Profile: He’s the Only Director NJ Holocaust Commission Has Ever Known

John Mooney | July 16, 2014 | Profiles
Paul Winkler enters 40th year leading the nation’s first Holocaust education program

Paul Winkler, executive director of New Jersey Commission on Holocaust

Name: Paul Winkler

Title: Executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education

Age: 77

Why he matters: Over his half-century career, Winkler has become an institution in New Jersey education, from his days as a teacher and administrator to an assistant commissioner in the state Department of Education to his current role leading the office that oversees the development of curriculum and programs related to the Holocaust and other acts of genocide and repression.

History lesson: In 1982, former Gov. Thomas Kean formally created the state commission, the first such body in the country, and in 1994, former Gov. Christie Whitman signed the law to mandate teaching about the Holocaust in the public schools.

Body of work: The commission is best known for its Holocaust curriculum, but it has also developed curricula on 13 other acts of horror throughout modern history, from the Native American genocide through Darfur. The most recent was a 20th anniversary presentation about the mass killings in Rwanda, as well as curricula on Greek atrocities in World War II and Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s gulags.

“I believe the commission, the mandate, and the changing of the idea of teaching the Holocaust exclusively has opened us up to all races, colors, creeds, and backgrounds,” he said.

September 11: The commission helped lead an effort to develop lesson plans dealing with the attack of September 11 and what led up to it, making them age appropriate from K-12.

How it began: Winkler was working in the state DOE on a special-education project in the late 1970s, when he got involved in a separate project that began with the Vineland and Teaneck school districts looking to develop ways to teach about the Holocaust. “It all started with these two districts coming to Trenton with their idea,” he said.

Starting young: His family emigrated from Hungary and Russia at the turn of the century; neither he nor any direct relatives were victims of the Holocaust. “But somewhere along the line, they taught me about caring and helping people,” he said.

What’s next: Winkler is now working on lessons related to the Holocaust and genocide that can meet the Common Core State Standards. He is also started a project to develop lessons that can apply to special-needs and limited-English students.

Survivors stories: The number of Holocaust survivors in New Jersey diminishes with each passing year, and Winkler said one of his priorities is get them into schools to talk to students. “As long as they are able to tell them, we need to get them out into schools. We want thousands of kids to meet survivors, because that will be the big issue into the future: will Holocaust education be lost when you don’t have survivors?”

Time flies: Winkler hasn’t really thought about all the years that have passed in his job. “The people I’ve worked with are such wonderful and caring people. I always felt I was doing this. It’s crazy to be 40 years later to be still working on it.”

How much longer: Winkler had some health issues a year ago, but has not slowed down a bit. “I don’t like fishing, I hate gardening, I can’t fix anything in the house. This is what I do, and I don’t expect to give it up.”

Family: Married for 57 years to his wife, Cecelia. Two grown children, one daughter a teacher; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Enjoys golf and tennis in his spare time.