A new history course will debut at Oak Park and River Forest High School in the fall of 2020 and it’s not your typical elective.
Holocaust Studies, “unlike other survey classes that might teach just a unit on Nazis or the Nuremberg trials … will offer a deep, interdisciplinary study of the Holocaust that centers on personal stories,” wrote Karin Sullivan, District 200’s communications director, in a statement.
Each day of the semester-long course, she said, will begin with students watching a two-minute video clip of a Holocaust survivor talking about their personal experience. They’ll be given an ID card bearing the name and birthdate of someone from the Holocaust, and the last five minutes of each class “will be spent updating one person’s story … as a way of stressing that the Holocaust did not just happen to six million persons, but happened to one person six million times.”
Michael Soffer, a history teacher at OPRF who developed and will teach Holocaust Studies, said he created the course after a “confluence of a bunch of things,” namely the recent rise of white nationalism and anti-Semitism in America that has fueled hate crimes both near and far — from the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall to a slew of incidents at OPRF last year, such as when students airdropped the image of a Swastika during a school assembly and scrawled the n-word on a shed on the high school’s campus.
For Soffer, who is Jewish, the course is more than academic. His wife’s grandmother survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. Soffer’s grandfather, “a well-respected young scholar in his town,” was smuggled into what is now the state of Israel before the start of World War II.
“Another thing that was percolating for me was the reality that so many Holocaust survivors I grew up hearing and knowing are no longer with us,” Soffer said in a recent phone interview. “The Holocaust is receding from memory in the annals of history.”
With that gradual forgetting, certain truths about the Holocaust that may never have been entirely clear, have become even more obscure.
“There’s this false assumption that America doesn’t get involved in World War II, because we didn’t know what was happening, but it was there,” Soffer said. “Just open the Chicago Tribune.”
Soffer said that as the Nazis rose to power and took steps toward genocide in the 1930s and ’40s, anti-Semitism and nationalism in the United States rose apace. For instance, polling data taken at the time shows a significant increase in the number of Americans who held conspiratorial perceptions of Jews (“bankers taking all our money away,” or “physically weak pacifists,” or “they’re tricking the country into going into every war,” Soffer said).
Soffer explained that another false assumption his course will address is the idea that the Holocaust was a unique experience in Jewish history.
“In fact, it’s not,” he said. “In a lot of ways, it’s similar to what had been happening in Europe up through that point. The Jews had been expelled by that time from England, France, Spain, Portugal and most of the German states.”
Soffer said he wants his course to also be a lesson on what he calls “upstanding.”
“You have villains, bystanders (which many people in Germany and America were), you have collaborators who decide for whatever reason that they agree with the bad thing happening, and then you have upstanders — people who stand up for the [threatened] group and take personal risks,” Soffer explained. “So there are people who put on Yellow Stars themselves, who advocated in America for open immigration, who wrote, researched, etc.
“I hope kids come out of the class saying, ‘I understand the reasons why people bystand and collaborate, and I’m more armed with the mechanisms to be an upstander myself — whether on racism or homophobia [or other social ills].’ How do we love the stranger? Democracy and anti-Semitism are really important things that I want our kids to be mindful of, especially as a father of Jewish children. It’s really important to me for them to be safer than my grandparents were.”