Rabbi: Responsibility doesn’t fall on Beaufort County fifth-graders dressed as Hitler
Editor’s note: On Tuesday, the Beaufort County Board of Education issued an apology and requested a full review of the matter. “Posting the photographs without the context of students’ projects, research and historical input regarding Hitler’s crimes evidenced a lack of proper understanding of the emotions which may result from such images,” the board officers’ release said.
Correction: This story has been corrected. Parent Nancy Rosen, while not Jewish, is raising her boys in the Jewish faith.
Photos posted Friday by Okatie Elementary School Principal Jamie Pinckney on the school’s Facebook page that showed two fifth-graders dressed as saluting Adolf Hitlers have stunned members of the Jewish community and beyond, prompting questions about the Beaufort County School District’s judgment, namely why the costumes or saluting were necessary to convey a lesson about the World War II dictator in the first place.
Pinckney removed the offending photos just a few hours after she had posted them following a handful of commenter complaints. She offered a clarification explaining the purpose of the “Wax Museum” project in which about 90 students dressed up as leaders in history. No apology was included in the clarification.
The school did, however, issue an unsigned apology in a late Monday morning Facebook post: “It is not and was not our intent to sensationalize or glorify the acts of any of the dictators or public figures represented ... History is not always pretty and nice but we hope by teaching our students about the past it is not repeated.”
This explanation didn’t do much for Brad Bloom, rabbi of Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island.
“To me, it’s mockery,” he said. “We don’t see this as a Jewish issue. We see this as a blind spot in the administration in how they teach history and in the moral character of the administration.”
The photos were posted Friday afternoon, shortly before sundown marked the start of Jewish Shabbat and a day before the world celebrated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is held on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Schools across the country have experienced similar outcry and questions over students choosing to dress up as Hitler in “wax museums.” In 2016, a school in Chapel Hill canceled their “wax museum” after several students chose to portray Hitler.
When asked what value is added to a student’s understanding of Naziism by dressing up as Hitler, school spokesman Jim Foster responded in an email that did not include an answer to the question. Instead, he provided a section from the S.C. Social Studies Academic Standards for fifth grade: “Analyze the role of key figures during World War II, including Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolph Hitler.”
Lilly Filler, chairwoman of the S.C. Council on the Holocaust, said Monday that dressing up as Hitler offered no additional education on that era.
“It’s certainly important to learn history — the good, the bad, the ugly,” she said. “But to take it a step further in emulating, imitating or projecting that particular hero or heroine or leader takes it beyond reasonable or educational value.”
Teachers, identified in Okatie Elementary School’s Facebook post as Mrs. A. Brown, Mrs. K. Brown and Mrs. German, assigned students to select a “historical (sic) famous” figure, past or present, for a wax museum exercise. Parents approved their child’s choice and “had a discussion with their child about their comfort level,” according to one of the school’s posts. Students then researched their selection, created posters and presented, some in costume, to parents and others Friday afternoon.
Some students portrayed presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Others impersonated inventors such as Wilbur Wright, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein.
Civil rights leaders were a popular choice among students.
“We talk about Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the injustices they fought for (sic),” according to the school’s Facebook post.
And then there were a group of students who dressed up as dictators that included Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Hideki Tojo and Adolf Hitler. A current dictator, Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, was a selection by another student.
In one of the school’s first posts on the wax museum, the lead image on a gallery of 25 photos included a student making the Nazi salute in front of his poster on Hitler.
All told, three photos of the students making the “Heil Hitler” salute, a gesture historians say signaled obedience to the party’s leader, were removed.
No one directed the students to salute, and the photos were taken by teachers and parents, Foster said in an email.
At least three comments raising questions on the post were also removed, according to parent Nancy Rosen, who wrote one of the comments. Rosen said she is raising her boys in the Jewish faith.
The comments were deleted by Saturday morning. The one that remains on the school’s page appears to be from a parent congratulating the students on a job well done.
“By removing the inflammatory pictures, (the school) recognize(s) that what they did was probably wrong and yet no acknowledgment of it,” Bloom said, adding that he’d heard from people beyond members of his congregation. “It sends a chilling message that a public school is more concerned about its reputation than it was about the impact of their actions.”
The school district denied deleting comments and said the comments attached to the photos were taken down when the photos were removed.
Bloom said Pinckney contacted him Monday morning to set up a meeting with him for Tuesday.
Pinckney did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.
Some commenters on the school’s apology post Monday defended the school’s project and chided anyone offended by it. In a comment that has since been taken down, Pinckney appears to have responded to those comments with a laughing emoji.
Foster said Monday that Pinckney didn’t know how the emoji got up there.
Foster declined to say if any employees were disciplined, citing the district’s policy in not discussing personnel.
He provided the following statement as the district’s response to the incident:
“Okatie Elementary and the Beaufort County School District are committed to the thorough and accurate teaching of history, guided by South Carolina’s academic standards. Nazism, the Holocaust and the horrific events of World War II remain sensitive subjects for many Americans, and Principal Pinckney would be the first to agree that posting those photos — particularly without providing any context on students’ historical research about Hitler and his crimes — was misguided and insensitive. She has apologized, which was the appropriate thing to do.”
Rosen, a Jewish mother and one of the commenters, has two children that attend Pritchardville Elementary, which she says will have its own “wax museum.”
Foster said Monday he did not know if there were any other district schools planning a “wax museum.”
While Rosen’s sons are not in the grade that participates in the exercise, she said she has already reached out to administrators on whether there are any limitations in students’ selection of people to study.
“I am dumbfounded by the failure of this decision-making, of the teacher allowing these students to dress up as this, the failure on parents’ part on not to coach them on a more positive selection, the failure on the principals’ part not to oversee this and the failure of the person who posted this,” she said.
Teaching the Holocaust to students
Middle and high school students are better at grasping the history of the Holocaust compared to elementary school students who may struggle in understanding scope and context, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“(Fifth grade) is a little young for understanding the complexities of the Holocaust or genocide in general,” Warren Marcus, an educator at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and former high school history teacher, said Monday. “We do understand some states have that in their standard, so therefore let’s do it responsibly.”
He continued, “You need to have some sense of all the possible actors in history, not just the leader, but more importantly the victims and the bystanders. I’m not certain what the rationale is for these students to act out this symbolism.”
The museum offers guidelines, such as offering precise language, avoiding comparisons of pain and not romanticizing history. The complete guidelines can be found here.