Emmy Award-winning actress Julianna Margulies recently partnered with the New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, to help create the Holocaust Educator School Partnership. To date, the partnership has trained two university fellows to teach the history of the Holocaust to 1,700 middle and high school students in New York City Public Schools. In a poignant interview, Margulies shares her motivations for expanding the program, personal experiences of how antisemitism has affected her family, and reflections on her first visit to Israel and Yad Vashem.

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC. 

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  • (0:40) Julianna Margulies

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Interview Transcript - Julianna Marguiles:

Manya Brachear Pashman:

Last year, Emmy Award winning actress Julianna Margulies hosted a Holocaust memorial special called “The Hate We Can't Forget", which featured the stories of four Holocaust survivors. In that documentary, Julianna sounded the alarm that Holocaust education across the country was severely lacking. After filming, Julianna partnered with the Museum of Jewish Heritage: a Living Memorial to the Holocaust here in New York, to help create the Holocaust Educator School Partnership, or HESP. Julianna is with us now to explain what that is and what she hopes it will accomplish. 

Julianna, welcome to People of the Pod.

Julianna Margulies:

Thank you so much for having me.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

So please tell our audience: what is the Holocaust Educator School Partnership or HESP?

Julianna Margulies:

HESP’s an easier way to say it, actually Jack Kliger, who is the CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, he calls he calls them the Hespians. So HESP is a program that I started with the Museum of Jewish Heritage after I hosted that CBS documentary on the Holocaust, when I realized how little education there was in our country.

And with the rise of antisemitism and Holocaust deniers, I just felt, I felt despair, to be honest with you. I just thought it's ignorance, because people are not educated. And when you do not learn history, history repeats itself. And so after I hosted it I thought to myself, what can I do? I'm just one little person. I'm not a humongous star, but I have a bit of a platform. And I thought well, let me try and use my voice and the small platform that I have to make change.

So luckily, I knew Jack Kliger. And I said, I hosted this Holocaust Remembrance documentary for CBS and MTV, and they paid me. I didn't even think I was gonna get paid to be honest with you, because it was, of course, a labor of love to do it. And I felt weird taking money for it. And so I took the hefty check that they gave me, and I said, let's figure out how to educate our children. Because these are seeds that you have to plant early. So that when these people become adults, this idea that conspiracy theories and the rest of it, they won't penetrate, because you already have that education and the knowledge inside of you to say, that's crazy, no.

And also, it wasn't just about antisemitism. For me it was about–and this is how we're approaching it with HESP. It's about genocide. It's about racism. It's about homogenizing human beings. It is about putting people in a category who are different than you and saying you don't belong. So it really spans the spectrum of the entire world and all the people in it.

For me, antisemitism is incredibly frightening because family members of mine were Holocaust survivors. I'm a Jew. I'm raising my son Jewish. And I just felt like I had a call to action after I hosted that documentary and watching the documentary, I learned a lot. But really, I think it's about hate. And as we like to say at HESP, never again.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

It's scary, right? Raising Jewish children is scary, as a mom, I mean, it's wonderful and rewarding and rich, but scary.

Julianna Margulies:

Well, it wasn't to me at all until I did this documentary and my girlfriend who lives right around the corner from me and her son goes to St. Ann's. She said, Well, how does your son get to school? I said, it takes the subway. We live downtown and he goes to school uptown. Her son goes to school in Brooklyn and she said, Oh, I won't let them on the subway. And I said, Why? And she said, Because he loves to wear his Star of David around his neck, and I'm afraid.

And I just couldn't believe I was hearing those words. It's 2023. We live in New York City. And many people have asked me why I've started this program in New York City. Because isn’t New York City the center of the Jews. They talk about that. The fact of the matter is, we're in the second semester of this program that I started, and it is shocking how many seventh, eighth and high school students do not know anything about the Holocaust.

In fact, two weeks ago, one of my interns was teaching the hour course on the Holocaust and the history of the Holocaust, and an eighth grade boy up in the Bronx asked if there were any Jews still alive, after 6 million were killed. So that's where we're at.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

So it's an hour long course. But there's more to it than that. Can you kind of walk us through the components of this, this partnership?

Julianna Margulies:

Yes. So, we take college and graduate students who apply to the program in our first semester, it was just starting out, and we had to do, and it is a paid internship, where they take an eight-day crash course at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on teaching the Holocaust, through one of our professional Holocaust professors there, they then go to schools that we contact, and give, from seventh to eighth grade all the way through high school, one-hour classes, on what the Holocaust was, what it did to the Jewish race, and how it was part of what World War II is about?

Manya Brachear Pashman:

Do they step into the classroom and take the place of a teacher for a period basically?

Julianna Margulies:

So they come into the classroom, there, we talk to the principal first and the teachers and it's usually in a history period, it depends on the school's curriculum, and they step into the classroom. And they give this hour lesson and children get to ask questions. On occasion, although they are dying out now, we are able to bring in a Holocaust survivor.

My idea now is, because the Holocaust survivors are dying out is, I would like to bring in the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to tell the stories of their ancestors so that the stories don't get lost, and they don't die out. Because as we're seeing antisemitism isn't dying out.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

So does it go beyond the classroom, or does it stop there?

Julianna Margulies:

It does. So because it's affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we desperately feel that no child money should never be an issue when it comes to education. So we then after the class, a lot of scheduling is involved, but they're so on it at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. 

But then we supply buses and bring the children to the museum, which is beautiful, it's downtown and all the exhibits are quite something right now. It's this incredible, The Hate We Know. And it shows the very beginning of before World War II happened and then you get to see this journey that they took all the way after. After the Holocaust and after World War II is over.

So they get to go and experience what we were teaching in their class and they get to ask questions. And it's been really heartening because we had an eighth grade class. I forget if it was the Bronx or in Brooklyn, they were so taken by the class that was taught.

They chose, for their eighth grade project, an entire exhibition based on the Holocaust and what Jews went through and it was absolutely just gut-wrenchingly beautiful. They made me so proud. They sent me all the pictures of it, I was away working. So I couldn't go. But these kids were beaming.

And they felt like they were doing something. I think the idea for me of what HESP is, and any kind of Holocaust education, I think because there's such darkness surrounding it. And I can understand why parents would be nervous to let a seventh and eighth grader learn about it, I understand the fear. But what I'm trying to implement into the program, is this idea of heroes. Who are these heroes that stood up in the face of evil, Jews and non Jews alike.

And right now, in our country, I actually feel it's more important that the non Jews are standing up for the Jews, the way that I marched for Black Lives Matter, the way that we all marched for women, you know, this is a universal problem. And we all need to stand behind it. 

And if all the communities that are so oppressed joined together, power in numbers, and let's look at it more as shining a light on something that will make you feel heroic, to stand up to evil.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

How many kids has the program reached so far?

Julianna Margulies:

I'll tell you what's been really amazing to watch. So the first semester, we were small. And we had our two interns who did an incredible job, and they reached over 1700 children, and I always look at any kind of philanthropy, the way I look at acting, which is if I'm on stage, and I reach just one person in the audience, then I've done my job. And that's how I feel about this program. So knowing that they've reached 1700 children, maybe half of them didn't care or weren't listening or weren't moved. But there certainly were a handful that were. And what it also did was, when I went to the museum to congratulate our interns, when they graduated, we publicized it and took some pictures. And our next semester, we had 20 applicants.

And in fact, I was just talking with —AJC's been really helpful. They're helping me expand it throughout the country. But it was Laura Shaw Frank, who said, What I love about this, and she's a holocaust historian, she said is that it's young people teaching young people, because they respond, kids respond to young teachers. And so to have these 20, 21, 22 year old interns walking into a classroom, full of, you know, 9th graders, 10th graders, 11th graders, and talking at their level, is actually incredibly helpful.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

I learned something from the documentary. AJC has this wonderful resource called Translate Hate. It's a glossary that's online and it teaches people about antisemitic tropes and terms that have been around Yes, since the dawn of time. And new ones too. It's constantly updated. And I learned a new term in that documentary called Godwin's Law. And I hope that we add it to Translate Hate later this year. And Godwin's Law is: the longer an online conversation goes on, the likelihood of a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler rises 100%. I thought that was so interesting.

And so social media does play such a significant role in school children's lives. TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat, probably a few have been invented that I don't know about yet. What role do you believe social media companies should be playing in reining in this antisemitic rhetoric, if any role at all?

Julianna Margulies: 

Well, I think that I think they need to be responsible for misinformation, and hate speech. I'm all for the First Amendment. But where do you draw the line? Where do you draw the line here? I mean, children are sponges. And you plant one little seed, and it can be a good seed or a bad seed. And it's also you know, social media is toxic.

I know I'm not a big social media person. I had to join Instagram when I wrote my memoir, because Random House said, Wait, you're not on social media. So I joined the lesser of all evils, because I figured the only people following me on Instagram are people who like me, right? So I'm not gonna get a lot of hate mail there.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Think again, Julianna.

Julianna Margulies:

I know, I know, I actually realized–don't read the comments. But I do believe that it is their job to filter out the hate and the misinformation, I really do. I do not think they should be allowed to. I'm going to peddle these incredibly damaging, and life threatening conspiracy theories. It's not helping anyone, it's making people more angry. I know how I feel just scrolling through Instagram.

You know, I as an adult, who is not into any of it, and who feels very secure in who I am. And in my position in life with my family, and who I am as a person to my friends, and my child and my husband, I start feeling insecure. So if I, a confident woman in her 50s is feeling insecure, scrolling through Instagram, I can't imagine what it's doing to children.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

I love the way that you put it in the film, that just a little bit of Holocaust knowledge can actually be dangerous, that it's because it's just enough for someone to invoke it for political reasons or to make a point, but not enough to take responsibility and to try to prevent it from ever happening again.

Was it important that this partnership that you are funding, be robust, be in depth, be more than just an hour long course?

Julianna Margulies:

Absolutely. I mean, obviously, it's very difficult to teach everything in an hour. So the idea is that those who hear about it and learn about it from that course, will further their interest in it, and that the schools will eventually realize this is something we need to teach. This should be a mandatory class in our history program, the same way we learn about how America was founded, you know, like this is just as important, especially because it's just not that long ago. You know, this, this is quite recent.

If you look at the big scale of our world, and how many years it's existed. This is not that long ago. And I, I do believe that institutions, Holocaust museums, all over this country, are doing a tremendous job in showing what it was like, I mean, you know, we're, we're, we're doing an exhibition in October because it's the 80th anniversary of the Danish rescue. And at MGH they're doing an incredible job. I'm on the advisory board now. They're doing the Danish rescue, and it's for children and families. It's not, there's no age, it's age appropriate for everyone. And it's showing the heroes that saved 7200 Jews, and-

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

If you could tell our listeners a little bit about what that Danish rescue is, what you're referring to.

Julianna Margulies:

So the Danish rescue. You know, it's interesting. I just read this book that Richard Kluger wrote, it's coming out in August, called “Hamlet's Children,” and it's all about the Danish rescue. And very few people know about it. I didn't before I read the book.

So Denmark was in a very tricky place in World War II. They had made a treaty with Germany and they were in a place where they were Nazi occupied, but they had made a deal with King Christian had made a deal that the Nazis could not harm their Jews because they were their Danish brothers and sisters, and they were not to be touched. Now, here's a country that is under Nazi occupation. And they hated it. And they sort of were grinning and bearing it. 

And then towards the end, when the Nazis realized they were losing the war, when America came in, and England came into the war, and they realized that this was going to be a losing battle.

The Danes realized that their Danish Jewish brothers and sisters were in trouble. And boatload by boatload at midnight, they rescued 7200 Jews to Sweden, which was neutral. 

I think what's so important about that story, and I think for people who have gone to Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, where I just was this past December, to see all these points of light, what would have been had 6 million Jews not been murdered? Where would the life, where would the tree have gone? How far would it have grown?

And the 7,200 Jews that were saved, their families have lived on. And it's to show- it's about the tree of life, which was being chopped down before it could even begin. 

And it's such a heroic story of how they did it. We even have the actual boat that we've refurbished. That's actually in Mystic, Connecticut, because we couldn't get it to New York yet, but we will eventually.

It is such a sort of miraculous story. And it wasn't just adults who saved these, these Jews. Everybody in Denmark rose to the occasion. And when you go to Yad Vashem, I mean, I, I had just finished reading the book and I walked down the path of the righteous at Yad Vashem, and I saw a plaque.

So for those of you listening who don't know what the path of the righteous is, it's the path of all the heroes, the non Jews that stood up to the Nazis and protected the Jews from the Nazis. And there was this beautiful plaque to the Danish rescue, and I just, you can't help but weep. I mean, it's— where are those heroes? And so that's the light I want to shine on HESP and our Hespians is that these are heroes, let's be heroes.

What's amazing to me, is in my business, you know, I'm an actress and all the big movies are about heroes. So why aren't we turning that into- Okay, so that's what makes money, right? Heroes. So let's make this about being a hero. Not about being an antisemite, or whatever labels they have for people who love the Jewish people, who are Jews. Let's turn this into a moment of heroism, and change the narrative so that our children grow up wanting to be heroes.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

I want to hear more about this trip to Israel. I've encountered many Holocaust survivors who don't talk about their experience until they make a trip to Israel. And then they feel empowered, obligated to tell their horrific story. I'm curious what you witnessed, what you experienced in Israel, both at Yad Vashem, but also in the greater country at large.

Julianna Margulies:

Yeah, it was a magical experience. And we really crammed a lot in 10 days, because we wanted to make sure and when are we going to be back here? Let's do it. Right. So we actually hired a professor to take us around for 10 days. And really, we went to Tel Aviv, we went to the Negev, we went to Jerusalem. We even actually took a day trip to Jordan and went to Petra, which was mind boggling. We went to Masada. I mean, we did it all. We met with political consultants to try and understand the politics. And we went everywhere and learned about so much. And first of all, I think the thing that struck me the most– my sister was born in Jerusalem. In 1960, my big sister, and she, they left when she was one and I had never been to Israel, because we moved here. My parents moved back to New York. But I always felt this Oh, my sister was born in Jerusalem, I have to go.

And we actually had meant to go for my son's Bar Mitzvah. But COVID happened and there was lockdown. So that didn't happen. Then the next year, we were gonna go and it was, Omicron. And so this year, it actually I'm glad I waited till he was 15. Because I actually think he got a lot more out of it. But one of the things that hit me the hardest was how young the country is.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  


Julianna Margulies:

It is so young. Because I grew up in England for a great part of my life, and every time I'd come back home, I think how young our country is, like, God, it's so young here. You know, I love America. But some of the ideas, it's like, how can we move past this in, there's still this sort of, it's very young, we live in a young country, Israel is very young. But it's founded on such a strength of community and belonging.

And I remember just landing in Tel Aviv, and I looked at my husband, we're walking through the airport. Now we are with our people, it's like, I've never felt like I belong more. Most people don't think I'm Jewish. Most people think I'm Greek or Italian because of my name. But I didn't grow up Jewish. You know, my mother, they're both 100% Jewish, but my mother's family tried to keep their Jewishness quiet. Because her grandmother, who had fled from Prussia, persecuted for being a Jew didn't want to cause any reason for someone to harm her. So they didn't celebrate Passover and Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. They just stayed very quiet. And they didn't talk about it.

They spoke Yiddish and they had Jewish food but they didn't advertise their Jewishness, because that caused tremendous pain in their family. And so for me once I became an adult, I wasn't Bat Mitzvahed. And I married a Jewish man who said, I want to raise our son Jewish, and I want a Jewish wedding. And I said, Great, I'm in, let's do it. That's fine. Okay. But as I've sort of grown into the role of my life, as not just the actress and the independent woman, but also as part of a unit, part of a family.

We do Shabbat on Fridays, even if it's just to light the candles, and to say goodbye to the workweek, and to say hello to our friends and family. Putting down phones. It's the tradition of Judaism. Because I'm not a religious person, I've always felt any kind of religion is a little bit sexist.

And even though I played a Hasidic Jew in a movie years ago, called “The Price Above Rubies,” and I went to Boro Park and and I did some research on the women there because .. I guess I was confused as to why you would love this life, because to me, it felt suffocating, incredibly sexist, and demoralizing to be a Hasidic wife.

And then to see their pride and joy in their work, and how they felt about themselves. Iit was quite eye opening. You know, I was judging, I was definitely judgy about it. And I learned a really good lesson, you know. But I have found tremendous joy in the traditions of our Jewish heritage.

And our son knows, Friday nights, he can invite any friend over, but we're gonna, before the pizza comes, we're going to just do our blessings, light the candles, and kiss each other. There's something about tradition that is so lost in today's world, that gives a sense of meaning. And, and a route to the family.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

This has been a fascinating conversation.

Julianna Margulies:

Thank you.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

I know that it could go on for hours longer. But thank you so much for joining us.

Julianna Margulies:

Thank you for doing this podcast. I really love it.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

I really hope this program expands across the country.

Julianna Margulies:

Thank you so much for having me.