Teaching about the Holocaust in a small town in Romania

The focus of such meetings is to promote Holocaust education and remembrance.

The Holocaust memorial at Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
The Holocaust memorial at Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
Knesset Member Shimon Ohayon’s recent article, “Teaching about the Holocaust as an antidote to rising hate in Europe” (The Jerusalem Post, October 10, 2013), was very timely.
The same week Ohayon’s article ran, the biannual meeting of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) took place in Toronto with the participation of 31 member countries and four observer countries, Canada being the current chair of the alliance.
The focus of such meetings is to promote Holocaust education and remembrance.
MK Ohayon was impressed by his recent visit to Macedonia and by activities there devoted to the memory of Macedonian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The road to such activities is often a long one, and often strewn with objections from various parties, which can include the authorities, the educational system and parents.
The investment in promoting Holocaust education, remembrance, and translating it into an antidote against rising tides of anti-Semitism that we are witnessing in several countries, including in the former communist ones, is a long term-project whose results are not always clear and evident. But we have many successful examples which indicate the importance of such activities. A brief roadmap of one such project may show the role of personal drive and devotion.
Teregova is a small town of less than 4,400 people in western Romania, in Caras-Severin County. Not a tourist attraction, never on the map of large Jewish communities, with most of the locals having never even seen Jews.
And of course not much was known in those parts of the Banat-Southern Transylvania region about the catastrophic fate of the Jews in other parts of Romania, in Transnistria, the killing fields of hundreds of thousands and on the road to that hell.
October 9 was designated as Holocaust Day in Romania, commemorating the beginning of large-scale deportations in 1941. The commemorations, attended in Romania by leading representatives of the state, were introduced after 2004, following the Final Report of the International Commission of Historians on the Holocaust in Romania, chaired by Elie Wiesel and whose member I was.
For years Israeli and local educators have worked, in Yad Vashem and in Romania, with Romanian teachers.
One of the participants in such courses at the University of Cluj more than a decade ago and at a seminar in Yad Vashem, was Dr. Gabriela Bica, who for years served as director of the Teregova “St. Dimitrie” Technological School and teaches history there.
On her own initiative she has used the directorate to teach classes on the Holocaust, and was responsible for several projects in which the students learned of the past their Jewish neighbors, interviewed people who knew their Jewish neighbors, traced elderly persons who lived in the community.
In fact in her classes she has a revived a world unknown to the younger generation, and for that matter to their parents’.
In this year’s project the students wrote definitions of “who is a Jew,” “what was the Holocaust.”
On October 9, sitting in the offices of the very active Romanian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv for the third consecutive year, I was linked up on the occasion of Holocaust Day in a video conference with classes of young students, graduates of the school, and members of the community, speaking to them and answering to questions related this year to the “Impact of the Holocaust on the history of the Jewish nation” and also to issues related to our life here in Israel and the dangers of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. In the audience was Bica’s husband, the local Orthodox priest in the community.
The chain of activities leading to such an event is a major indication to the necessity of work done and to be done. It may start with inter-state or inter-institutional agreements, with supra-national coordinating organizations, and continues through the practical work with educators, who have to carry on in their own communities and often have to face some prejudices and barriers.
There will be teachers who will take up the challenge and initiate activities above and beyond their call of duty, as Dr. Bica has done in Teregova.
The work continued in Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, where dozens of educators from different states have a firsthand meeting not only with the teaching methods of the staff and experts, but have the opportunity, even if it’s a short one, to see Jerusalem and Israel, as I know was the case of my example.
In our recent example the long chain ends in a small community, a school in Western Romania, a case in which without the personal initiative, the goodwill and the input of years of promoting the importance of Holocaust education and on learning about the Jewish past, nothing would have been realized.
We, the “foot soldiers” of such activities, have to salute those who have taken up this challenge.
The author teaches modern history at Tel Aviv University and is senior researcher at the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry.