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Sonoma County students learn about bigotry, hatred through a Holocaust lens

Several generations have come and gone since May 1945 when the last prisoners were liberated from the Nazi concentration camps of World War II.

The Holocaust today feels far away, especially for youth increasingly separated from not only the harsh realities of a world at war, but the scope of Germany’s campaign of genocide.

For years, Jewish groups have worked to bring Holocaust survivors into classrooms to discuss their time in the camps, to tell their stories. But that population is quickly dwindling - fewer than 100,000 survivors remain - which is what sparked the effort to bring Bay Area students together for a program created by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center in San Francisco called “the Big Read.”

As part of the curriculum, ?7,000 students across the Bay Area read “The Children of Willesden Lane,” a memoir written by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen about Golabek’s mother’s life during the Holocaust, and how she escaped Nazi persecution on the famed Kindertransport that took Jewish children from Austria to England.

In Sonoma County, students from five schools participated in the program, including Windsor and Rancho Cotate high schools.

And while planning for the program began almost two years ago, it happened to align with the episodes of hate and racism that came before and after the U.S. presidential election, which, teachers said, made the program all the more impactful for students.

“In terms of the timing, it just really worked out,” said Kate McGerity a teacher at Rancho Cotate who taught the program to her 10th-grade world history students. “It worked as kind of a platform or a jumping off place to respond to prejudice, and the kind of hatreds we’re seeing.

“The kids were very aware of that kind of prejudice and those kinds of messages that were going on in the book.”

Morgan Schneider, JFCS Holocaust Center’s director of education, said the idea for the program was to get students to think critically about their surroundings, and to recognize that while you can’t change the past, you can impact the future.

The program gets students to focus on being “upstanders” rather than bystanders.

“We ask them how can they be morally courageous individuals, how can they make better decisions about the person that sits next to them at school,” she said. “We want to inspire these kids to realize there are patterns in history, and we have to be cautious. We have to ask questions, and we have to be aware of our surroundings.”

In McGerity’s classroom, she found reading the book opened up a dialogue among her students about how to respond to prejudice, make the right decisions and treat people well.

“The fact that they could make the connection, and the parallels to what is going on around them, it was a really good teachable moment for us to help them continue to discuss and to give them a safe space to discuss,” McGerity said.

Sarah Hart, the Windsor High School teacher whose classes participated in the Big Read, is familiar with instances of bigotry on campus. In fact, it happened in her classroom last year. There were a few incidents, she said, of anti-Semitic messages and symbols that she found on students’ classwork and posted to an online classroom message board.

Hart is Jewish, so the incidents stung deeply. While she had taught Eli Wiesel’s “Night” to her classes last year, when the opportunity to participate in the Big Read came around, she jumped on it. Though, she said, she would have participated in the Big Read even if the incidents hadn’t occurred.

“I felt like the kids had a long way to go in terms of understanding differences,” she said.

Other Sonoma County schools participating in the Big Read were Adele Harrison Middle School in Sonoma, Rincon Valley Christian School in Santa Rosa and St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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