Out of its tiny office inside the state Department of Education, the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education has for the past 20 years taken on topics that reveal humanity’s dark side.
The office, first created by former Gov. Thomas Kean, has wrestled — successfully –with ways to teach not just the Holocaust but equally forbidding issues like the September 11th attacks and the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda.
Disturbing topics, to be sure, but ones that longtime director Paul Winkler said are critical to teach to New Jersey’s schoolchildren to help them make larger historical connections.
“Our mission has given us the opportunity to show the similarities of genocide,” said Winkler, whose upbeat nature belies his daily business.
The commission’s latest work is a high school curriculum guide that helps schools teach about the terror in the former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, a U.S. ally in World War II.
Winkler and others involved in the project said American textbooks too often gloss over, if not completely overlook, Stalin’s Gulag (labor camps), executions, and other atrocities that led to the deaths of millions of people from the 1920s through the early 1950s.
“I saw that most history books don’t talk about the evils of Stalin, but instead his participation as an ally of the U.S. in the Second World War,” Winkler said.
On the heels of groundbreaking work developing a curriculum guide for teaching about the Sept. 11th attacks, the commission two years ago was approached by the Prakhin International Literacy Foundation to work on a truer depiction of Stalin’s reign.
The process involved working with educators and others in developing lesson plans and units, with both state officials and local teachers providing input. Among them was John Dougherty, the state’s former director of social studies instruction who ultimately wrote the new curriculum guide.
He said the standard textbooks treat the good and bad of Stalin “in general.”
“But they don’t go into the depth of the famine in the 1930s or the show trials he held,” said Dougherty, who has since retired from the department. “Stalin covered in a vague, general way. The average textbook covers everything in a vague and general way. That’s why it’s important we do these.”
Also involved in the work was William Ladd, a history teacher in Cape May County Technical High School in Cape May Courthouse. He has long taught Stalin and Hitler together, seeing more similarities than differences, and the new curriculum guide, released this past fall, is proving its value.
“With all the readings it provides, and the pictures, I was so taken to what this can add to the lessons,” he said.
Next up for the commission is a curriculum guide about the atrocities on the Greek islands before and during World War II, where virtually the entire Jewish population was killed. And then the commission will revisit the Rwanda genocide 20 years later.
In a time when there is a new push toward the basics like reading and math, including the advent of the national Common Core State standards, Winkler said districts are always reluctant to embrace work about specific — and sometimes sensitive — topics.
But he said these atrocities can’t be forgotten and in the end help teach students in a relevant way about research, context, and other important skills.
“Everyone thinks these are separate, but this is how you teach those skills,” he said. “We see this as a supplement, not something that has to be separate in itself.”