The seeds of what would become a national initiative to transform Holocaust studies in Australia began 11 years ago with a small group of Victorian teachers who were sent to the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for a week-long seminar.
“It is more important than ever before that we remember the lessons of the Holocaust and that we educate our younger generations so that they are inspired to stand up for human rights, to learn to be driven to act in a positive way and not be a bystander,’’ John wrote recently.
Gandel Philanthropy saw the potential of the small teacher education program then funded by the B’nai B’rith organisation, particularly its connection with Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, the global benchmark for Holocaust education. In the intervening decade, the Gandel Holocaust Studies Program for Australian Educators has steadily built on that first local iteration and now has alumni of almost 350 teachers and educators from around Australia, reaching tens of thousands of students in the process. The program is an expression of John and Pauline Gandel’s commitment to Holocaust remembrance and education.
One of the program’s features is its capacity to transform those who take part. One of the 2019-20 teachers, Liam Charles, of Mercy Regional College Warrnambool, described his experience: “Over the three weeks we spent in Israel together, our minds, hearts and souls were gradually transformed by the wise men and women who sat with us.’’
Central to the program’s success has been Gandel Philanthropy’s strategic decision to deliver the social risk capital that took the program national. Advocacy, in the form of lobbying with like-minded organisations, for Holocaust studies to be embedded in the school curricula has been equally important.
The program has grown steadily from its early iterations when only 10 teachers were given the opportunity to participate. Gandel Philanthropy Chief Executive Officer Vedran Drakulic says there is now significantly more interest and more applicants, a testament to the program’s scaling up. “In recent times, we are sending anywhere between 33 and 35 teachers [to Yad Vashem] but we get 120 or 150 applications, so it just shows that teachers are passionate about this topic and passionate to learn how to do it well,’’ he says.
And it is the teachers who become the program’s ambassadors, building the program’s profile among educators, often by the simple practice of word of mouth. “The reason it has grown so successfully…is the teachers themselves,’’ Vedran explains. “It is those teachers who are committed to educating the students about key things from historical and other perspectives – because the lessons of the Holocaust span not only history but also many other areas of the human race, all linked to what it means to be a good person.’’
Graduate class of the Gandel Holocaust Studies Program, 2019-20, in Israel
“And we know also from the way teachers adopt this theme it cuts across History, English, arts and culture, religion, civics and citizenship and many other areas, so it’s not just a historical event with terrible numbers and the worst ever war crime committed. It has great lessons about empathy, about helping other human beings, and it’s the teachers who make this story come alive.’’
No one doubts that the Holocaust has contemporary relevance, when many current international tensions are driven by prejudice, suspicion and racism. “It’s very easy to forget those lessons of the past.’’ Vedran says.
“This is a type of program and type of learning that helps us to understand things about racism, about anti-Semitism and about Islamophobia… It’s not a boring historical lesson of what happened 80 years ago – it’s very topical and the teachers tell us that they can apply it to the world around young people today.’’
A class at Brisbane's All Hallows' school learn about the Holocaust
Gandel Philanthropy’s support for the program not only broadened its adoption across the country but also diversified it to include other donors and also other organisations – including the Raoul Wallenberg Unit, the Jewish Holocaust Centre, the History Teachers Association, the Sydney Jewish Museum and Courage to Care – to help build awareness. The program itself was extended too, to include an online learning component preceding an 18-day intensive learning period at Yad Vashem, followed by a mandatory Holocaust-related education program for each teacher to implement at their school. The changes, supplemented by a remodelled and strengthened selection process, helped increase the thoroughness and impact of the program. It also turned it in to a year-long immersion in the subject. An online portal, administered by Yad Vashem, enables program alumni to stay connected and share ideas for potential future collaborations.
Last year, an inaugural Gandel Holocaust Education Conference - jointly organised by Gandel Philanthropy with the Australian Foundation for Yad Vashem - featured Australian and international experts on Holocaust education. The conference provided the impetus several months later for what became a Victorian government commitment to include Holocaust education in the year 9 and 10 state school curriculum.
Vedran is optimistic that once the Victorian framework is in place, there will be the opportunity for other states to follow suit. “Once the product is out there, we can go to other states and say: ‘Why don’t you replicate this or piggyback on this’…hopefully that’ll happen early in the New Year,’’ he says.
“To me, obviously Holocaust remembrance and understanding of how it applies to the world today is the most important lesson,’’ Vedran says.
“But equally important is helping young people learn about helping fellow human beings, about being a good citizen, being empathetic, being open to understanding someone else’s anguish and supporting them - that’s one of the critical elements of this program.’’