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Survivor, Howard teachers stress importance of Holocaust education in schools

At the age of 15, Edith Mayer Cord was handed a fake birth certificate and a new name.

She spent the next year moving 13 times around France, hiding in plain sight from the Nazis.

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The year was 1943. Cord, then known as Elise Maillet, who is Jewish, had spent her entire childhood living through the aftermath of one world war to the next and the Holocaust.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1928, Cord and her family first fled to Italy to escape the rise of Nazism and, later on, went to France.

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After being moved around to various schools, mostly Catholic, Cord was smuggled in 1944 into Switzerland where she became a nanny until the end of World War II.

Cord’s father and brother were sent to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland, in summer 1942 and were killed.

Her mother survived the war, and they were reunited. They eventually began new lives in New York City. Cord, 91, who lives in Columbia, still has her fake birth certificate.

Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, a number which closely resembles Maryland’s population as of July 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In July, Oregon became the 12th state to mandate Holocaust education in its schools. During this past General Assembly session, several Maryland lawmakers attempted to mandate a Holocaust unit, but the bill failed to gain traction.

Introduced by state Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, the bill would have required the state education department to develop guidelines for public middle and high schools and certain private middle and high schools to include a unit on the Holocaust and other contemporary acts of genocide, according to the bill.

Kramer is working to gain support before reintroducing the bill next session, he previously told The Baltimore Sun.

“It is a shame Maryland has not joined the numerous states that require a Holocaust curriculum taught in a coordinated and consistent way in our schools," Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia said.

“A Holocaust curriculum done well across the system can help stem the conditions that are contributing to the rise of not only anti-Semitism but all hate speech and violence in our schools and larger society."

In May 2018, more than 50 swastikas and homophobic and racist slurs were scrawled over the Glenelg High School campus. Four students were indicted and faced hate crime charges; two pleaded guilty and the remaining two were found guilty after agreeing to a statement of facts.

Holocaust education in Howard schools

Cord, a former college French and German language professor and a financial adviser, dedicates her time to sharing her story of being a Holocaust survivor.

She talks to many students, middle school age and up. She always asks the teacher, “What do they know?” before beginning her presentation.

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“I never talk about the horrors because that is not my purpose,” Cord said. “My purpose is not to shock but to inform, to teach.”

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Cord tells her personal story and explains how the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler came to be. For example, she explains the term “Nazi” means the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and how the Nazi symbol, the swastika, is derived from a widely used and ancient religious icon of Hindus, Jainas and Buddhists. Derived from the Sanskrit word “svastika,” meaning well-being, Cord explains how the Nazis altered the symbol, choosing harsh colors and adding “harsh anchors” to the ends of the equal-armed crosses.

“I think most children are ignorant of what Nazism is really all about because I have been called into two schools where Jewish kids have been targeted and harassed,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘What can I do in an hour?’ So what I do now is I explain what it really is.”

Cord has spoken at many local schools, including Atholton and Wilde Lake high schools. She recently published a book, “Finding Edith, Surviving the Holocaust in Plain Sight,” detailing her life.

One in five millennials “haven’t heard or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust,” according to a recent national survey by Schoen Consulting, a research firm in New York.

In the Howard school system, all seventh-grade English classes include a unit called “Facing Injustice in Our World” that gives students their first formal introduction to the Holocaust and other contemporary genocides, including the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Edith Mayer Cord, 91, an author and speaker who lives in Columbia, looks at a map of Jewish populations and Nazi detention sites in France during WWII. She survived the Holocaust by hiding under multiple false identities throughout France during the Nazi occupation. Both her father and brother were arrested in France, deported to Auschwitz, and murdered.
Edith Mayer Cord, 91, an author and speaker who lives in Columbia, looks at a map of Jewish populations and Nazi detention sites in France during WWII. She survived the Holocaust by hiding under multiple false identities throughout France during the Nazi occupation. Both her father and brother were arrested in France, deported to Auschwitz, and murdered. (Nate Pesce/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Teachers can teach with several anchor texts for the unit, including, “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939-1944” by Aranka Siegal about her experience living in a Jewish ghetto during World War II.

Lisa Henn, a seventh-grade English teacher at Glenwood Middle, has her students choose between reading Frank’s and Siegal’s books each year.

Henn finds that many of her students don’t have background knowledge of the Holocaust, so she spends time focusing on the events to help her students understand the anchor texts better.

A majority of her students “do find value in learning about the Holocaust,” with many picking up on modern-day references, Henn said.

Henn also incorporates an interactive art element into the injustice unit, having a local artist teach her students felting — an art form that uses special needles with barbed blades to matte dyed sheep wool fibers onto a felt square. The students use this art form to create a visual representation of a historical event centered around injustice.

This spring, students chose from depicting Auschwitz; Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass; the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943; the Rwandan genocide; Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II; and the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral homes in the 1800s.

The quilt project allows for Henn’s students to process and understand the historical events, and to decide what objects, colors and themes can be symbolic to portray the time period or event, she said.

At the end of the unit, Henn takes her students to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“That’s important for them to see, too,” Henn said. “It has a really strong impact when we do go there. I think they get the severity of what happened when they go … it seems more real when they go to the museum.”

There is no requirement for all Howard seventh graders to attend a field trip to the museum, “as decisions about field trips are decided at the school level,” according to Jess Goldstein, a Howard schools spokeswoman.

There is no Holocaust education when Howard students advance to eighth grade.

In high school, freshmen learn about the Holocaust again in their United States history class. This class explores the historical event “through the lens of the U.S. response to the Holocaust and evaluate[s] the U.S. response during and after World War II,” Goldstein said.

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During sophomore year, students study the Rwanda genocide in American Government and, in junior year, the Modern World History class covers the Holocaust and other genocides, according to schools spokesman Brian Bassett. Both classes are required courses for graduation.

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Henn said she “would love” for Holocaust education to be mandated.

There is “a value for learning about history and understanding the past and we can learn about what happened in the past, so we don’t repeat these things and we can prevent it from happening” again, Henn said.

Jhonna Seifert, who teaches third grade at Atholton Elementary, said it was surprising to discover a unit on the Holocaust is not mandated in Maryland.

“I guess I was thinking, ‘Oh I thought that would be a given,’ ” said Seifert, who has been teaching in the county for a decade.

If her students were to ask her about the Holocaust, Seifert said she “would not come out and say every little detail … but I would explain it in an age-appropriate way.

“I don’t think it’s wrong for a kid to ask a question or do any research,” she added.

As a fourth-grade teacher at Waverly Elementary, Karen Jablon only briefly discusses the Holocaust with her students when reading “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry — a historical fiction story about a Jewish family that escapes from Copenhagen, Denmark, during WWII.

“If we read that story, we will touch upon the Holocaust as a historical event to put it in the framework, but it’s very superficial in the sense this story took place during WWII,” she said.

Outside of the classroom, Jablon, who is Jewish, teaches a Holocaust class at Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Columbia. She also teaches Jewish religious classes at Temple Isaiah in Fulton and Beth El Congregation in Baltimore.

When teaching at Beth Shalom, Jablon is careful with how much graphic detail she tells her students, including visual elements.

“I really make sure I look at the materials before I show them to my seventh-grade kids. It’s horrific, but I don’t want them have nightmares,” she said.

Jablon said a mandated unit is “a good idea,” ensuring it includes factual information, that the graphic nature is appropriate and it’s not sensationalized.

Before becoming a rabbi, Grossman developed high school-level Holocaust curriculum and understands how complicated it is to create it.

“There isn’t a consistent amount and direction and curriculum for teaching the Holocaust in a way that inculcates the lessons of the Holocaust as applied to today — particularly empathy and having responsibility — and that is a problem,” Grossman said.

“As it is said, ‘If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.’ "

Baltimore Sun reporter Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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