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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Holocaust history brings rural educators to tears

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“I want to apologize for being ignorant of your story,” said Rwanda native Gatsinzi Basaninyenzi, who teaches English in Huntsville, Ala. “The genocide in Rwanda lasted 100 days, yours took six years. I have been very ignorant.”

By Kate McNeil

There are no Jews where Danielle Bethune comes from. The high school teacher lives in a town of 372 people, including 95 high schoolers, in the middle of Nebraska.

“It’s not a point of prejudice, our kids just don’t know [Judaism],” Ms. Bethune said.

She tries to teach the Holocaust but feels like she comes up short. “There’s no way I can cover it all, like, here, this is Judaism in a box.”

Enter Riverdale resident Sondra Perl, an English professor at Lehman College for more than 30 years and author of On Austrian Soil: Teaching Those I Was Taught to Hate, a memoir of her experiences working with Austrian teachers who were descendants of Nazis.

Although quick to recognize the horror of the Holocaust, Ms. Perl hopes to keep it alive in classrooms, especially those in rural America.

“Students, no matter where they live, begin to see the implications for their own lives when they learn about the dangerous potential of intolerance and racism,” she said.

A consummate teacher, Ms. Perl created the Holocaust Educators Network three years ago and fashioned a yearly seminar for rural teachers like Ms. Bethune.

“Urban institutions are so well funded,” she added. “We want to bring knowledge to people that wouldn’t normally get it.”

On July 7 Ms. Bethune and 20 other teachers arrived in New York to immerse themselves in a 10-day seminar on Holocaust history.

An Upper East Side townhouse, the home of the late Olga Lengyl, a Holocaust survivor, is serving as home base for the teachers, who hail from 11 different states, many in the South.

Ms. Lengyl’s home has been remodeled and renamed the Memorial Library, which supports education aimed at preventing genocides.

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