June 14, 2018

How can the experiences of African Americans who lived under Jim Crow Laws shed light on the segregation Jews in Europe faced under German anti-Jewish laws? That is what 23 educators considered during a groundbreaking 3-day seminar that took place last week in and around Jackson, Mississippi.

Reclaiming Our Humanity: Lessons of the Holocaust for Today, sponsored by The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), included testimonies by Holocaust survivors, innovative pedagogical approaches, and a visit to the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The seminar also included a visit by Jo Ivester, author of The Outskirts of Hope. The memoir depicts her experience of being the only Jewish and white person at her school in Mississippi during the height of the civil rights movement. It brought educators together to discuss the dangers of segregation, using writing as a tool for reflection and as a technique for how to approach such sensitive issues in the classroom.

Seminar participants and Jo Ivester during a visit to the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi


The heart of the seminar focused on comparative experiences between the Jim Crow laws, state and local laws in the South which enforced racial segregation, and the  which segregated and German anti-Jewish laws, which institutionalized Nazi racial ideology against Jews.  Tracei Willis, a leader of the seminar along with Dolyene Davis, reflected on the origins of those connections. “My students always asked ‘How is this possible? How were they able to do it?’ And I explain that it’s because these laws were created to separate people based on their differences.”

Jackson’s location both physically and historically provided a crucial context for the conversations and reflections that took place. Seminar participants experienced this first-hand during a visit the newly established Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, praised for its compelling and innovative exhibition. Another teacher remarked on how, “the visit to the Civil Rights museum had a real impact on my way of thinking… how the Nazi’s slowly took away the people’s humanity by taking their names was eye-opening.”

While the connections made this week between the Jim Crow and German anti-Jewish laws were innovative in a contemporary light, relations between both Jewish and African American populations in Jackson have a long history. Some teachers were surprised by these relations, exclaiming that they “never realized the similarities or how active Jews had been during the Civil Rights Movement.” Davis described how the active synagogue in the community “was actually bombed in the 60s because they worked with the civil rights movement,” showcasing how these two communities have a complex, storied history of suffering and solidarity.

Also important was “the climate of cooperation and sharing in the room.” Seminar participants rejoiced in “the openness to various interpretations of evidence and different forms of writing,” citing the group discussions as a “safe place to try and fail.” Ultimately, these workshops are built to have a lasting effect back in the classroom.  “You must model humane teaching if you want students to adopt a more humane way of treating others and become our next leaders,” a passionate teacher observed.

The Olga Lengyel Institute is a New York-based organization. Named after a survivor of Auschwitz who dedicated her legacy to education, the mission of TOLI is to educate students in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world about human rights and social justice through the lens of the Holocaust and other genocides so that such atrocities may never again take place. To accomplish its mission, TOLI provides professional development seminars for educators in the US and abroad that link the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides to current world events, thereby working with teachers to promote a human rights and social justice agenda in their classrooms.

For more information contact:

Carole Berez, cberez@tolinstitute.org

Harry Wall, harrydwall@gmail.com


Website: www.TOLInstitute.org

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theolgalengyelinstitute

Twitter: https://twitter.com/olgas_table/


For more information about The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), please contact info@tolinstitute.org

TOLI is located at 58 East 79th Street in Manhattan. (get directions)