Sylvia Wygoda's brother was murdered during the Holocaust. So were her grandparents, her uncle, and almost all of her father's family. This family history imbues the work that Wygoda does as the chair of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust with personal significance. Wygoda's father was a German-Polish Jew who became a resistance fighter during World War II. He was caught once by the Gestapo, but he escaped from jail and went on to command a large division of partisans and liberated an Italian city of 100,000 from the Nazis. Wygoda went to Italy last April to represent her father for their 50th anniversary celebration. "It was amazing," she says, "I cried for seven days."
Wygoda has been a member of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust since it was initiated by Jimmy Carter in 1986. "We owe a true debt of gratitude to Jimmy Carter," Wygoda says, explaining that the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. also evolved from one of the former president's ideas. The primary activities of the Commission were annual civic observances until 1992 when the Commission was energized by Governor Zell Miller.
One of the Commission's first actions after Gov. Miller's reorganization was to meet with the Georgia superintendent of schools to find out the status of holocaust education. They discovered that many students did not know about the Holocaust, and they felt this lack of knowledge makes the students susceptible to people who say that the Holocaust never happened. This urgency of the need for holocaust education was brought home to Wygoda the day of William Scott's funeral. Mr. Scott was one of the American soldiers called liberators, who released the survivors of the concentration camps. Mr. Scott was profoundly moved by the experience, and spoke often about the atrocities of the Holocaust. When she returned from his funeral, Wygoda saw a full-page ad in the University of Georgia paper denying the Holocaust had ever occurred.
Realizing the necessity to reach the young generation, the Commission decided to make a video that Georgia students (grade 6-12) could relate to. They used many famous figures that the students take seriously (such as Coach Lenny Wilkens, former President Carter, Oprah Winfrey, Dominique Wilkins, "Bubba" from "In the Heat of the Night," and Newt Gingrich, with Monica Kauffman narrating) to talk about the issues. They use the Holocaust as a model to teach about good citizenship and racism. "We give the video away free," Wygoda says, "all of the schools in Georgia (except elementary schools) have one, and Governor Miller sent it to every governor in the U.S. We're very proud of it."
Knowing that background information for teachers is vital, the Commission made a study guide to accompany the video. It includes lesson plans, maps, activities, a glossary, and a chronology. "I get calls daily from teachers asking, ‘how can I talk about prejudice?' We're a resource and a clearinghouse for them." In addition to providing the free video and study guide, Wygoda sends speakers, primarily Holocaust survivors, all over the state. "Here in Georgia, we are excelling in the field of holocaust education," Wygoda says, stressing her appreciation for the support the Commission receives from the Georgia General Assembly and the governor.
"As much as we've already done, we know there's so much more that needs to be done," Wygoda says. They are in the process of developing a prejudice reduction project for elementary schools. The Commission has also written a resource book for teachers who want to go beyond the basics on the Holocaust, which the Commission hopes to make available as soon as they find funding. This book will include never-before-published photographs taken by four Georgians who were concentration camp liberators. Another project waiting for funding is a plan to transcribe video testimonials from local Holocaust survivors to give to high schools as case studies.
"I've worked as a teacher, as a teacher educator, and in public affairs, and this job merges all that with my personal background. What I do now is the culmination of what I have done all my life," Wygoda says. She is spurred to action daily by a photograph in her home of the grandmother she never met. Wygoda says when she looks at her grandmother, she feels she must do what she can to ensure her grandmother did not die in vain.
[Every year the Commission holds an April observance at the State Capitol which is open to the public.]
(c) Originally published in Eye on Women, 1996
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