University of Kentucky trains teachers in Holocaust education
University of Kentucky faculty members are working to train hundreds of K-12 teachers in the state to teach about the Holocaust.
The Holocaust Education Initiative, run by UK professors and funded by a grant from the Jewish Heritage Fund, aims to prepare teachers to meet state standards of a 2018 law requiring Holocaust education at Kentucky public schools.
Twenty-one states have a Holocaust education requirement, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. These state laws have grown increasingly common at a time when antisemitic incidents nationwide have been on the rise. An Anti-Defamation League report released in April found antisemitic incidents were at an all-time high in 2021, at an average of seven daily incidents in the U.S. Kentucky is no exception. A 2022 report by the Kentucky Jewish Council details a variety of incidents, including threats to a synagogue and Jewish community center.
University of Kentucky professors last summer started training a group of 20 “teacher leaders,” who were selected from across the state and were already teaching about the Holocaust in their classrooms. These 20 teachers are leading 12 online and in-person 10-hour workshops at different school districts in the state for at least 250 teachers between now and June. Teachers who participate receive a $250 stipend. The initiative plans to use a second round of funding to train another cohort of teacher leaders this summer to teach another set of workshops.
Participating teachers and professors will also develop and share lesson plans and other teaching materials online, some of which are specific to Kentucky education standards, that can be used a resource for teachers statewide.
The goal is to create “communities of teachers who are doing this work together and are helping each other,” said Karen Petrone, a history professor at the university and co-director of the Holocaust Education Initiative.
Petrone, who is also director of the Cooperative for the Humanities and Social Sciences, said teaching about the Holocaust can feel like “being handed a hot potato” to some teachers, given it’s a sensitive topic that can lead to broader, challenging conversations about discrimination and injustice. Kentucky is also home to a “very tiny” Jewish community, less than 1 percent of the state population, concentrated in Louisville and Lexington. Most teachers aren’t Jewish themselves and “don’t really have a lot of opportunity to meet Jewish people.”
Teachers “really needed some education, really needed help in trying to frame this,” she said.
Lauren Hill, teacher leader coordinator and associate director of the initiative, said she’s Jewish and “has studied and thought about the Holocaust” for years. But she still found it to be a real challenge to “face these eighth graders and have to try to explain what the Holocaust was.”
She also couldn’t decide on what aspects of the Holocaust to focus.
“Think about American and European history leading up to World War II, think about all of the ways that the Holocaust was allowed to happen and the political-social environment that was necessary for that … And then add to that the way people managed the experience itself, both by the victims and the regular everyday German people and the people who lived in the towns that were occupied. There’s so much scholarship here and so many stories worth telling. How do you pick which ones? And then how do you do it in a way that isn’t traumatizing?”
Hill said she got involved with the University of Kentucky initiative to offer resources to teachers with similar struggles.
“The questions that one has to ask themselves as a teacher are endless in this context,” she said.
A Kentucky Approach
Janice Fernheimer, the initiative’s co-director and Zantker Professor of Jewish Studies at Kentucky, said for many Kentuckians, learning about the Holocaust in school might be students’ first exposure to learning anything about the Jewish community, so teacher trainings are designed to offer broader context so teachers feel equipped to talk about “Judaism as a living, thriving religion, culture, and heritage” and about historic Jewish communities in Kentucky.
“Folks aren’t just getting the Holocaust as their entry point into Jewish people, ideas, heritage, and culture,” said Fernheimer, who is also a professor of writing, rhetoric and digital studies and a James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits Faculty Fellow.
The initiative also encourages teachers to teach in a way that goes beyond the historical facts of the Holocaust and gets at the larger civic questions it raises.
“To teach the Holocaust in a meaningful way means to identify what permitted this atrocity to take place,” Petrone said. “There’s a lot of conversation about othering, about being a witness versus a bystander, an actor … How do we understand not just the Holocaust but other genocides and other moments when people are being othered and bullied, and what is our role as witnesses of that?”
Rabbi Shlomo Litvin, who leads the Chabad University of Kentucky Jewish Student Center, said he wants to see the Holocaust Education Initiative extended to more teachers and worries that it’s not being taught by scholars who specifically focus on Holocaust studies. Nonetheless, he finds the initiative “extremely admirable.” He noted that as survivors pass away and fewer people are able to hear their personal testimonies, Holocaust history has become more difficult to convey, and education has become all the more important.
“Teaching how to teach the Holocaust is critical,” he said. “The pedagogy of the Holocaust is its own field in and of itself.” Too often students come away from Holocaust education feeling “numb” and “trauma-shocked in the first 10 minutes, and they come away with very little actual information.”
Rabbi Litvin, who trained as a Holocaust educator at Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, runs an annual weeklong Holocaust education program on campus, and he finds non-Jewish students at the University of Kentucky know shockingly little about the history. For example, many don’t know that six million Jews died in the Holocaust, or where the Polish concentration camp Auschwitz was located, if they’ve heard of Auschwitz at all. Some also believe the Holocaust only happened in Germany.
This tracks with results from a Pew Research Center survey released in 2020, which found that fewer than half of Americans knew how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust or how Adolf Hitler rose to power. A 2020 state-by-state survey by the Claims Conference, an organization that seeks financial compensation from Germany for Holocaust survivors, found 63 percent of millennials and Gen Z didn’t know how many Jews had died, and 48 percent didn’t know the name of any concentration camp. In New York, which has the largest Jewish population in the country, almost 20 percent of respondents believed Jews were responsible for the Holocaust.
William Brustein, acting director of the Global Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh and a professor emeritus of history at West Virginia University, said the data don’t bode well for today’s K-12 students. His research focuses on the Holocaust and antisemitism.
“When you see numbers like this, you have to worry that there’s certainly ignorance, a lack of knowledge,” he said.
He said students need an understanding of not only the historical facts of the Holocaust but the “multidimensionality” of antisemitism and the variety of ways prejudice against Jewish people has flared up throughout history.
Rabbi Litvin noted that the University of Kentucky has had its share of antisemitic incidents, though he doesn’t see the campus as an outlier. The Jewish student center has been vandalized five or six times in his seven years at the university, he said. At a Hanukkah menorah-lighting event at the center in December, someone in a car driving by grabbed one of the participants by the arm and accelerated, dragging the man and ultimately running over his leg. A student partying near the center also yelled, “Kill the kikes” at Rabbi Litvin in May. While walking with a Jewish student recently, he heard someone driving past them shout, “Kanye was right.” The car then came to a halt and the driver told them, “You better run.”
Brustein said the stakes of Holocaust education, and initiatives like this one in Kentucky, are high, and states that require schools to teach the Holocaust should prioritize and financially support these kinds of programs. He believes teaching students about the Holocaust teaches them about the conditions that lead to and the dire costs of indifference.
Holocaust education is about “how millions and millions of people” can come to believe a minority population “needs to be destroyed,” he said. “The Holocaust was the Jews, but it could well be another population.”