By Cindy Mindell ~
BLOOMFIELD – Dr. Joseph Olzacki isn’t one to give up on a good idea. What began five years ago as a Holocaust-education program at Bloomfield High School has evolved into a relationship with human-rights and educational groups in Rwanda, all in an effort to teach kids in both cultures to prevent genocide.
Olzacki is director of visual and performing arts and public information for the Bloomfield Public Schools. In 2006, together with Rabbi Philip Lazowski and the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), he launched the Identity Project to help his high-school students understand what happens when, as he puts it, “someone strips you of everything that makes you, you.”
The answer, he teaches them, is genocide.
Olzacki holds a degree from University of Hartford in political science with a focus in Holocaust studies. He designed the Identity Project to make the idea personal for his students, most of them of Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.
The program included “Faith and Destiny,” a memoir by Rabbi Lazowski, a Holocaust survivor, and classroom discussions with the author. Every, year the group would travel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“The students had to realize that they’re important,” Olzack says of the curriculum, “that they could have changed or fixed something during the Holocaust, and that now they must stand up for others.”
In 2009, the group comprised 53 students of color from the Bloomfield High School concert band, paired with “elders” from the community, among them Holocaust survivors Rabbis Philip Lazowski and Stephen Landau, town council-members, local Jewish community leaders, and members of the Hartford Symphony and Hartford Stage – nearly 100 participants in all.
In January 2010, Olzacki was selected as one of 100 young leaders in the field of human rights to take part in the Global International Leadership Training Programme in Kigali, Rwanda, hosted by the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, in collaboration with the National Commission for Human Rights in Rwanda.
Before he left Rwanda, Olzacki was invited by Pierre Karemera, head of the Rwanda National Commission for Human Rights and president of the International Choir of Kigali, to come back as a guest educator.
This year, with the financial support of the Lazowski family and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, Olzacki returned to Rwanda to lecture on genocide and teach the International Choir of Kigali. This time, he met Mme. Sylvie Kayitesi Zaïnabo, chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission in Rwanda, who requested help writing a curriculum on anti-genocide education.
Olzacki has assembled a panel of fellow educators, who will use a history curriculum from Rwanda as a model. So far, committee members include Dr. Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford; Prof. Avinoam Patt, assistant director of the University of Hartford’s Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies; Prof. Donn Weinholtz, chair of the University of Hartford’s department of educational leadership; Dr. Thomas C. Duffy, director of bands at the Yale University School of Music; and Dr. Ellen Stoltz, chief academic officer in the Bloomfield Public Schools Office of Instructional Leadership.
Now Olzacki and the Bloomfield School District are bringing Rwanda to Bloomfield. On Nov. 29, as part of the Identity Project, James Kimonyo, Ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Rwanda, will visit Bloomfield High School to speak about his country.
Olzacki and Lazowski are also working with JFACT to raise funds to bring the new cohort of students to the Holocaust Museum in D.C.
“After visiting the Holocaust Museum and meeting with its educational staff, we’ve seen how The Identity Project really does change students for the better, many of whom come from lower-income Afro-Caribbean families,” says Bob Fishman, executive director of JFACT.
JFACT, reports Fishman, is helping raise funds through its 501(c)3 Holocaust education and resource program, Voices of Hope.
Several donors have already stepped forward to help Olzacki and Lazowski raise the approximately $30,000 needed to bring 100 Bloomfield students to the museum.
“How do you stop antisemitism and genocide? You get involved,” says Olzacki. “You can’t ever take the Holocaust for granted, and yet, we have. When these kids are older and witness a hate-fueled incident, I want them to be able to say, ‘Someone told me about this and showed me where this could go.’ I want my kids to be global partners in never letting this happen again.”
To find out more about bringing Bloomfield students to the Holocaust Museum contact Bob Fishman at (860) 727-5701.