Teaching the Holocaust in Greece


Participants in the TOLI seminar in Athens, Greece.

In a country where the Jewish community was almost wiped out, extremism is on the rise, and anti-Semitism polls the highest in Europe, a seminar in Athens brings a timely and new approach to Holocaust education.

For 35 secondary school teachers in Greece, summer holidays found them doing something quite different: taking almost a week in Athens for a seminar on teaching the Holocaust. The timing and location of the seminar was not lost on the participants.

“Over 80 percent of Greek Jews were killed in the Holocaust. In Salonika, 95 percent were lost, the highest percentage in Europe. The lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten, especially at a time when forces of extremism are on the rise “said Zanet Battinou, the Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, one of the program’s conveners.

The seminar, “Learning from the Past, Acting for the Future – Teaching about the Holocaust and Social Justice” was organized by the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), a New York based organization that conducts professional development programs for educators throughout the US and more recently in Europe.

“At this moment in our country certain old ideas, -we expected to see them again  only on a history documentary –  are unfortunately back and, even worse, an attempt is being made for these ideas to poison children’s hearts and minds,” said George Kalentzis, Secretary General for Religion at Ministry of Education, which was the government partner in the program.  The reference was to the rise of Golden Dawn, the extremist political party in Greece, and other forms of xenophobic expressions.

Among the teachers, all from secondary schools in Greece, was Dimitrius Markantonatos, from the Model Lyceum in Athens,

“ We were encouraged as members of a teaching community with common goals: preservation of historical memory, promotion of human rights’ case and reinforcement of tolerance towards diversity of all kinds in our schools,” he said.

While the seminar was taking place, the Holocaust Memorial, a landmark stone sculpture laid  in Athens a few years ago, was vandalized during the seminar,  and not for the first time.  For some observers, it was a timely reminder that anti-Semitism is still a menacing force, a point made by recent surveys showing Greece to be the highest in Europe showing anti-Semitic stereotypes and attitudes.

“Anti-Semitism exists in Greece,” says Zanet Battinou. “It is not violent, but verbal and often quite virulent. The desecration of memorials is one expression. Education is the only means to fight prejudice and bigotry, even if the results are small and local.”

The Athens seminar brought the lessons of the Holocaust from experts in Greece and abroad. Among the speakers were Radu Ioanid from the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum and scholars on Greece Jewish history, as well as Holocaust survivors from Greece and Israel. Also addressing the forum was the US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, who recently arrived from Ukraine, and gave an impassioned address about the need to confront the past in two countries where the Holocaust took such a high toll.

The seminar in Athens was one of several in Europe organized by the TOLI, which is named for a Holocaust survivor whose family was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.  Olga Lengyel left a foundation which has helped to financially support the efforts of TOLI to conduct seminars in the United States and Europe.

“The main focus is to train teachers how to teach their students about social justice and human rights through the lens of the Holocaust,” said David Field, the Chairman of the Board of TOLI.  “In 2017, TOLI has held teacher seminars in New York, in eleven additional states, and in the countries of Austria, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. We have trained hundreds of teachers to bring the lessons of the Holocaust to classrooms and communities wherever we can.”

“The seminar in Greece, as with others in Europe, was tailored for each country’s needs,” explained Oana Nestian Sandu, the TOLI International Program Director. “The program provides a rich opportunity to integrate national and international approaches in teaching about these topics and in understanding the contemporary relevance of this important part of modern history.”

The seminar in Athens, together with visits to the synagogue and a Shabbat dinner, left a strong impact on the participants.

“The seminar carried a strong message for our societies,” said Zanet Battinou. “To combine Holocaust education with human rights. It has been there in theory, but this is the first time I saw it work in practice.”


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)