What do Manatee County schools teach about the Holocaust? Critics say it’s not enough

Al Katz Center shares the importance of Holocaust education

Beverly Newman shares the future implications of learning about past atrocities.
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Beverly Newman shares the future implications of learning about past atrocities.

The Holocaust is more than a history lesson.

The slaughter of six million Jews was a lesson in the dangers of prejudice and the need for civic engagement. It offered a horrifying study on the effects of dehumanizing others, and it highlighted the power of choice — the choice to cry out or remain silent.

Florida law has required Holocaust education since 1994, but it remains unclear — 25 years later — whether all school districts are taking part or how their compliance should be measured. The topic gained new life after a principal in Palm Beach County refused to confirm whether the Holocaust was a “factual, historical event,” leading to his reassignment last month.

The law says teachers should deliver their lessons “in a manner that leads to an investigation of human behavior, an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person.”

A couple in Manatee County started to question the school district more than a year ago, and despite recent assurances, they remain steadfast in their push for a more intensive Holocaust curriculum.

Beverly and Lawrence Newman operate a Bradenton museum called the Al Katz Center for Holocaust Survivors and Jewish Learning. Nestled between restaurants and beauty salons off Cortez Road, the 2,400 square foot museum is packed with countless Jewish artifacts.

“Our millennials — our future — must understand that perfect storm of evil,” Beverly Newman said. “It was the complicity of the entire world in allowing the mass enslavement and mass murder of the Jewish people.”

The center is named after Beverly’s father, who was first captured in November 1938, on the “Night of Broken Glass,” his family said. Officially known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis terrorized Jewish neighborhoods and arrested some 30,000 people, whisking them off to concentration camps.

After enduring years of horror and losing most of his family to the genocide, Katz was liberated by the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army in 1945. He grew to loathe the name Alphonse, a name with German origins, so he legally changed it to Al Katz after the Holocaust, his daughter said.

Al Katz died at the age of 90, but his experience and knowledge live on at the museum. Beverly and Lawrence Newman believe the past can inform the future, especially when it comes to atrocities that ended less than 75 years ago, and they hope to be a valuable resource for area students.

“I’m not the only expert there is, but my husband and I really are experts, and we have everything you need to do very comprehensive Holocaust education,” Beverly Newman said.

In all their time speaking at board meetings and reaching out to district administrators, the couple said they received little information about what’s offered in Manatee County, but others are beginning to ask the same questions.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 741 last May, requiring Florida’s public schools to treat anti-Semitism in the same way they treat racism. Months later, on Aug. 1, the Florida Department of Education directed every school district to complete an online survey, explaining how and when they teach Holocaust education.

Melinda Lundy, the director of secondary curriculum for Manatee County schools, provided a copy of the district’s response to the Bradenton Herald. It said elementary schools address “overarching goals of Holocaust education,” with an emphasis on prejudice, racism and stereotyping in the later grades.

“The themes in K-5 reading instruction include teaching about the importance of acceptance, community building amongst diverse groups, and tolerance,” the district said.

Eighth-graders are exposed to articles, literature and poems linked to the Holocaust, and tenth-graders receive a more direct education on the genocide, with a curriculum built on state standards.

“Explain the causes, events, and effects of the Holocaust including its roots in the long tradition of anti-Semitism, 19th Century ideas about race and nation, and Nazi dehumanization of the Jews and other victims,” the standards read.

Ever since it emerged 1994, the law has allowed school districts to decide when and how they deliver Holocaust education, and the standards have changed over time, said Linda Medvin, chair of the state’s Task Force on Holocaust Education.

“You’re not going to teach kindergartners or first-graders about concentration camps, but you are going to teach them not to smack the kid next to them because the other kid wears glasses,” Medvin said.

“You learn the sense of community, helping other people,” she continued. “What happens if somebody goes after your friend? If you stand by and watch them beat somebody up, are you as guilty as the person who was actually doing the hitting?”

Medvin joined the task force in 1996, two years after the law was created, and she became its chairwoman in 2009. She said the group partners with 10 sites throughout the state, including the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, which serves Manatee County educators.

Each site gives the task force an idea of what training and opportunities are offered in each area. The law is demanding yet flexible, naming only the end goal.

And while the depth and focus of Holocaust education is up for debate, most seem to agree on its importance.

“The future generations have to understand there are consequences to what goes on,” Medvin said. “If they don’t understand that, how can they move forward? These are our future leaders.”

Holocaust education and the future of compliance

Holocaust education is one of 19 other areas of required instruction, and the state is considering a new rule to track compliance across every area.

The law requires “flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute,” along with curriculum on natural resources, the contributions of women and Hispanics in the United States, the effects of alcohol and drugs, and the importance of free enterprise.

If the State Board of Education finalizes its proposal, “Required Instruction Reporting,” districts would likely have to submit an annual report on their compliance with the law. The board collected feedback during a recent online presentation, but the draft rule was unavailable as of Friday.

But what happens if a school district fails to meet the requirements? State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said she plans to file legislation and give the law “some teeth” in 2020.

Addressing the requirements on Holocaust education and African American history, Thompson sent letters to Gov. DeSantis and Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, on July 23.

“With the rise of racism and anti-Semitism in America, it is vitally important that Florida’s students receive instruction mandated by Florida Statute 1003.42,” she wrote.

Thompson’s proposal would strip district superintendents of their salaries if they fail to comply with the law, and she asked state leaders for their support.

“This instruction will help students understand the importance of diversity and inclusion in our democracy and the need for each generation to guard them zealously,” she concluded.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.