Holocaust education in Moldova is about to get (slightly) better

CHISINAU, Moldova — In a Moldovan secondary school history textbook, seven pages are devoted to the crimes of communist leader Joseph Stalin — an entire chapter with numerous photos illustrating the horrors of the gulag.

The Holocaust, on the other hand, gets a page and a half in the chapter on World War II, right after the section entitled “The Liberation of Bessarabia,” which covers the occupation of Moldova by Romanian fascists. During that time, the dictatorship deported to concentration camps about 10 percent of the country’s population — including more than 110,000 Jews and approximately 25,000 Gypsies. Less than half returned.

But Holocaust education in Moldova is about to improve. Earlier this month, the country’s Ministry of Education signed an agreement of cooperation with the Jewish community, committing to teach the Holocaust “as the ultimate form of genocide.” The July 14 agreement also stipulates that the Ministry of Education will develop new training programs for educators to help them address this difficult subject in school.

“Taking into account the increase in cases of vandalism at Moldova’s Jewish cemeteries in recent years, we cannot underscore the importance of educating the young generation in the spirit of tolerance, mutual respect, fairness and social unity in order to prevent and fight anti-Semitism, xenophobia and extremism,” said Alexandr Bilinkis, the Jewish community’s president and signatory to the agreement.

A current Moldovan textbook with a page and a half dedicated to the Holocaust. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

In addition to special training for history teachers, the Jewish community would like Moldovan schools to organize competitions for the best research papers on the Holocaust and to offer field trips to places connected to the Holocaust, said Elena Tsurcan, the manager at the Jewish Community of Moldova. The Jewish community would like all the schools in the country to observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, a commemoration which was officially adopted by the Moldovan government in 2015.

“We really hope there will be research paper competitions that will allow students to study the Holocaust right here in Moldova, so that, for example, in Balti they could research more about what happened in the north of Moldova,” Tsurcan said. “Also we want more days dedicated to the Holocaust [in the curriculum], so that it’s not only on January 27.”

Getting schooled

Currently, Moldovan schools devote about a day to the Holocaust in 9th grade and a second day in 12th grade, according to Irina Shihova, the curator of Moldova’s Jewish Heritage Museum.

“If someone missed that day, they wouldn’t know anything about the Holocaust at all,” Shihova said.

But the official from the Moldovan Ministry of Education who signed the agreement did not agree that the amount of time given to the Holocaust needs to be increased.

Irina Shihova. (Courtesy)

“We signed an agreement with the Jewish community on the measures we will take together to integrate the Holocaust in the educational process. We will teach about the Holocaust the same way that we teach all historical events,” said Corina Lungu, a senior consultant at the Ministry of Education who is responsible for secondary education. “I wouldn’t say that we need to pay ‘more attention’ to the Holocaust. We have a curriculum and every subject has a few hours.”

‘I wouldn’t say that we need to pay more attention to the Holocaust. We have a curriculum and every subject has a few hours’

Lungu did confirm that steps will be taken to better train teachers on how to address the Holocaust because it’s a topic that is emotionally difficult for children. She also said that an extracurricular competition on research papers dealing with the Holocaust will take place in high school as well as at the universities.

“We hope that all the schools interested in participating will be able to do so. We will start in September,” said Lungu.

The agreement between the Moldovan Ministry of Education and the Jewish Community was signed just days after a roundtable event announcing the results of a survey conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on what Moldovan high school students think about the Holocaust and about ethnic tolerance. The survey suggested that Moldovan teachers need extra training to address the Holocaust in the classroom, said Shihova, who attended the event.

“I understood that teachers want to teach this subject, but it’s very hard for them because they don’t know how to teach it from the psychological standpoint,” she said.

Slow progress

The Holocaust is a touchy subject in Moldova because the crimes were committed by Romanian soldiers during the fascist occupation, and Romanians are of the same ethnic group as most Moldovans. Romanian soldiers executed thousands of Jews, and ordered Jews and Gypsies on death marches and into the concentration camps.

“If they acknowledge the Holocaust, they’ll have to acknowledge that there were collaborators among the local people — not mythological fascists, but real people,” said Victor Reider, deputy director of the Jewish community of Moldova. “It’s very inconvenient to tell your citizens that their ancestors participated in this tragedy.”

Ion Duminica, a Roma representative at the Academy of Sciences in Moldova who fears the the Roma might be deported again. (Julie Masis/Times of Israel)

Another controversial issue is whether Ion Antonescu, who was Romania’s leader during WWII and executed for war crimes, only deported the Jews and Gypsies at Hitler’s orders, but ultimately refused to carry out the Final Solution by murdering all the people in the camps — or if he actually was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

“For some, Antonescu is a hero,” Shihova said. “One time, a teacher brought children here for a Holocaust program and the teacher told me that Jews were very happy under Romanian rule and that Antonescu tried to save the Jews.”

But, Moldova’s attitude toward the Holocaust has been changing and textbooks have already been improving over time, said Ion Duminica, an ethnic Roma and the head of the ethnic minorities department at Moldova’s Academy of Sciences.

Despite its limitations, the latest textbook, published in 2013, is the first of its kind where the Holocaust is discussed as something that happened under Romanian occupation in Moldova, rather than something from Poland and Germany, said Duminica.

‘There was nothing at all about the Holocaust until 2005. In 2005, they put a photo of Auschwitz’

“There was nothing at all about the Holocaust until 2005. In 2005, they put a photo of Auschwitz,” he said. “Now there is a page and a half, but it still doesn’t say that Antonescu was put on trial [because of the part he played in the Holocaust] and that it was his fault.”

The reason that Moldova is finally coming to terms with the Holocaust is because Romania itself has done so, Duminica said. Romania changed its attitude toward the Holocaust when it entered the European Union, he explained.

“Romanian historians were invited to train our teachers, and only then our teachers understood the Holocaust. They were shocked that in Romania they teach about the Holocaust, because in our textbooks Antonescu did it at Hitler’s orders,” Duminica said. “Until then, Antonescu was a martyr who was sentenced to death by a Bolshevik court.”

‘Antonescu was a martyr who was sentenced to death by a Bolshevik court’

It is crucially important to teach about the Holocaust because attitudes toward ethnic minorities such as the Gypsies have not changed much since World War II, Dumnica said. His biggest fear is that if a new government orders to deport the Gypsies again, the people of Moldova might simply accept this order, he said.

To fight prejudice, Shihova is taking matters into her own hands.

She will train about 50 teenagers from Chisinau’s Jewish schools to explain a bit about Judaism to their peers, as well as the events of the Holocaust. The teens will travel in pairs to speak in front of classrooms all around Moldova.

The project, which starts in September, is part of the Likrat (Hebrew for “Approach”) initiative that is already in place in Switzerland, Germany in Austria. This is the first time it will be tried in Eastern Europe.

“I don’t know how it will work out,” Shihova admitted. “I really hope that the children will be polite, that at least they won’t whistle at us.”

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