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Tip of the Week: Teaching the Holocaust, Anti-Semitism, and Making Choices

Four times a year, I get the chance to be part of the ESSDACK social studies PLC. The PLC is an offshoot of our last Teaching American History grant with the same goal – improve our history / social studies teaching knowledge and skills.

And last Wednesday, we got ton of both from Sheryl of the awesome Echoes and Reflections site. Sheryl’s on a nationwide tour, providing professional learning opportunities across the country, sharing strategies, best practices, and resources for teaching the Jewish Holocaust.

It was a powerful and emotional day, aligning perfectly with our focus this fall on teaching controversial and uncomfortable topics. (You can still access our September Google Doc with teaching resources and ideas.) Sheryl used part of the day to highlight different sections at Echoes and Reflections but much of her focus was on how best to integrate the Holocaust into our instruction.

First things first, the Echoes and Reflections site is a must see.

The site is a collaborative effort by the Shoah Foundation, the Anti-Defamation League, and Yad Vashem and is dedicated to reshaping the way that teachers and students understand, process, and navigate the world through the events of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust is more than a historical event; it’s part of the larger human story. Educating students about its significance is a great responsibility. We partner with educators to help them introduce students to the complex themes of the Holocaust and to understand its lasting effect on the world.

If you’ve never visited, start with the Prepare section – you’ll get some great introductory pieces such as webinars, a video toolbox that provides overview and teaching suggestions, and a very helpful section titled Students Toughest Questions.

When you’re ready, jump to the Teach tab:

You’ll find amazing, ready to use lessons plans that include primary sources, video clips from survivors, and a handy audio glossary.

(Sheryl also strongly suggested that you spend time at the Yad Vashem site – specifically the Shoah Names Database under the Digital Collections tab. You’ll be able to search for survivors and victims – Anne Frank, for example. This helps students see that those murdered were real people, not just a big mass of numbers.)

Why teach the Holocaust?

Sheryl is convinced that

this is one of the most important things you can teach. What we’re really teaching when we address the Holocaust is teaching about human behavior. Those involved in the Holocaust were humans and they made mistakes and choices. These mistakes and choices get repeated. When we’re under stress, people make both good and poor choices.

She quoted Nelson Mandella, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use use to change the world.” Then she shared perhaps the best quote of the day:

As teachers, you then are the most powerful people in the world.

When we teach the Holocaust, we:

  • support students’ moral and ethical growth
  • examine racism and stereotypes
  • encourage students to think critically about the choices they make
  • empower students to question the past and impact the future
  • make it a human story that resonates with students

(So maybe you don’t teach US or World 20th century. The Holocaust is not part of your scope and sequence. I get that. But racism, stereotyping, immigration, choices, discrimination, power, minority voices – these topics are part of just about every unit we teach. So don’t be afraid to incorporate different pieces of this story into what you cover.)

Some of Sheryl’s teaching suggestions:

  • Be careful of online Holocaust photos. There are many doctored or inaccurate images so be sure of the source. Starting at sites like Echoes and Reflections, Yad Vashem, or the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is a good idea.
  • The site Facing History and Ourselves is also a good place to find resources. It has a great tagline: people make choices, choices make history.
  • Teaching the Holocaust is not about statistics, it’s about people. Always talk about those involved as victims, perpetrators, bystanders, or liberators.
  • Make it a human story
  • Let kids “come in safely, go out safely.” Don’t use simulations and be careful of traumatic images and videos.
  • Don’t ask students questions such as “what choice would you have made?” Instead ask “what were the possible choices?” and “how might people have responded differently?”
  • Focus on encouraging quality values. Choices are based on those values. Those choices become “the light in the darkness.”
  • Tell the story using primary sources – diaries, photos, art, video testimonies, oral histories, etc.

The Holocaust was a very dark time. This is why the story is so important – it gives us the opportunities to encourage great choices. How can we do that? Sheryl suggests telling the story of the two percent who were Holocaust perpetrators, the two percent who were rescuers, and the 96% who were bystanders. People were making choices. So give kids examples.

Like this guy:

She also used a photo of a synagogue on fire with a focus on bystanders. Ask kids what they see and don’t see. Hands in pockets, no fire trucks, no rescue of the Torah.

  • Maybe compare photos of this and Southern lynching postcards with smiling faces vs. no faces or no smiling faces.
  • Use this type of photo exercise to practice historical thinking.

Provide chances to explore the choice to perpetrate violence.

  • Use the lesson plan titled Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders that incorporates a primary sources called the Salitter Report.
  • A close reading of this document tells us what? What can we deduce about Salitter?
  • There are lots of choices being taken here – good and bad, mostly bad.

She also highlighted the Righteous Among the Nations section at Yad Vashem – these people also made specific choices. To save and rescue. We looked at the story of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds.

We are all Jews here.

Sheryl shared a photo and highlighted what she called the “holy triangle of participants” – victims, perpetrators, bystanders. We can use historical thinking questions to close read the image. What might your students notice? The group of Jewish men had no hats, for example. So why not hats? Dehumanize them, make them less.

We also need to be specific about the definition of the word Holocaust

When you talk about the Holocaust, you’re talking about the Jews being murdered. Obviously there were other groups murdered but the Holocaust is the specific limiting of the genocide of the 6 million Jews.

The difference? The Holocaust had the goal of wiping out all the Jews not just in Europe but around the world. Another big difference? There was inconsistent treatment of other victims across Europe. Non-practicing homosexuals, for example, were not targeted. Roma were persecuted and murdered in some places but not others.

The targeting of Jews was based on blood. Practicing, non-practicing, Christian Jew or not. Hereditary was the key.

Why the Jews?

Sheryl spent some time discussing anti-semitism and highlighted the lesson on the Echoes & Reflections site. She suggests that anti-semitism is like a dying canary in the coal mine – it indicates hatred and intolerance in a culture. (Some powerful student conversations are possible here.)

There are lots of primary sources available to highlight the growth of anti-semitism, including this example perpetrating the myth that there was and is an international Jewish conspiracy.

“Behind the Enemy: The Jew”

So we can use photos and testimonies from Echoes and Reflections to tell  the human stories that call attention to German attitudes towards Jews in 1930s. Sheryl did warn us to not use a video testimony or oral history without first introducing the person and providing the context (On the Echoes site, you can find bios of those in the videos.)

There were (and are) many long standing myths and beliefs about Jews that were shared by the German government. This seems like a perfect way to talk about stereotyping in today’s culture. This sort of stereotyping is easy and normal human behavior. But it’s dangerous because they dehumanize – they make everyone the same without acknowledging individual differences.

Perhaps the most powerful conversation of the day happened after Sheryl shared the story of the 1946 Kielce Pogrom. A year after the war in Europe ended, 42 Jews and 40 wounded were murdered in the town of Kielce, Poland because of anti-semitism.

The point? The Holocaust was not some sort of weird aberration, something that could only happen once, that it could never happen again. Stereotypes. Anti-semitism. Racism. White supremacy.

We need to teach our kids about values. How those values impact choices. And how those choices create the world that we all live in.

Echoes and Reflections can help you do that.

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