rise of Nazi Germany as opposed to saying a mask mandate is one step from Kristalnacht?

JE: I tend to yield to these communities who say, ‘Look, this is something you’re saying that’s offending somebody, that this is an unfair and incomplete comparison.’ … This isn’t the first time that somebody has invoked the idea of Nazism or the Holocaust to make some sort of grandiose comparison. And to me there’s almost never an appropriate time where that actually works.

One of the things that makes me uneasy is the need to compare concepts or ideas to episodes of genocides. To me, it devalues the experiences of victims and survivors. Candidates and elected officials can easily make statements that defend their positions without evoking the memory of genocide, in this case, the Holocaust. When the concept of genocide was developed, it was in response to the horrors of state-sanctioned violence against specifically targeted groups – legally, there was truly no way of contextualizing it. The same with the Holocaust – the event was so horrific that we needed to create a new term for it because we could not comprehend the murder of millions of innocent people. When we draw comparisons to horrific events like the Holocaust, we’re essentially saying that it is comparable to the murder of 6 million people. I don’t know how we can condone that kind of language, in any way. To me, even comparing one genocide to another is a difficult proposition. In essence, by comparing one genocide to another, you’re proposing that we compare the suffering of others when we start making those comparisons.

MP: We’ve been talking about school-age students. But it’s almost as important to start to recognize that a lot of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70-year-old people’s understanding of those events is not very crisp.

JE: There is work done by my colleagues at the JCRC and some of these other cultural organizations that really are trying to build these bridges between communities and build this idea of openness and tolerance. … It’s one thing to say we should expose these school-aged children who, for better or worse, don’t have a choice to come to our programs. But taking the average Minnesotan on the street, who may not really be thinking about the Holocaust on a daily basis, how do we expose them to understanding? It is a challenge. I guess I really don’t have a good answer for that. I certainly don’t think that building in comparisons of the Holocaust to political events is at all an appropriate approach. But in terms of public adult education, I think that really just points to the fact that we really need to hammer home some of these things while they’re school-age students, that we’re not relying on trying to educate adults at that point.  

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MP: Maybe more concerning than Scott Jensen’s statements was that there are a lot of people out there who did not comprehend why it was inappropriate.

JE: The Claims Conference always receives headlines when they do an update on the number of adults who have a framework or understanding of the Holocaust. As we get further and further disconnected from the events of the Holocaust, that number seems to grow, that there’s a relationship between time and  ignorance. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between what Scott Jensen is saying and this public ignorance, but Scott Jensen certainly isn’t the first and probably will not be the last to make ignorant comparisons between the Holocaust and contemporary political events.