Holocaust Teacher Institute celebrates 20 years

A man points to the names of his parents and sister, who died in the Holocaust, during the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, in Miami Beach, Florida, in 2011. Photo: The Associated Press
By Barbara Gutierrez

A man points to the names of his parents and sister, who died in the Holocaust, during the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, in Miami Beach, Florida, in 2011. Photo: The Associated Press

Holocaust Teacher Institute celebrates 20 years

By Barbara Gutierrez
In a collaboration with the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development, the institute instructs hundreds of teachers from Miami-Dade County Public Schools yearly on the history of the Holocaust.

For four months every Friday, right before the Jewish Sabbath, Victor San Martin-Diaz, a senior at TERRA Environmental Research Institute secondary school, would videoconference with Judy Rodan, a Holocaust survivor who was hidden in a Catholic convent as a Jewish child and thus saved.

Besides learning about Rodan’s incredible experience of escaping harm during the Holocaust, the two got to know each other by sharing their lives, interests, and their dreams.

San Martin-Diaz was not alone. As part of a community service project called “Shabbat with Survivors,” he and nine other classmates were paired with Holocaust survivors from the Miami community, who not only shared their personal stories but opened up about their passions. It was a welcomed exchange during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. The students—themselves of different ethnicities—and the survivors became friends.

The conversations were caught on video, and a documentary was shown virtually last weekend to more than 300 teachers from Miami-Dade County Public Schools attending the University of Miami Holocaust Teacher Institute—a program that is a partnership between the School of Education and Human Development and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system. The institute had been one of the partners of the “Shabbat with Survivors” project.

For Miriam Klein Kassenoff, the director of the institute who also survived the Holocaust as a child, this was an important moment. Klein Kassenoff escaped from what was then Czechoslovakia, and along with her parents and younger brother, hid for seven months. Her brother, Ted Klein, was a U.S. magistrate and a professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

“I don’t have the answers as to why people have prejudices, but I do think I know how we can do better,” Klein Kassenoff said. “I find that if I meet somebody from another culture and get to know them and we make a personal connection, then we tend to like them.”

In the institute, she said, the teachers are asked to instruct their students to interact and find commonalities among each other rather than differences. That was the guiding principle held by Eduardo Barreto, who teaches English honors at TERRA Environmental Research Institute. He also taught the students who participated in the “Shabbat with Survivors” project. Barreto was a participant in the institute five years ago and decided to truly immerse his students in the study of the Holocaust.

“I believe the biggest lesson they all learned through this process—especially in a project like ‘Shabbat with Survivors’—they learned humanity,” he said. “It seems to me as an educator that we care very little about others—about suffering, about defending life—or at the very least, we care too little to instigate any significant and meaningful change. And I believe what these students learned is to do something, to be an agent of change. To care. And perhaps, to love.” 

“This is a very painful and trying time for the Jewish community with rising anti-Semitism,” Klein Kassenoff pointed out.

She stated that one way to fight this anti-Semitism is to educate the teachers who come to the institute about the rich life of the Jewish people and their communities in Europe before the Holocaust.

“Students need to understand this, so they are not prone to the evils of anti-Semitism and be taught to be ‘upstanders,’ not ‘bystanders,’ when they hear anti-Semitic remarks or see anti-Semitic actions in the community,” she said.

Klein Kassenoff has spent most of her professional life dedicated to bringing Jewish history and culture, and specifically the history of the Holocaust, to educators. She is the education specialist for Miami-Dade County Public Schools and for the past 20 years has led the institute she founded—where she remains director and instructor. In 1994, the Florida legislature mandated the instruction of the history of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development, has praised Klein Kassenoff. She called her “indomitable” because of her tireless work with the institute and Jewish education.

“It is critically important for students to learn about history, as mandated by law in the state of Florida, because knowledge assists the living to learn from our history—horrific though it may be—in order to not repeat tragedies of our past,” Kohn-Wood said in remarks offered during the seminar.

The institute, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, was born out of a personal experience for Klein Kassenoff. In 1986, she was one of 30 teachers who attended a monthlong immersion program in Israel.

While there, she learned from scholars and community members and studied at The Ghetto Fighter’s House Kibbutz and other sites, including Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust Remembrance Center.

It was a life changing experience for the Holocaust survivor.

“I myself, as a child survivor of the Holocaust, did not know the accurate detailed account of history of the Holocaust,” said Klein Kassenoff. “When I came back from that experience my dream was that I would be able to give back that kind of seminar to teachers.”

When she was approached by the University with the encouragement of many, including Haim Shaked, director of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, to open an institute to instruct teachers on the history of the Holocaust, Klein Kassenoff recognized her chance to recreate her Israel experience.

The institute offers teachers seminars on the history of the Holocaust; sessions on the major critical, ethical, and moral issues raised in this study; and familiarity with the wealth and scope of historical documents, literature, and resources that will augment a study of the Holocaust. All this is geared to helping teachers create their own lesson plans, as well as activities for their students.

Knowing the important role of history in teaching the Holocaust, the institute kicked off its programming on June 13 with an opening reception with guest keynote speaker Elisha Wiesel, the son of the famed Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel. It was followed by the lecture “Why? Explaining the Holocaust” by author and historian Peter Hayes.

In another session held during the four-day event, historian and institute resident scholar Michael Berenbaum spoke about “The Twisted Road to Auschwitz.” He explained how a vibrant Jewish community went from being identified; then ghettoized; then murdered in Auschwitz because of the evils of prejudice, hatred, and anti-Semitism.

Kori Street from the USC Shoah Foundation gave a presentation on its “Dimensions in Testimony” project, which has created virtual prerecorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors using advanced filming techniques and special technology. Since all the information about the survivors was prerecorded, the technology allows people to ask questions of the survivors even after they are gone, said Street.

In a demonstration, Street asked one concentration camp survivor, Pinchas Gutter, to sing a song. He broke into a lively song in Yiddish to the amazement of many of the teachers on the virtual program.

“This is the most breathtaking technology I have ever seen,” posted Jennifer Aronowsky Kunkel. “This will keep the memory alive. Incredible.” 

Through the continued work of the institute, which hosts year-round seminars, film panels, and other educational events, teachers in Miami-Dade County gain a tremendous wealth of knowledge and impart this in their classes, noted Klein Kassenoff.

“I wanted the teachers to get this information; so, they could teach the Holocaust in a very authentic, historical, accurate, and professional manner that our students can get the information straight,” she said.

She indicated that she is carrying out “sacred work” and is grateful to the University for its support.

“There is a saying in Hebrew that applies: ‘L’dor, v’dor,’ which is from generation to generation,” Klein Kassenoff said. “And that is my hope that what we teach will be passed from generation to generation.”