Jewish Studies alum combats lack of Holocaust knowledge

Tony Rodriguez (center) tours the site of the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland with a group of British teachers. The rocks in the background represent the different Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Photo credit: Wojciech Wojtkielewicz.

In April, a survey about American knowledge of the Holocaust revealed some startling results: Many adults, especially Millennials, lack basic knowledge about the largest genocide in modern history – how many Jewish people were killed, for instance, or how Hitler rose to power. However, most all agree that Holocaust education is vital.

One of the people who helped develop the survey was UWM alum Tony Rodriguez. It is his job to assist in advancing Holocaust research, education and documentation in the United States and abroad by administering grants which further this goal.

Rodriguez is a Senior Program Officer at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, based in New York City. More commonly known as the Claims Conference, the organization seeks to return property stolen by the Nazis to their original Jewish owners or heirs, and to secure compensation for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. Funds primarily go to Holocaust survivors, but a smaller amount is used to promote Holocaust education through educator training programs and research initiatives.

This mission is critical, especially these days, says Rodriguez. He notes with concern the rise of anti-Semitic political parties in several European countries and the controversial Polish law which originally intended to impose criminal measures against those attributing Nazi crimes to Poles during the Holocaust.

“I have to think that one day, one of the students taught by a teacher trained by one of our programs will be in a position to make decisions which will advance our society, advance our democracy,” Rodriguez said. “I’m hoping that the education they receive will make them more thoughtful and ethical citizens.”

Years ago, Rodriguez was that student. The son of a Mexican mother and a Texan father, he grew up in Plover, Wisconsin, and discovered a passion for human rights after reading The Diary of Anne Frank. His mother introduced him to the diary. He started college at Carroll College, but later transferred to UWM, where he was drawn to the newly-established Jewish Studies major. For Rodriguez, human rights transcends all races and religions.

“I’ve always been interested in advancing human rights, working to ensure that we learn lessons from history,” he added. “When we talk about human rights abuses, it’s not something that happens to just one group of people. If it happens to one population, it’s just a matter of time before it can happen to a different one.”

He began working for the Claims Conference after his graduation in 2009. Rodriguez laughs as he recounts flying out to New York on a Friday, crashing on the floor of a friend’s studio apartment, learning to navigate the subway system over the weekend, and beginning work on Monday.

He was in the midst of daunting company: The Claims Conference draws employees from some of the most competitive universities in the world.

“I wanted to show that you can be from Wisconsin, that you can be from a public school, and you can compete,” Rodriguez said. “One year turned into nine years. I have had many experiences and have traveled a lot for this organization. I feel really blessed.”

In fact, Rodriguez has traveled around the world, overseeing grants awarded by the Claims Conference and working with educators to help them improve the way they teach about the Holocaust. His work has taken him from Buenos Aires to London to Athens, and everywhere in between.

Traveling is exciting, but visiting Holocaust-related sites can be harrowing.

“There was just something so awful about the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. It hit me hard and I was so angry,” Rodriguez said, recalling his 2016 visit with a group of British teachers to a cemetery desecrated by the Nazis and their collaborators. Headstones had been knocked over and the place was neglected. The descendants of those buried in the cemetery had largely been killed in the Holocaust and few were left to tend the graves.

“None of us had relatives in that cemetery, but that wasn’t the point. No one should have to see their family memorials in such way,” he said.

But, he said, he’s heartened by the teachers who make such journeys. Teaching the Holocaust can be a daunting task, and he’s seen many who want to get better at imparting such heavy historical knowledge to their students.

“There’s a lot of ways to teach about the Holocaust without having to traumatize student with graphic images,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve seen this done. It’s awful. … There’s no shortage of pedagogically sound materials, but teachers need to be introduced to the right resources. In the United States, it must be a joint effort between the state, school districts and the teachers.”

And as schools get better at teaching about the Holocaust, the next survey Rodriguez helps to develop just might show Americans have a greater understanding of one of the most defining events of modern history.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science