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Hartford educator engages Hebrew High students in the fight to prevent genocide


By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – Dr. Joe Olzacki has a simple mission: Prevent genocide and rally others to the cause.

Granted, God is in the details. But the Bloomfield-based educator has dedicated his professional life to this singular quest. Over the last two months, he has been engaging the students and faculty of Hebrew High School of New England  (HHNE) in West Hartford, working to raise awareness and involvement.

Olzacki is co-creator of the Identity Project, a Holocaust and genocide education program that launched at Bloomfield High School in 2006. At the time, Olzacki was director of visual and performing arts and public information for the Bloomfield Public Schools, and he designed the initiative together with Rabbi Philip Lazowski of West Hartford and the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT).

“I wanted my students to understand what happens when someone strips you of everything that makes you, you,” he says. The result, he teaches, is genocide.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame chats with students at the Hebrew High School of New England

Rwandan President Paul Kagame chats with students at the Hebrew High School of New England

The Identity Project led Olzacki to Rwanda, where he built relationships with human rights and educational groups. In January 2010, he 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.

In 2011, Olzacki returned to Rwanda to lecture on genocide and teach the International Choir of Kigali. He met Sylvie Kayitesi Zaïnabo, chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission in Rwanda, who requested help writing a curriculum on anti-genocide education. Upon his return to Connecticut, he assembled a panel of fellow educators from around the state who have been working with a history curriculum from Rwanda as a model.

In March, Olzacki left the Bloomfield Public Schools to work with the newly established Genocide and Holocaust Education Initiative at University of Hartford’s Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies. On March 12, he helped organize the inaugural event, bringing Rwanda president Paul Kagame to the university to participate in an academic symposium on the aftermath of genocide and to deliver a public lecture.

Olzacki invited Hebrew High School of New England math teacher Mildred Unfried to bring her students to the event. The two first met at East Hampton High School, where Olzacki was Unfried’s student, and have kept in contact.

“I said that, even if Pres. Kagame’s topic isn’t genocide, the idea of a world leader coming to the University of Hartford and our kids being exposed to another culture, and to the Greenberg Center’s new initiative – what a wonderful opportunity not just for one class, but for the whole school,” says Dr. Richard Nabel, head of general studies at HHNE.

After meeting Nabel at the lecture, Olzacki offered to speak at HHNE about his experiences in Rwanda and his efforts in Holocaust and genocide education. “We teach the Holocaust and the kids live it through the experiences of their grandparents and friends of the family, so it’s very important to us,” Nabel says. “I doubt that they had very much background regarding other genocides, so I thought that Joe’s presentation would be appropriate for the kids.”

To prepare the students for his presentation last month, Olzacki had students watch “Beyond the Gates,” a 2005 documentary film on the Rwandan genocide. Hundreds of photos of the genocide and the country’s subsequent rebuilding were hung around the school. “We wanted the students to live in this environment so that they could form questions for Joe,” Nabel says.

Olzacki outlined the common themes between the Holocaust and the genocides in Cambodia, Darfur, and Rwanda.

“I believe that the Holocaust was so unique and so systematic that it spawned other genocides because people learned the negative as well as the positive lessons,” he says. “The Holocaust is paramount in genocide education because it showed how a complete society could be corrupted by one person. The atrocities committed in other countries have direct ties to what the Nazis did.”

After the presentation, some students asked Olzacki why genocide education is not mandated throughout the state. Others asked what they could do in the effort to prevent future genocides.

“Whether you’re Jewish or Christian, our job is to raise our hands and our minds at the same time to stop this from happening again, because we can’t cross our hands over our chests and walk away, like the world did during the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide,”  Olzacki says.

Olzacki, who holds a degree from University of Hartford in political science with a focus in Holocaust studies, believes he can use the power education to inspire action. “If nothing else, I’ve tried to emulate what my university tried to teach me; among all the teachers I had, the one message was the same: what can you do for the world?” he says. “In working with kids, I want them to think about tomorrow, not yesterday. My impact will be felt in 10 or 15 years when the high school kids I teach and the University of Hartford students will go out and vote and help change the world.”

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