This Is Not How Holocaust Education Was Supposed to Work

When Holocaust education legislation was signed into law, it wasn’t meant to be about 3rd graders play acting the Holocaust (the

Understanding the world’s capacity for cruelty is a lot for children to handle, which is why responsible history education accounts for children’s developmental readiness. This is especially true when it comes to the Holocaust. Holocaust survivors carry physical and psychological wounds, which live on in their descendants as epigenetic trauma. But not all adults are responsible.

Kimberlynn Jurkowski, a library media specialist at Watkins Elementary School in Washington, D.C., recently made headlines for allegedly directing third graders to act out the Holocaust. They acted out digging ditches for mass graves and pretended to shoot people. There was a train heading to a concentration camp and a gas chamber. The student assigned to play Hitler was told to commit suicide, as Hitler himself had. Jurkowski reportedly used antisemitic language, and when asked to explain why the Holocaust had happened, she said “the Jews ruined Christmas.” Finally, students were reportedly instructed not to tell their parents about this off-book lesson.

The district has placed Jurkowski on leave while it investigates the incident. However, the fact that it happened at all should sound alarm bells.

For starters, why was Jurkowski working at Watkins Elementary? Schools regularly run background checks on candidates to ensure student safety. Did administrators not run one in this case, or did someone consciously overlook Jurkowski having been convicted of fraud and relatedly losing her teaching license in New Jersey? 

Adults charged with the care of these children and others should consider the larger lessons that might be learned from Watkins Elementary School’s experience. For example, don’t ask students to role play traumatic historic events.

“When kids are operating in fiction, they can handle the big bad wolf and three little pigs,” Dr. Tyler Black, a child psychiatrist in Vancouver and assistant clinical professor at the University of British Columbia, told me. “Awful things can happen within a story and not traumatize kids. But having kids reenact anything to do with Nazi Germany? That’s pretty heavy stuff.” 

To read the rest, visit The Dispatch.

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