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Catholic Education

Studying the Holocaust

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

The black tie dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel here last December was not a typical night on the town for the three teachers and six seniors from Sacred Heart school, located on 91st and Fifth Avenue, 40 blocks north of the famed hotel. It began somberly with scenes of wartime Poland and Ukraine projected from a screen and visible to all the well-dressed banqueters.

The highlight of the dinner was the reunion of five Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and two of their Christian rescuers -- Roman Bilecki, who moved from Ukraine to Rochester, N.Y., six years ago, and his brother, Julian Bilecki, 70, a retired bus driver from a part of Ukraine that was in Poland before 1945.

The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous reunited the Bileckis with five of the 23 Jews they and their families had helped to save during the war. Following the war, the five had emigrated to the United States. They had not seen the Bilecki brothers in 54 years.

The Bileckis hid the Jews -- several of them children and teenagers -- from the Nazis when Jews throughout Poland were being ghettoized and transported to their deaths in concentration camps.

The Manhattan-based foundation that sponsored the evening sends monthly contributions of $30 to $150 to some 1,400 Christians who helped save Jews during the Holocaust and who are today old and poor. Christians assisted by the foundation live in 26 nations.

Sacred Heart students were aware of the heroism of some Christians in protecting some of their Jewish neighbors. Sacred Heart students spend six to eight weeks of their senior year studying the Holocaust as part of the yearlong required course in Philosophy and Ethics. The course demands more than watching Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Shindler’s List” or attending a lecture by Nobel Peace Laureate Eli Wiesel at the nearby 92nd Street YMCA, which they’ve also done.

The course looks at the Nuremberg Laws that undergirded National Socialism and the eugenics campaigns that removed the disabled, undesirables and mentally defective from German society. Seniors at the all-girls school, administered by the Religious of the Sacred Heart, also study how Jews were scapegoated for the economic and political instability that befell Germany as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. They read Hitler’s Mein Kampf and learn of Hitler’s idea of the hierarchy of races.

They examine anti-Jewish propaganda disseminated during the Third Reich. They discuss nationalism, subjectivism and cultural relativism and look at genocides that occurred earlier in this century -- Jews at the hands of Russian Cossacks, and Armenians massacred by Turks. They walk one block north to the Jewish Museum of New York for further research and enrichment.

The progression of evil, from prohibitions against local shopkeepers to the extermination of millions, can fill a large canvas. It did for Vina Orden, a student who painted the history of prejudice against Jews in searing oils.

It can also inhabit a miniature puzzle, which is how June Chayama depicted the horror of Nazism -- storing tiny symbols of its brutality behind a Nazi flag, which she opened as if it were a multilevel stage. Both Orden and Chayama, who graduated from Sacred Heart in 1998, chose different media to dramatize what they’d learned during the course.

Another classmate, Nina Caballero, created a two-faced doll -- a Jewish worker on one side, a Nazi officer on the reverse. Three others from the class of 1998 -- Elena Boyd, Abigail Penzell and Patricia Spinelli -- developed a book, titled, The Holocaust: You Choose, Life or Death.

The young women’s work contained test cases of ethical dilemmas and asked the reader and the reader’s classmates what choices they would make, given such circumstances. Inspiration for the idea came from studying The Sunflower -- On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Nazi war crimes hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Last year several of the students participated with pupils from Stuyvesant High School here in a joint conference on the Holocaust.

Dr. Barbara Judge initiated the Holocaust Studies course at Sacred Heart and has headed the school’s religion department for seven years. Judge also initiated the inclusion of the “Facing History and Ourselves” curriculum within the senior class study of Philosophy and Ethics. She requires all incoming religion teachers to attend training sessions that focus on Holocaust studies. Karen Peters has taught the course. Thomas Higgins is the current teacher.

It seemed only Judge was surprised when the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous chose her as the first recipient of its Goldman Award. The prize is named for the late Robert I. Goldman, who devoted himself to religious and charitable endeavors, to the arts and to health issues. Judge visited concentration camps and former ghettos in Poland last May as part of a teacher mission sponsored by the foundation.

Judge learned that she had been chosen for the award only on the eve of the December banquet. She was selected from among several teachers at eight New York, Brooklyn and New Jersey schools where Holocaust Studies are part of the curriculum.

Sacred Heart believes itself to be the only Catholic school in the country that devotes the major part of a semester to Holocaust Studies and requires a major student contribution from the course. It was the only Catholic institution represented at the banquet.

With what colleagues describe as her “understated modesty,” Judge accepted the award, noting that it “honors all teachers and students who follow the directives of the prophet Micah and who try to ‘live justly, love tenderly, walk humbly.’ ”

Judge insists that her students move beyond insight to advocacy, said Suzanne Price, who heads Sacred Heart’s Upper School. Graduates of the school go on to act upon her “empowering methodology” long after completing her ethics and philosophy course. Many attribute much of their involvement in social justice issues and concerns to what was seeded with Judge, Price said.

Judge has also influenced the formation of Sacred Heart faculty and administrators, her principal noted. She has a “non-offensive, thought-provoking way of reminding me that my actions define my values,” said Price. “When she speaks, others listen because one senses that she is speaking to herself out loud.”

When Judge spoke to NCR in her closet-sized office at Sacred Heart, it was about her youth in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the two persons held in highest esteem by her family were the priest and the local doctor. One was Catholic, the other Jewish -- a not uncommon reality for Catholics in this ethnically and religiously diverse immigrant community of the 1940s. Judge loved her weekly lunches in the cafeteria of Brooklyn Jewish Hospital where her mother worked.

Although she attended Catholic high school, she took summer evening classes from Jewish teachers at Erasmus Hall, a Brooklyn public school. Judge’s first boss was Jewish. It wasn’t until she matriculated for a teaching degree that she was exposed to discussion and study of the European Holocaust.

About the same time, Pope John XXIII convened Vatican Council II. The spirit of the times moved Judge to focus on theology and social justice during both her undergraduate and graduate studies (Syracuse and New York University) and to deepen her conviction that committed religious faith must strive for justice.

During her early teaching career in Catholic elementary schools in Brooklyn and Queens, she began service groups among the students. They, in turn, invited local leaders to the schools to address diversity concerns and how the school could better relationships in the neighborhood.

At Xaverian, St. Joseph and Regis high schools, Judge began to focus on the problem of evil as illustrated in the Holocaust. She looked at the decline of moral stature before, during and after the Nazi era. At the same time, she instituted a peer communications program that encouraged students to mediate rather than confront the differences that thwart community-building.

At Regis, the Jesuit high school in New York, she invited Holocaust survivors and a rabbi to address the all-male student body on the occasion of the students’ commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988. Her 16-year-old son, Jonathan, who attends Regis today, said he was surprised to hear some anti-Jewish remarks from fellow classmates. Judge noted that much work still remains if Catholics are to become aware of their often anti-Jewish past and take steps to undo it.

The way she challenges may be why she is so esteemed by those she instructs and by her colleagues. Sacred Heart’s Class of 1998 gave Judge the Most Outstanding Teacher Award for her “concern for ultimate questions -- and for attending to students’ spiritual as well as intellectual development.”

Next year Judge will deliver a paper on “The Challenge of Biblical Righteousness in the Aftermath of the Holocaust” at the annual conference of the Association of Teachers in Independent Schools.

Meanwhile she is having “a transforming influence in our school community,” said Religious of the Sacred Heart Sr. Nancy Salisbury, headmistress of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where a handful of the 611 students come from Jewish-Catholic homes and at least five faculty and staff are Jewish. The school is located in the Italian Renaissance-styled mansion of Jewish financier Otto Kahn, from whom the sisters acquired it in 1934.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999