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CVHS teachers committed to teaching on the Holocaust

Central Valley High School teacher Steve Bernard visited the Auschwitz concentration camp during a month-long People-to-People visit in Europe in 1980.

Even though he taught world affairs and government, he had known little about the history of the Holocaust before then.

What he saw in the labor camp and death camp made him feel sick, sparking his passion for teaching students about the Holocaust.

Steve Bernard and Geoff Arte
Steve Bernard and Geoff Arte teach about Holocaust at CVHS

At first, he incorporated Holocaust history into his class on world affairs. In 1985, Steve developed a semester-long elective course.  Now it is so popular that in 2011, 400 students signed up.

In 2010, Steve retired after 34 years of teaching and passed on his legacy of teaching the course at Central Valley High School (CVHS) to Geoff Arte. Geoff was a student teacher under him in 2006 during his master’s in teaching program at Whitworth.  He began teaching at CVHS in 2007.

Steve and two other area teachers, Brad Veile, a teacher at Lakeside High School in Plummer, Idaho, and Julie Scott, a teacher at East Valley Middle School, have completed the week-long training at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to be Holocaust Museum Teacher Fellows.

They will be honored and will light a candle during the 2012 Yom HaShoah, Holocaust commemoration service, at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 19, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th Ave.

Steve was also one of the readers of the 110 essays area middle and high school students submitted on why it’s important to teach about the Holocaust.  The essay contest is now an annual part of preparations for this year’s Yom HaShoah service.

As a historian, Steve, who attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Spokane Valley, said he taught the Holocaust because it is the right thing to do.

“I do not want that history to die.  There is an amazing lack of knowledge among people who do not study history,” said Steve, who also has taught adult education classes.  “It’s important that this genocide has a name.  It would be tragic to let this history disappear.  We learn lessons from history—U.S. history and Holocaust history.”

The Holocaust Memorial Museum spends billions of dollars to keep this history alive and to help people realize how genocide happens.

“The museum emphasizes that there are four groups of people:  perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders and victims,” Steve said.  “The message is to not be bystanders.  We have a moral responsibility to stand up for what’s right.”

Steve grew up in Mead, earned a degree in political science with a minor in history and coaching at Washington State University and taught at Greenacres Middle School before starting to teach at Central Valley in 1979.  He was also a CVHS’s football coach. 

In 2006, the Washington State Holocaust Center invited Steve to the Lerner Fellowship Program at Columbia University in New York City. He has been to the U.S. Holocaust Museum five times. 

Steve has taught seminars at Chapman College, Portland State and the University of Washington.   He volunteers six days a semester to teach the history of the Holocaust before the students in the West Valley School District’s Contract Base High School read the novel, Night, by Elie Wiessel.

Geoff, a graduate of Regis University in Denver, had at first been uncertain about teaching a whole semester on the Holocaust.

Before joining the CV faculty, he taught a year at Gonzaga Prep, which has a nine-week genocide course. 

Geoff, who attends St. Aloysius Catholic Church, now feels he is lucky to have a full semester to teach the Holocaust in contrast with others who may have three days to teach it in a history class.

Another of Steve’s former student teachers now teaches the semester curriculum in Oroville.

“The curriculum is full. We could teach more.  It follows the rise of the Nazi Party, the development of concentration camps, Jewish life in the ghettos, Germany’s defeat in World War II, war crimes trials and the aftermath in post-war Germany and Europe.  We have talked of teaching another semester course on the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan and other areas of the world,” Geoff said.

“The course is like a college-level class,” he said.  “Students have many questions:  How could it have happened that 11 million people were killed and no one stepped in?  What happened to those who said something?

“We teach students that the Holocaust was not inevitable if people had been courageous.  People made good and bad decisions,” Geoff said.

“The hope is that students and adults will learn lessons from the history of this horrific event, but other genocides have happened,” Steve said.  “We can learn from the past and apply it to today’s society to prevent future genocides.

Genocides grow out of economic, social, political and historical contexts, he said, pointing out how Nazis developed anti-Semitism and began defining Jews as a race, rather than as people who follow a religion.

Steve added that Americans were complicit in not opening their immigration quotas to allow more Jews to enter during the 1930s.

At a 1934 conference in Evian, France, nations met to discuss how to help Jews in Germany.  The United States, Great Britain and France knew of the discrimination against Jews, but none would make an effort to help them.  After that, Germany felt it had a “green light,” and the world would not care, Steve said. “Only the Dominican Republic allowed more Jews to come.

“The nations of the world were bystanders and collaborators,” he said.  “The world also knew of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia.”

What can people do to prevent genocide?

Geoff tells students they can write to Congress and speak out on issues today.

One issue today is that the Polish government is considering whether to save millions of Euros by letting Auschwitz return to dust, rather than spending money to preserve it.

“Germany and Poland are not proud of their history,” Steve said. 

“I’m worried about Holocaust denial from people saying the Holocaust was exaggerated or did not happen,” he said.

“The camps were built in Eastern Europe where there was a concentration of Jews.  The six death camps were in isolated forest areas of Eastern Poland, because the Nazis did not want the world to find out,” he said. 

Dachau was the first concentration camp to open and its focus was for political opponents of Nazis, arrested for speaking out.

Steve said students wonder how the minds of people, especially young people, were manipulated by negative and positive propaganda.

“Positive” propaganda glorified the Nazi state, portrayed Hitler as a God or as the savior of Germany and created the myth that the Aryan race was superior.

“Negative propaganda turned people against Jewish people because of their beliefs and way of life.  To create fear, it made Jewish people a race who were considered to be disease carriers and a lower life form.  First graders were taught to hate Jews,” he said.

In the 2012 essay submissions, Steve found students focusing on prejudice, hatred, bullying and racism.

“They see themselves as able to take a small-scale stand against those attitudes.  Many in this generation have no knowledge of this history.  Through knowledge of social, political and economic perspectives, we can prevent history from repeating itself,” he said.  “People allowed the government to do something that was not right.”

Students also talk about the Aryan Nations in North Idaho, and dynamics of hate and white supremacy today.

“There’s a connection between that and Nazi Germany,” Steve said.  “The message to students is ‘don’t be a bystander.’  Stand up for what is right.  We have a moral obligation.”

Steve said students are most impressed by listening to a Holocaust survivor.  As a historian, he believes that the late Eva Lassman touched the lives of many young people. 

“She played a crucial role by sharing the testimony of her personal experience as a Holocaust survivor,” he said, noting that in 10 years, there will be only the testimonies of the second generation, which are not as powerful.

“Eva told of life in Lodz, in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw and of riding on a cattle train,” he said. “Here was a small, old woman who did not have an ounce of hate.  She preached tolerance and forgiveness.”

For information, call CVHS 747-3304 or email sbernardcougs@yahoo.com.