West Windsor, N.J. – As the culmination of a year of activities, the Mercer County Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center hosted the third annual Dr. Paul Winkler Holocaust and Genocide Educators’ Conference on June 5 at the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) Conference Center.
Approximately 100 high school and middle school teachers from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut attended the event, whose theme was “Teaching Genocide Through Texts, Literature and Personal Accounts.”
Said Craig Coenen, the Center’s Co-Director, “I got a lot of positive feedback from the teachers. If each teacher can reach 100 students, we've reached thousands of students today with our message.” The co-director is Edie Serafine.
Six dynamic speakers, including Mercer’s own Laura Knight, Professor of English, shared insights and educational resources to give teachers tools for covering the tragic history and moral lessons of the Holocaust of World War II and other genocides. (Knight’s topic was “Literature to Use in the Classroom.”)
Other speakers included: Lawrence Glaser, Executive Director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, whose topic was “Telling Stories About the Good Guys: Little Known Martyrs and Heroes During the Holocaust”; Dr. Nvair Beylerian, who spoke about “Armenian Genocide and the American Response”; and Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, whose topic was “Victim Agency and Genocide Education: Lessons from the Herero and Armenian Experiences.”
The final presentation was by Michael Bornstein and his daughter, Debbie Holinstat Bornstein, authors of “Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017).
At the age of four, Michael Bornstein was the youngest known survivor to be liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Having seen Holocaust denial propaganda on the internet, he said he was finally moved to share his story. Now, that has become his most important work.
According to Ruta Sepetys, whose review appeared in The New York Times Book Review, “This book is published as narrative nonfiction for young readers, but the equal measures of hope and hardship in its pages lend appeal to an audience of all ages... It chronicles the harrowing experience of Michael’s extended family during the Holocaust, its aftermath and into the postwar years of immigration. The arc of their journey is both moving and memorable, combining the emotional resolve of a memoir with the rhythm of a novel." The book received a New York City Public Library Notable Best Book for Teens designation.
After sharing his story, Bornstein told the assembled teachers, “Teach your students what hatred and bigotry can do. The defense against bigotry is you.”
Bornstein’s daughter, Debbie, a broadcast news producer, added, “Teaching the Holocaust is about empathy, tolerance, kindness and optimism.” She noted that the book is based on painstaking research and features many photos, including the cover photo, which shows her father at lower right. (Due to malnourishment, he is bald in the photo. It took a number of years for his hair to grow back.)
Since the book's publication, Bornstein has received stacks of letters from children who have read it in their classrooms. One of those students was Ramsey Tabor, daughter of MCCC Professor of English Jack Tabor, who brought Ramsey with him to the conference. She noted she was missing her second to last day of fifth grade, but was excited to be at the conference to meet the book's authors.
Observed Coenen of Bornstein’s presentation, “It was captivating, heartfelt, and meaningful. Even though it was the last presentation of the five-hour conference, no one left their seat, or even seemed like they wanted to leave at the end.”
Prior to the start of the presentations, Lynne Azarchi, of Kidsbridge Tolerance Center, presented awards to several young people for their writings about bullying and prejudice.
Coenen noted that the Holocaust Center’s Advisory Commission is exceptional. “Thank you for giving so much of your time and expertise to keep us moving forward, working toward our mission, and broadening our impact at Mercer and beyond. I love working with you and you inspire me. None of this happens without you,” he said.