June 21, 2024
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Borough of Tenafly, With Wiesenthal Center, Addresses ‘Hitler School Project’

Last Friday, the borough of Tenafly held a press conference on the steps of the Tenafly City Hall, held jointly with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to make it clear that they take seriously the “Hitler school project” incident that occurred at Maugham Elementary School, one of Tenafly’ public schools, last spring.

The project, still under investigation, was a glowing biographical report of Adolf Hitler, which presented his actions against Jews during the Holocaust, in first-person style, as “accomplishments” or points of pride. “Wasn’t I great?” the project asked about the Nazi leader responsible for the deaths of six million Jews. The fifth-grade student’s project was then displayed on a school bulletin board for weeks, only later to be noticed by a parent and reported. The student reportedly dressed as Hitler during an associated presentation. In June, both the school principal and the teacher who assigned the project were placed on paid administrative leave.

The Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization, referred to the action as the unveiling of a partnership with the borough of Tenafly, to “help ensure Holocaust awareness following a school project that resulted in a report on Adolf Hitler earlier this year.”

Tenafly Mayor Mark Zinna stressed the borough’s attention to the incident and its dedication to the effort of dialogue and understanding. The Tenafly board of education had been notably quiet and has been joined by the parent body in silence, as internal investigations progress.

Media questions about the school’s involvement in this program were politely deferred by the mayor, defining a boundary being demarcated between municipal government and the board of education. Zinna did note, however, that all of his children have attended the Tenafly public schools to their benefit and success, and expressed his confidence in their currently ongoing process in handling the matter.

Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Michael Cohen commended the mayor for demonstrating that he takes the Holocaust and antisemitic world events seriously. “The Simon Wiesenthal Center is proud to announce the establishment of an important partnership with the borough of Tenafly as we aim to convert a very concerning incident into a productive teaching moment, and by bringing Holocaust survivor Mark Schonwetter to tell his story at a community event at Borough Hall followed by the display of the Center’s world-renowned Holocaust exhibit, ‘Courage to Remember,’” said Cohen.

The event is scheduled for July 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Tenafly Borough Hall. The exhibit will open in September and will be ongoing. “This critical partnership aims to bring to the borough of Tenafly a necessary understanding of the Nazi Holocaust to all segments of the community through a variety of innovative programs provided by the Simon Wiesenthal Center,” added Cohen.

Cohen reiterated that by bringing Holocaust survivor Schonwetter to tell his story at a community event in Tenafly demonstrates “that it is serious about Holocaust education. The Simon Wiesenthal Center commends the Tenafly mayor and governing body for their prompt actions and looks forward to a continued partnership making certain that the lessons of the Holocaust are not forgotten.”

Tenafly council member Jeff Grossman elaborated on the partnership with the Wiesenthal Center. “It is an opportunity to put [the incident] into a larger context,” he said.

Grossman said the program will have two components: Lessons to be learned, and exposure to the community of the first-hand account of Schonwetter as the program’s keynote speaker. The Jewish Link learned, and Grossman clarified that “there is no involvement of the board of education in this project, nor is there any requirement for them to do anything.”

Schonwetter spoke briefly at the press conference and answered a few questions. “This [program] is not about what I went through; it’s about preventing what happened in the past from happening again.” Asked what he thought about the Tenafly school incident, Schonwetter said, “It was not the child’s fault. The teacher should be sure that the students are taught about responding the proper way.” Pressed about whether he thought the incident was antisemitic, he responded, “No. It was a lack of understanding and lack of teaching.” Schonwetter stood next to his daughter Ann Arnold, who has written a book about her family’s survival in Poland during World War II entitled, “Together: A Journey of Survival.”

“I look forward to sharing my experiences with the Tenafly community and bringing us all together. I hope that my presence and story can spark a new age of compassion and understanding. We have much work to do in ensuring Holocaust education, and I am proud to be a part of this initiative,” said Schonwetter.

In closing the conference, Mayor Zinna said, “It’s an opportunity to understand and learn from an individual who experienced the Holocaust firsthand, and important for people to have a firsthand experience of learning what happened, without being bitter or angry.” Zinna expressed the hope that this will become a regular program, as other ethnic communities in Tenafly that have experienced cultural genocide are not [always] aware of each other’s histories.

“I look forward to welcoming the community on July 12 at 7:30 at Borough Hall for this important discussion,” Zinna said.

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