March of the Living Deans’ Program takes school heads to Poland

The Deans’ Program was based on their belief that expanding Holocaust education is vital because the Holocaust is a universal issue, and not just a Jewish one.

From left to right - Dr. Margaret Grogan, Dr. Rick Ginsberg and Dr. Renee A. Middleton (photo credit: Courtesy)
From left to right - Dr. Margaret Grogan, Dr. Rick Ginsberg and Dr. Renee A. Middleton
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. David Machlis is an economist at Adelphi University in New York and co-founder and vice chairman of the International March of the Living, the largest experiential Holocaust education program in the world. The march has taken place in Poland without interruption since its inception in 1988, but was suspended this year for the first time due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Each year thousands of participants from some 150 communities around the globe participate in the March of the Living – including Holocaust survivors, liberators, students from around the world and educators. To date, more than 260,000 participants have walked the 3.2 kilometers (almost 2 miles) from Auschwitz to Birkenau in tribute to those who were murdered in the greatest loss in the history of the Jewish people.
Over the years, Machlis has established many projects related to Holocaust memory and the fight against hate and antisemitism, which he defines as “an ancient disease that was here long before corona.”
As far back as 1993, he believed that the March of Living should go beyond the stories of the Jewish people. Therefore, he created the “March of Remembrance and Hope,” a program designed for university and college students of all religions and backgrounds. The program takes place annually in mid-May, and includes a two-day trip to Germany, followed by a five-day visit to Poland.
In this context, a project in which Machlis takes great pride is the Deans’ Program, a March of the Living-Paul Miller Family Foundation joint initiative aimed at instilling the values of Holocaust education in current and future educational leaders at American colleges.
Machlis and Paul Miller were deeply disturbed by the low level of knowledge about the Holocaust in US schools and universities. Because they believe that “remembering is the way to prevent” future genocides, and since the Miller Foundation has been committed for years to fighting hate and antisemitism, they envisioned a program in which educators and deans teaching the next generation of teachers in the US would be part of an educational journey to study the Holocaust and participate in the March of the Living.
The Deans’ Program was based on their belief that expanding Holocaust education is vital because the Holocaust is a universal issue, and not just a Jewish one. The two men believe that we must learn from the past in order to create a more tolerant and just society for the benefit of all humankind. The Deans’ Program, which was launched in 2019, offers deans of Schools of Education and Law Schools in the US the opportunity to travel to Poland to participate in the March of the Living program, with a target of taking a dozen deans each year.
I was privileged to interview three of the deans who took part in the pilot program last year, Dr. Renee A. Middleton, Dean of Ohio University’s Gladys W. and David H. Patton College of Education and Human Services. Dr. Rick Ginsberg, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Kansas. and Dr. Margaret Grogan, Dean of the Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, California. They are all involved in ground breaking research, authors of refereed articles and share a love of education.
I began by asking about how the March of the Living experience impacted them. 
Dr. Ginsberg responded that as an American Jew with family ancestry from the Austro-Hungarian empire and generations in Poland he actually wasn’t sure he wanted to go to Poland. He feared the experience might be too painful for him.  The experience that impacted him the most was in the Majdanek death camp. There he found himself in the contradiction of a suburban looking area with greenery and the “Mound of Ashes”, a heap made of the ashes of cremated bodies.
He and a colleague broke down in tears. “I left there with this sense of the inhumanity of humanity,” he recalled. There his thoughts turned to bullying, a topic he had researched. In bullying there is the perpetrator, the victim and the bystander. He thought not only of those who murdered or were murdered, but of the Polish bystander.  Stressing that he is not comparing the events, he thought of issues of injustice in America.  This experience made him realize he did not want to be a bystander “We can’t sit by and let this stuff happen,” he said.
Dr. Grogan came away with a feeling of hope.  She was inspired by the interaction she had with young students from Austria during the March of the Living.  These students expressed a strong emotional reaction to a visit to Tarnow and seeing the graves of the children.  Though they had studied about this trip and knew what they were going to see, the emotional impact surprised them.  Dr. Grogan who has spent years teaching in Japan, was reminded of the student trips to the city of Hiroshima. “Through education, young people can still use the emotions these kinds of experiences bring up in them, to be determined to never again do something like that.”
The importance of the lessons of history most affected Dr. Middleton. “The lessons of history can teach all of us how we should treat one another and learn from our past.  She watched the video testimonies of survivors in Majdanek and was struck by the trauma they lived with for years.  It caused her to think of both historical and current atrocities. “When they (Jews) said ‘never again,’ they didn’t mean it just for themselves, they meant it for every human being,” she said.  The Deans’ program reinforced for her the importance of Holocaust education.  “If we don’t teach history, we will never learn and the power that the Holocaust can teach us about what hate can do.”
As a dean of an American college campus, I asked Dr. Ginsberg if the reports we hear about the rise of hate crimes and specifically antisemitism is something he can attest to. Though he hasn’t witnessed anything himself, he quoted research that points to a rise in overall hate crimes and an increase in white nationalism aimed at minorities and LGBQT groups. He attributed this to the rise of populist right wing movements. He sees a positive side to the COVID-19 virus in that it does not discriminate.
“We can make this COVID-19 episode in changing world history an example of why inequality and discrimination don’t make sense, because bad things don’t discriminate,” he said. In Ginsburg’s opinion, education is the key.
Given the fact the Dr. Grogan has studied issues of injustice around the world, I was curious if she saw anything unique in the Jewish Holocaust? In addition to the magnitude of the genocide which gave it a unique status, she emphasized that the trip, particularly the museums, gave her a deeper understanding beyond her reading. She related to two points in particular – the first being the “historical depth of the exclusion of the Jewish people in countries across Europe.” Second was “the way individuals and groups were happy to support ‘the final solution’ and the fact that the perpetrators were educated and civilized people.”
I asked Dr. Middleton about the role of the college professor in dealing with issues of injustice. She said that professors should take a more active role and emphasized that they should educate for democracy, stressing that democracy came at a cost and must be worked at. “You can’t have an effective democracy without understanding the important role that ethics, ethical behavior and a moral compass have in ensuring that a democracy lives and thrives,” she said. But she also noted that the democracies of the world did not get involved in World War II until they themselves were threatened.
All agreed that there must be education about the Holocaust in high schools in the United States and elsewhere. Ginsberg stressed that there are states that had already legislated for mandatory Holocaust education in high school. It is his belief that it should be a part of the curriculum from kindergarten as part of social emotional education. In his view, the issue of hate should begin with a discussion about the Holocaust.
Grogan gave a fascinating analysis regarding the conveyance of tough moments in history, specifically discrimination, without causing trauma to children. The example she gave was of “the blue-eyed experiment” in which blue-eyed children were not allowed to sit at the table to reenact the sense of the discrimination African Americans feels. “But that didn’t work. It left tremendous scars.” The key, she said, “is the tension between giving enough information but not so much information that the children shut down.” 
I asked Dr. Middleton if the trip to Poland made her more aware of the significance and the need of the State of Israel.  Her response took a more universal approach to the Holocaust. “In order for me to be a better American, I have to have a better understanding of other peoples and their challenges. That makes me a better American and global citizen.” she thinks the same should be true for Israelis, that a deeper understanding of others is essential for a healthy society.
Ginsberg noted that another colleague on this trip related to him how the Poland trip helped him to understand the complexity of Israeli politics. “We Americans oversimplify (the Israeli issue) terribly,” he said. “It’s not a simple right and wrong.”
Machlis was confident that this program would have an enormous impact on future generations of educators and students in America. “The deans who came with us on this trip are some of the most influential educators in America. The impact will be their teaching the future educators in America about the Holocaust,” he said. “I’m certain they are totally committed to not just fighting hatred but having a much stronger feeling and understanding of that terrible epidemic – antisemitism.”