Depending on the day, William Paull might teach 260 eighth-graders. As much as the West Jefferson Hills School District educator is focused on each student’s literacy skills and reading comprehension, he also is worried about the silences.
“We talk about how important it is when you see something or hear something and you stand back, you are just as guilty,” he said.
While Paull imparts this message throughout the year, for the next several months he and his students are using the Holocaust as a prism. Between November and January Paull’s curriculum will rely on familiar texts. There’s Eli Wiesel’s “Night,” Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” poetry from Martin Niemöller and historical accounts of children who lived, and perished, during the Shoah.
Instructional time, Paull explained, is dedicated to reading and discussing texts, but also to addressing jokes, memes, slurs and listeners’ responsibilities.
The importance of being an upstander, and calling out hatred or persecution, is a lesson that’s historically dictated and applicable today, Paull told the Chronicle.
“In 1932, people were just being disrespectful to Jews and others who were not considered real Germans,” he said. “It slowly evolved from hate to something more serious.”
The fact that these attitudes led to genocide is critical, Paull noted: “We have to be careful because this history wasn’t that long ago. That’s what makes these lessons and this unit so important.”
About 10-15% of Paull’s students are Jewish, he said.
Some pupils share their family histories. Most are encountering Holocaust education for the first time. As opposed to focusing on “the brutalities of the Holocaust,” Paull addresses the 10-12 years that preceded the extermination of 6 million Jews. By relying on timelines, and honing in on changing societal behaviors, Paul charts how a culturally advanced community could devolve. Part of the purpose is to help students realize that the seemingly simplest of prejudices and slights can progress.
“It’s not so far-fetched to imagine what’s going on here,” he said.
Within his classroom, Paull talks about racist memes or comments people post online, and how left unchecked those remarks could portend disaster.
“If we don’t start teaching the youth about these wild events that took place, that started with a mean saying, [then a post] or a text could lead to something much greater that affects all of us,” he said.
Paull, 35, isn’t Jewish. He said his passion for teaching children about the Holocaust and the need to end hate began almost 15 years ago. As an undergraduate student at Duquesne University, he enrolled in a special topics class offered at the University of Pittsburgh. The instructors covered the Holocaust and invited a survivor to speak.
“I always had the common knowledge about what went on during World War II — the rise of Hitler, what led to the Holocaust — but not until that class did I realize what needed to be learned from the Holocaust,” Paull said.
Ever since that class, and becoming a teacher, Paull has tried to impart the lesson to his students that the Holocaust isn’t a story of numbers but of individuals and decisions. Given the age and scarcity of survivors, Paull has opened his classroom to descendants of survivors. He said these interactions have helped young people understand a period — and its generational effects — that is quickly being forgotten.
According to a 2020 survey by the Claims Conference, the lack of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z is alarming.
Sixty-three percent of survey respondents didn’t know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Shoah. Additionally, 48% of survey respondents couldn’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto.
Within the report, each of the 50 states was ranked based on its Holocaust Knowledge Score — scores were determined by the percentage of millennials and Gen Z adults who have “definitely heard about the Holocaust”; can name “at least one concentration camp, death camp or ghetto”; and also know that “6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.”
Despite faring in the top 10, Pennsylvania’s results are concerning.
Forty-five percent of Pennsylvania survey respondents can’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto; 40% don’t know what Auschwitz was; and 59% don’t know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Shoah.
Tsipy Gur, founder and executive director of Classroom Without Borders, a Pittsburgh-based organization that educates teachers about the Holocaust, Israel and Jewish history, said the study and recent antisemitic fervor espoused online evidence of a need for renewed educational commitment.
“There is no better time to teach about the Holocaust, and to learn from it, than now,” Gur said.
Paull said he hopes his classroom efforts make a difference and that others join him in combating the swell of hate.
“We need to be nicer and more empathetic to other races, religions and beliefs, and learn how to live together as one,” Paull said. “It sounds very cliche to say that … [but] we all need to be better. I have 260 children I can speak to on a daily basis — I hope I am making an impact — but it really takes everyone.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.