JCRC Statement on Holocaust Survivor Presentation at Cooper Middle School

JCRC Statement

The following is a statement from Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, in response to media reports concerning the presentation delivered by Holocaust survivor Col. Frank Cohn at Cooper Middle School in Fairfax County, VA.

Today, the JCRC was pleased to coordinate a visit by Col. Frank Cohn, a Holocaust survivor who later served 35 years in the U.S. Army, to Cooper Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Col. Cohn spoke to a packed auditorium of 500 students about his experiences during the Shoah. We are so fortunate that Col. Cohn was able to share his Shoah narrative with students of all backgrounds and faiths, and commend Cooper Middle School officials for recognizing that Holocaust survivor testimony is a critical supplement to classroom-based curricula.

Recent media reports have suggested that Cooper school officials offered an opt-out to excuse non-Jewish students from learning about the Holocaust. These reports are erroneous. Rather, as Fairfax County Public Schools noted in its response, the opt-out was designed specifically for Jewish families due to Jewish children in the past being subjected to bullying, teasing, taunting, and other forms of unacceptable behavior specifically during Holocaust-related lessons and programming. In JCRC’s extensive experience working with local schools, we have heard these concerns time and again from Jewish families. It is deeply disturbing that antisemitic harassment continues, and that schools must in some cases resort to these types of measures in an attempt to protect Jewish children. 

No child should ever be afraid to come to school, especially on days like this, and that principle is at the heart of JCRC education outreach efforts. To date during this school year, JCRC has organized 45 Holocaust survivor presentations that have reached more than 5,000 students across the DMV, with dozens of additional presentations planned through June. Our related teacher training and consultation efforts focus on preparing all students for these learning experiences and setting appropriate behavioral expectations.We hope for -- and are working towards -- the day when no Jewish caregiver feels the need to keep their child away from Holocaust education initiatives.

We are pleased that no Cooper student requested to opt out of today’s program based on the subject matter. Indeed, students lined up after the presentation to get Col. Cohn’s autograph. That speaks to the welcoming and inclusive atmosphere that Cooper created today, a culture which must be replicated in every school.

During this time of unprecedented antisemitic attacks in schools locally and nationally, it is incumbent upon educators to ensure the safety and security of Jewish students. Media outlets can do their part by speaking directly to the sponsors of Holocaust education events prior to publishing stories about them, to ensure the details of these stories are properly contextualized.