Florin Petrescu: Sharing Lessons from the Past in Pantelimon, Romania
Florin Petrescu has been intrigued by history ever since he was child, often visiting ancient places and listening to the older generation share its memories. Later, he decided to become a teacher because it offered him a venue to share these interests and stories with others.
He began teaching history and civic culture in 1997. But in 2003, after attending the Teaching the Holocaust in Romanian Schools program organized by the Romanian Ministry of Education, Florin decided to incorporate lessons from the past into his curriculum to help shape his students’ moral perspective. He steadily expanded his syllabus to include the study of the Holocaust, the history of the Jews, and the history and traditions of the Roma and Sinti communities.
Today, Florin is busy sharing these lessons in multiple settings. He teaches 7th and 8th graders at the middle school in Pantelimon, a city with 25,000 residents just east of Bucharest, Romania’s capital. He also works in an Ilfov County program for adults looking to complete their studies, and organizes training sessions at a regional Teachers’ Training Institute. In addition, he authored a handbook, History of the Jews: The Holocaust, approved by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Romanian Ministry of Education for use in Romanian high schools. Since its original publication in 2006 with support from the Lauder Foundation, the book has been revised and reprinted several times and has been used by over 2,000 students and teachers.
Florin’s middle school students are avidly engaged in their study of the Holocaust, curious and active in classroom discussions. He introduces the material with emotional sensitivity, yet he has observed that they “understand and make judgments with an ethical character beyond their years.” As part of their coursework, they create powerful artistic impressions of what they glean from documents, texts, and maps, visit Romania’s Holocaust Museum, and meet with survivors.
Outside of school, many families face significant social and economic challenges, and a high percentage of students, especially among the minority population, are at risk of social exclusion. Consequently, these hurdles put them at high risk of dropping out before graduation. Florin knows this reality too well from his work with adults ages 30-55, who left school early and are now looking to complete their studies as a step to better their lives.
Since 2010, Florin has also worked with colleagues at a regional Teachers’ Training Institute run under the auspices of the Romanian Ministry of Education. The Institute’s mission is to provide continuing education for experienced middle and high school teachers who wish to hone and advance their skills. These are educators who never formally studied the Holocaust, and for most of them, it is a partially or entirely new subject. Florin not only teaches them for their own knowledge, but gives them the resources to bring Holocaust study into their classrooms.
For Florin himself, participation in the Memorial Library’s 2015 Romania Summer Seminar was transformative. Though he already knew a great deal about the Holocaust from his prior training, he wanted to know much more, to meet and network with others teaching the subject, and to exchange ideas with them. He, in turn, brought what he learned at the seminar into his multiple classrooms.
“Each Holocaust learning experience has great value and should be shared with others,” offers Florin. “The Library’s seminar brought together teachers seeking answers to the same questions to which we have been unable to find answers before.”
To share those answers with a wide audience, Florin organized a community program on January 27, 2016, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, bringing together Holocaust survivors, local educators, and representatives of both the US and the Israeli embassies. The event pivoted on roundtable discussions and an exhibition of art and books about the Holocaust.
“We must continue teaching the Holocaust, regardless of the difficulties we encounter,” says Florin. “Soon, when there will be no living survivors, only this will ensure it does not become just another forgotten chapter in history.”