Orlando Tragedy Sharpens Relevance of Holocaust Training

Jun 15, 2016

Some Leon County teachers turned into students this week as they received a crash course in how to teach their own students about the Holocaust. That training program gained new relevance because of this past weekend’s tragedy in Orlando.

Dr. Mary Johnson speaks to Leon County teachers during the two-day Holocaust conference at FSU's Turnbull Center.
Credit Tom Flanigan

The two-day session at FSU’S Turnbull Center was hosted by HERC (Holocaust Education Resource Council). The main presenter for the occasion was Dr. Mary Johnson. She’s senior historian with the international education organization “Facing History and Ourselves.”

“We looked at the mandate for the state of Florida in terms of teaching about the Holocaust and it says right there, we’re teaching about hatred, racism, prejudice, etc., because all of that comes out of looking at this period in history so that it allows us to talk about it and think about it in another period of time,” she explained before the beginning of her presentation on the conference’s second day.

But Johnson was quick to point out the events of recent days add a “breaking news” relevance to the discussion of what happened in Nazi Germany those many years ago.

“Yes, there is a lot of connection to it,” she agreed. “It’s not the same, but certainly the business of one group turning against another is very much connected within this history.”

One of the great questions surrounding the Holocaust is “How did it happen?” Johnson said the marshaling of blame and hatred against the Jews and other “enemies of the Reich” was an incremental process.

“We talk about a concept called the ‘Universe of Obligation’,” she offered. “So who do you care about when something bad happens? Your family, your friends, your neighborhood…how far does that go? And do you think about ‘the other’ or vice versa? So how do you get the mutual respect among people. You can do that by looking at the Holocaust”

She outlined how the German peoples’ “Universe of Obligation” slowly shrank as the government steadily excluded various groups of being worthy of human consideration. But how do real teachers communicate these ideas to actual school kids? Dionne Smith teaches Leon County’s first basic civics curriculum to kindergarten through fifth grade students at Gilchrist Elementary School. She said the key is to get the kids to care about an ever-expanding circle of other people.

“To be a citizen of the United States or a citizen of this world, and work together with one another and not against. It’s the only way to live; it’s the only way to be!” she exclaimed. “I just want more awareness and the earlier we catch the kids and have them understand how important it is to be kind to one another, I think this world will be a better place.”

That place, hoped educators like Smith and Johnson, will be able to better avoid the distrust, fear and hatred that divides people and provided, more than 80-years ago, the fertile ground from which sprang the Holocaust.