ITALICS Teaching The Holocaust In The Land Of Truffles

italicsBy Harry D. Wall*

Piedmont, the stunningly beautiful region of northern Italy, known for its truffles, wine, and hazelnuts would seem to be an unusual venue for a seminar on the Holocaust. Yet over 30 high school teachers from throughout Italy gathered in Asti, the province capital, in early September for a five-day intensive program on Jewish heritage and Holocaust education in Italy.

“Piedmont is a crucial area for the history of anti-fascism in Italy. From 1943-1945 it was the core of the armed resistance against the Nazis,” explains Gadi Luzzatto Vorghera, director of the Fondazione CDEC (The Contemporary Jewish Documentation Center), one of the Italian organizers of the seminar together with the local Institute for the History of the Resistance in Asti. The primary sponsor was the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), based in New York, which organizes teacher training seminars in the U.S. and Europe. (Disclaimer: the author is on the Board of Directors for the organization.)

Once populated with 22 Jewish communities, none remain in this district today. Though there are a few restored synagogues and cemeteries. Only in Vercelli and Casale Monferato are there active Jewish populations. The hub of Jewish Piedmont is Turin, with about 1000 people and the Great Synagogue located on Primo Levi Square, named after the renowned writer and survivor of Auschwitz.

Italy has been commemorating the Holocaust annually on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Prior to the war Italy had a Jewish population of about 44,500. Approximately 7700 Italian Jews perished in the Holocaust.

“The importance of the seminar was to create a network of teachers throughout Italy to share methodology and best practices for teaching the Holocaust, “ said Luzzatto.

Fondazione CDEC, based in Milan, is the main organization in Italy for collecting documentation relating to the persecution of Jews and teaching the Holocaust. “Through education, we fight Holocaust denial and connect the tragic experience of the Holocaust to the teaching for a better society in our times”

The Asti seminar included four days of lectures and workshops about anti-Semitism, the origins of fascism in Italy, the Holocaust and constructing pedagogical approaches to contemporary issues. There was also field trips to three Piedmont towns to visit the restored synagogues and to Turin’s Great Synagogue, as well as meetings with the leader of the local Jewish community, Dario Disegne.

For the teachers, who took time before the students returned to school, the Asti experience was compelling and productive.

“The seminar gives teachers the opportunity to create for themselves, rather than the ‘top down’ approach that is usually preferred in Italy, says Alessia Ventriglia, a secondary school teacher from Campania in the south of Italy. “It also enabled us to confront our own prejudices, so we can be more honest in the classroom”

Lucia Trombadore, a teacher from Sicily, added, “The Holocaust was unique. But it also provides lessons for contemporary life,” referring to the large numbers of immigrants and refugees arriving nearby. “If we don’t learn through the eyes of history, we have failed”

Roberto Gatti, a philosophy teacher from Asti, added “Jews were once a significant part of our population in the region. Shards of that history can still be found here in Piedmont. As a teacher, the seminar has forced me to think about the relationship between the Holocaust and human rights”.

It is that link, between the Holocaust and human rights that is a central mission of TOLI. Established in honor of Olga Lengyel, who wrote in 1947 about her own experiences as survivor of Auschwitz and was the inspiration for “Sophie’s Choice” the novel by William Styron and Oscar-winning performance by Meryl Streep. Since its inception in 2006, TOLI has organized professional development seminars for over 1500 teachers in the US, and in the last few years, for hundreds of educators in Europe with programs in Poland, Greece, Austria, Bulgaria, and Romania and soon in Portugal.

“TOLI came to Italy in response to invitation by Fondazione CDEC and with the purpose of sharing ‘best practices’ among teachers to learn about the Holocaust, confront anti-Semitism and current abuses of human rights, says Carole Berez, Vice President of TOLI board of directors. “We recognize the different ways to approach the Holocaust in the US and Europe”, she adds. “By combining elements from our pedagogical experiences, we might enable teachers to be more effective in the classroom and community.”

The rise of fascism and the Holocaust took a severe toll on the Italian Jewish community, now with only about 30000 Jews in the country today. It is by the commitment and motivation of the teachers who came to Asti that the memory of the victims will be honored and the lessons of the Holocaust endure.

*The article was published in the The Jewish Week on October 9, 2018.