Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe elementary school in Chapel Hill recently canceled a wax museum project – in which most children dress up as historical figures – after four third-grade students chose Hitler. It took the brave voice of a substitute teacher to get the school to carefully reconsider the project. As reported in the Chapel Hill News, Principal Emily Bivins admitted, “There are many of us who could have raised the concern, ‘I wonder what this is going to look like when an 8-year-old portrays Donald Trump or portrays Adolf Hitler.’ Those concerns were not raised.”
I have worked full time in elementary schools as a speech-language pathologist for the past 16 years and am writing as an independent observer. I have seen many children wear costumes in public schools for reasons such as dressing as book characters and historical figures and dressing up for Halloween. The process of creating and wearing costumes is fun and light. Dressing up as Hitler trivializes the Holocaust and is terribly insensitive.
A number of local parents have been rightfully appalled by the prospect of third-grade students dressing up as Hitler in a public school. However, a few parents have pushed back. Some have even asked if anyone really thinks that local parents could harbor anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish feelings. That is akin to asking, “Does anyone really think racism exists?” Would it be OK for a public school to teach the horrors of slavery by allowing children to dress up as KKK members?
It is very important that children learn about the Holocaust and other dark chapters of history. This should be done with deep sensitivity. For example, some fifth-grade classes read “Number the Stars,” an award-winning historical fiction book about a 10-year-old girl who helped save a Jewish friend during the Holocaust. Students are guided through thoughtful and age-appropriate discussions of the book in a manner that is serious and engaging, and honors the dignity of the victims of the Holocaust.
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Anti-Jewish bias, insensitivity to Jewish issues and anti-Semitism are real problems. In 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that Jews were the “victims of anti-religious hate crimes” far more than any other religious group. The FBI found that 56.8 percent of anti-religious hate crimes were “motivated by their offenders’ anti-Jewish bias.” After completing an Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, the Anti-Defamation League reported a dramatic rise in “the number of violent anti-Semitic assaults taking place in the United States” in 2015.
A teacher in North Carolina recently sent me a photograph of a swastika that was allegedly drawn by a student in a local elementary school classroom. I have strongly encouraged the teacher to bring this to the attention of the school’s administration. Last year, a teacher I worked with in Durham said to me, “You are so nice, not like all those other Jews.” When I worked in Brooklyn from 2001-11, I heard numerous elementary school students say things like “The Jewish kill babies and eat them.” I had a student about eight years of age write “Kill the Jews” on the cover of his speech-therapy notebook. There was the time a teacher refused to enter a classroom when students were discussing “Number the Stars” because it was the teacher’s opinion that the Holocaust did not occur.
Clearly there is much work ahead of us. I am pleased that Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe is attempting to increase their sensitivity in teaching about the Holocaust. It is important for the principal and school system administration to take a strong stand whenever anti-Semitism, intentional or not, may appear.