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Holocaust Education Could Address Rising Hate Crimes

Valerie Crowder

Hate crimes are on the rise in North Carolina, the FBI’s latest crime statistics show.  Educators say bolstering Holocaust instruction in schools could address this problem.

Last year, hate crimes increased in North Carolina by 12 percent.  Lauren Piner teaches a Holocaust and genocide course at South Central High School in Winterville. Holocaust education goes beyond teaching historical facts, it also helps combat intolerance against marginalized groups, she said.

“I wish that we could say that the ideas that led to the Holocaust were relegated to the dustbins of history, but they’re not. When we have synagogues in Raleigh and Cary that are getting fliers that say death to the Jews, and we have people who are burning crosses, and we have active hate groups in North Carolina, it becomes more important than ever that we teach tolerance, love, and humanity. Dehumanization is one of the first stages of the eight stages of genocide, and if we can teach our students to recognize that. Then we can prevent things like this from happening.”

Holocaust education provides other instructional opportunities that relate to today.  For instance, Piner says teaching students about Nazi propaganda can segue into lessons on media literacy.

“Today we have the 24 hour news cycle. We have radio.  We have podcasts. We have social media,” Piner said.  “Knowing what’s real, what’s factual, what’s opinion, is extremely important in making sure that we can have crucial, critical conversations that are civil, and are based on fact, not on fallacies.”

Last week, Piner helped lead a propaganda-focused Holocaust teaching workshop in Pitt County.  At the end of the workshop, Holocaust survivor Alfred Schnog shared his story with about 45 South Central High School students, along with 30 teachers from across the region.  Schnog says he’s spoken at teaching workshops and other events across the state more than 130 times.  He says teachers play an important role in fighting antisemitism through Holocaust education.

“The reason that antisemitism exists, or indeed any hateful speech exists, is because people are ignorant, they don’t understand, and they need to be educated,” Schnog said.  

Schnog, his parents and twin brother managed to immigrate to the U.S. a little over a month before the Nazis invaded Holland, where he and his family were temporarily living after they fled Germany. Schnog says his grandparents and aunt died at Sobibor – one of six death camps in Poland.  Alisarah ithipathachai was one of the students who listened to Schnog’s story. She says everyone should take advantage of opportunities to listen to first-hand accounts from survivors.

 “We’re really lucky to live in a time period where we still do have survivors. And eventually, one day there won’t be any more. And everybody who learns about it then is going to be learning from secondary sources, secondary stories, which is still important, but hearing about it from someone who was actually there, kind of puts things into more perspective,” she said.

The NC Council on the Holocaust organizes eight teaching workshops across the state each year.  Each workshop typically features a holocaust survivor as a guest speaker.

“There’s going to come a day when there are no more survivors,” said Karen Klaich, co-director of the council’s teaching workshops in the eastern part of the state. “So, this is a valuable time. So, I wanted the kids today to understand that they were very lucky to have a chance to hear somebody.” 

Last year, hate crimes targeting Jews rose by more than 30 percent, the FBI’s data shows.  And 58 percent of the religious-based offenses reported in 2017 were anti-Jewish. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified more than 32 hate groups operating in North Carolina. Klaich says her organization wants the state to require Holocaust education in schools to help reverse this trend.  Ten states already mandate Holocaust education.

“We just feel like we have a need because we have such a large hate group number for our state. We have the Charlotte Jewish community, Raleigh, Greensboro; we have significant populations that are affected,” Klaich said. “There’s a synagogue in Raleigh that’s under FBI protection because people have received death threats there.”  

Valerie Crowder was a reporter for Public Radio East.