Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill school wax museum canceled after third-graders pick Hitler for subject

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler is shown in this May 1937 file photo at an unknown location.
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler is shown in this May 1937 file photo at an unknown location. AP

Editor’s note: Principal Emily Bivins clarified by email Thursday that the wax museum assignment gave students the option of dressing up as their historical figure or “dressing nicely,” for the event.

CHAPEL HILL An elementary school has canceled a “wax museum” in which students were to portray historical figures after several third-grade students chose Adolf Hitler as their subject.

In a letter sent to parents Friday night, the principal of Frank Porter Graham Bilinguë says the Wednesday, Sept. 2, night wax museum has been replaced with a different event after “many concerns” were raised.

The students at the dual-language school were completing a unit “on how individuals influence history in our community or region,” Principal Emily Bivins said in the letter. “The students traditionally share the history by dressing like the historical figure through a school wax museum.”

“Several students selected potentially controversial people as their historical figures,” Bivins wrote. “In hindsight, we should have advised students more carefully in selecting historical figures whose impacts can be understood by 8-year-old children.

“Given the current political climate and sociopolitical issues as the election approaches, some of the historical figures selected by students could create controversy and could be considered offensive to students, families and the community,” the letter continued.

The letter did not name the controversial people, but a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools spokesman confirmed that children had selected Hitler, and others said the figures also included Christopher Columbus and Donald Trump. Another student had selected Anne Frank.

The students chose their own subjects and did not have a list to choose from, spokesman Jeff Nash said by email.

“All parents were notified of their child’s selection,” Nash said. “Of the four who selected [Adolf] Hitler, there was no opposition from parents when their child was counseled to choose another historical figure.”

Historical wax museums are common lessons in elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and throughout North Carolina, Nash said.

But the chairman of the N.C. Council on the Holocaust, a state agency funded through the Department of Public Instruction, said third-graders are too young to understand Hitler’s significance.

Mike Abramson said a Chapel Hill resident contacted him about the Frank Porter Graham wax museum. He said he gets six to eight complaints about wax museums and simulation lessons a year.

“We have teachers who say, ‘I want you to understand what a concentration camp was like. For the next week I don’t want you to eat any soup or meat,’” he said. “It trivializes the entire concept.”

Abramson, whose mother Gizella was the only member of her immediate family to survive the death camps after the Nazis invaded Poland, said third-graders who equate dressing up with Halloween are too young for Hitler.

“I don’t think students of that level of maturity and the way they process information can process the Holocaust,” he said. “How to grasp the idea of murdering people and scapegoating and the rise of the Nazi party is far beyond what I would expect from an elementary student.”

On its website, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum agrees older students are better able to handle Holocaust history.

“Students in grades six and above demonstrate the ability to empathize with individual eyewitness accounts and to attempt to understand the complexities of Holocaust history, including the scope and scale of the events,” according to the museum.

“While elementary age students are able to empathize with individual accounts, they often have difficulty placing them in a larger historical context. ... Elementary school can be an ideal place to begin discussing the value of diversity and the danger of bias and prejudice. These critical themes can be addressed through local and national historical events and can be reinforced during later study of the Holocaust,” it continues.

In her letter, Bivins said the wax museum has been replaced with an event that will ask students “to consider what they have learned about historical figures through the biography unit, fast forward in time and prepare a presentation for their class of how they plan to impact their communities based on what they have learned about the past.”

Efforts to interview Bivins for this story were unsuccessful, but her letter suggests the incident ended up teaching educators a lesson.

“We are using this situation as an opportunity to develop a greater awareness and sensitivity toward all aspects of culture,” she wrote.

Schultz: 919-829-8950