Understanding the world’s capacity for cruelty is a lot for children to handle, which is why responsible history education accounts for children’s developmental readiness. This is especially true when it comes to the Holocaust. Holocaust survivors carry physical and psychological wounds, which live on in their descendants as epigenetic trauma. But not all adults are responsible.
Kimberlynn Jurkowski, a library media specialist at Watkins Elementary School in Washington, D.C., recently made headlines for allegedly directing third graders to act out the Holocaust. They acted out digging ditches for mass graves and pretended to shoot people. There was a train heading to a concentration camp and a gas chamber. The student assigned to play Hitler was told to commit suicide, as Hitler himself had. Jurkowski reportedly used antisemitic language, and when asked to explain why the Holocaust had happened, she said “the Jews ruined Christmas.” Finally, students were reportedly instructed not to tell their parents about this off-book lesson.
The district has placed Jurkowski on leave while it investigates the incident. However, the fact that it happened at all should sound alarm bells.
For starters, why was Jurkowski working at Watkins Elementary? Schools regularly run background checks on candidates to ensure student safety. Did administrators not run one in this case, or did someone consciously overlook Jurkowski having been convicted of fraud and relatedly losing her teaching license in New Jersey?
Adults charged with the care of these children and others should consider the larger lessons that might be learned from Watkins Elementary School’s experience. For example, don’t ask students to role play traumatic historic events.
“When kids are operating in fiction, they can handle the big bad wolf and three little pigs,” Dr. Tyler Black, a child psychiatrist in Vancouver and assistant clinical professor at the University of British Columbia, told me. “Awful things can happen within a story and not traumatize kids. But having kids reenact anything to do with Nazi Germany? That’s pretty heavy stuff.”
Black noted, “Topics like this should be done more simply or matter-of-factly, instead of making it into a play.” As for the instruction not to tell, Black believes that “the person who said it knew they were doing something they shouldn’t.”
Professor Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University and a Holocaust scholar, told me he opposes reenactment “as a matter of principle.” He considered the lesson in question “not educationally sound at all,” and questioned what students were supposed to learn from being put on trains or digging mass graves. As for students being told that Jews had ruined Christmas, Berenbaum commented, “Blaming Jews for their demise revictimizes them; it’s a disgraceful act.”
“The Holocaust teaches us the world is a very dangerous place, and there’s nobody there to protect us,” Berenbaum observed. “It’s not necessarily a message I want to give very young kids. I think they need to get the message the world is trustworthy, and there are adults there to protect them. That may be a lie, but it’s a lie that’s important to allow for a certain type of stability in their lives.”
As for having students role play as Nazis or other villains of history, that can pose its own problems. Liza Wiemer is an award-winning educator and author of The Assignment, a novel about how two students respond when assigned to argue for the “Final Solution.” She told me, “By giving assignments that force students to advocate for the Nazi position, it certainly can normalize those belief systems and have an influence on the students, especially when no one speaks up to say that it’s wrong. Even if the teacher is adamant that the Nazis’ actions were abhorrent, once students need to support those beliefs this can open the door to cognitive dissonance.”
This is obviously not the way Holocaust education was supposed to work. New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney spent 21 years working with Hadassah, Christians United for Israel, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Jewish Federations of North America, and others to implement nationwide Holocaust education. When the House and Senate finally passed Maloney’s Never Again Education Act in 2020—which President Trump signed into law—only 12 states required Holocaust education.
This legislation authorized $10 million over five years for the director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) to “develop and nationally disseminate accurate, relevant, and accessible resources to promote understanding about how and why the Holocaust happened.” That includes the development “of principles of sound pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust” and professional development for teachers. A special section of the USHMM’s website educates the public about lessons of the Holocaust, such as genocide prevention. Perhaps notably, the Never Again Education Act specifically mentions that the director can engage with “high schools and schools that include one of the middle grades”—not elementary schools. Obviously, if an instructor’s idea of the “why” is telling students that “Jews ruined Christmas,” that violates the spirit of the Never Again Education Act. That lesson is neither historically accurate, nor doing anything to combat contemporary Jew hatred.
Inappropriate Holocaust-related lessons are not confined to Watkins Elementary. Wiemer referenced the inspiration for her novel, a “2017 real-life assignment given in Oswego, New York, where students had to argue in favor of the Holocaust from the Nazi perspective.” She said the assignment gave the students the choice between arguing that Jews should be exterminated or merely sterilized and put into ghettos and work camps, based on the discussion at the January 1942 Wannsee Conference. Wiemer noted that across the country, “In Irvine, California, AP World History students had to recreate the 1932 Reichstag election and advocate for the Nazi perspective” just last year. And in 2019, a teacher in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, sent a sixth grader “to the principal’s office for being disruptive,” after the girl opposed her classmates’ giving Nazi salutes. A student had been assigned to perform as Hitler in the school’s Living History Project and soon, “students started to make the salute all over school.” Wiemer commented, “As shown in the news and on social media, we’ve seen how assignments like these have increased antisemitic behavior within the school.”
Needless to say, if classes at school about the Holocaust or Jews’ millennia-long experience with persecution are fomenting antisemitism, lesson plans require an immediate overhaul. School districts with students posting pictures of themselves covered in swastikas and SS Bolts or giving Nazi salutes, should especially review their school curricula and atmosphere.
Schools must ensure that staff teaching about the Holocaust are properly trained to present the material in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. Professor Berenbaum recommended teachers utilize the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Daniel’s Story: “It allows children to understand elements of the Holocaust. It’s geared to kids; it’s a tremendous resource … Consult with the Holocaust Museum about what an appropriate curriculum should be, and do it properly.”
As for parents, Dr. Black advises, “Get to know teachers. Parents should be familiar with the curriculum delivered to kids, and this [Watkins Elementary incident] underscores how important it is to check in with kids about what they did in school.” And if a particular day was upsetting, it’s important for parents to learn more and ask why, because elementary school isn’t supposed to be traumatizing.