Tip of the Week: How not to teach the Holocaust & resources for doing it right
Let’s be clear from the get go.
It happened. We have hundreds of thousands, millions, of primary sources. We have photos. Government documents. Train timetables. Movies. We’ve got oral histories. Diaries. Letters. Court transcripts. There are prison confessions. Newspapers. Lists of stolen property. Sacks of hair. Piles of shoes. Boxes of wedding rings. And many of the actual camps, barbed wire, gas chambers, and crematoria still exist.
So let’s be clear.
The Holocaust happened. Over six million European Jews were murdered between 1933 and 1945. More than six million others deemed undesirable were also murdered by the government and party led by Adolf Hitler.
So, please, do not plan an historical thinking activity that asks your kids:
Did the Holocaust actually happen?
Don’t give students copies or links to articles written by Holocaust deniers – in an attempt to be “unbiased” and open minded – and then ask them to use their analysis skills to determine whether or not 12 million people were murdered as a result of hate and prejudice. Don’t provide students the opportunity to use that “evidence” to support a claim that the Holocaust is a hoax.
I’ve never seen or heard of a teacher who asked their students if the American Civil War happened. Or if the 1929 stock market crash is a hoax. Whether or not George Washington actually won the battle of Yorktown. Or if he was our first president.
Yes. I’m kicking off this post on a bit of rant. I was part of a conversation following last week’s hate inspired attack on a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburg. And as the discussion shifted around to how to teach the Holocaust, it was suggested that because we want to train kids to use evidence and make claims, we need to provide “both sides of the story” and let the kids decide.
No. Just no.
I want to think that this was a misguided attempt to focus instruction using an emotional topic to help kids practice historical thinking skills. Maybe the thought was that because there is so much historical evidence, the answer to that sort of question would be obvious to middle or high school students. And that there wasn’t some scary just below the surface, perhaps even unknown and unarticulated, prejudice and racism that was the reason for the suggestion.
No matter the reason. Just no.
I support the goal of supporting historical thinking skills through the use of uncomfortable content. But not the clearly false equivalency of millions of primary sources documenting the event versus a few racist secondary sources that attempt to explain away 12 million bodies.
The group quickly made it clear that asking if the Holocaust happened wasn’t a good idea. We agreed that this sort of question can lead, at best, to students questioning the specifics of the event or, at worst, students deciding that the Holocaust never happened at all. Not to mention the encouragement of anti-Semitic and racist attitudes that may already be lying beneath the surface. And if one teacher is thinking that it would be okay to use this type of activity, then there are others.
As we struggle to address the murder of eleven members of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg and the rise of hate groups throughout the United States and around the world, we need to be careful how we go about our work. While talking about genocide in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, in Cambodia in the 1970s, or in Rwanda in 1994, we need to be very intentional about asking better questions. About using better evidence.
So think about:
- Asking questions of why, not if, it happened. The Holocaust took place because individuals, groups, and nations made decisions to act or not to act. Focusing on those decisions leads to insights into history and human nature and can help your students become better critical thinkers. So talk about the choices that people made.
- Asking questions of courage and perseverance. Simply choosing to stay alive is a form of resistance. Writing a diary is a form of resistance. So talk about how both victims and rescuers resisted. But be careful. People who risked their lives to rescue victims of Nazi oppression do provide useful, important, and compelling role models for students. But only a small fraction of non-Jews under Nazi occupation actually helped rescue Jews, so an overemphasis on heroic actions in a unit on the Holocaust can result in an inaccurate and unbalanced account of the history.
- Asking questions about bystanders and perpetrators. Roles that people played during this time were very complex. One helpful technique for engaging students is to think of the participants as belonging to one of four categories: victims, perpetrators, rescuers, or bystanders. Examine the actions, motives, and decisions of each group. Portray all individuals, including victims and perpetrators, as human beings who are capable of moral judgment and independent decision making.
- Asking questions about how kids should and can respond. “Never forget” is the message from Anne Frank. But we need to go beyond that to “individual decisions can have a tremendous impact.” Remembering is passive. Taking action means making a difference. How will you respond now? To the shooting in Pittsburg? To the rise of white nationalism in the US? To racist comments and behavior in your school? What options do students have?
There are other resources available that can help. Start with these:
1. The November 2018 Smithsonian magazine is a timely reminder of the how anti-Semitic attitudes like those of the Pittsburg shooter can lead to acts of violence small and large. The issue also reinforces the importance of using stories to connect your students to Holocaust events.
As we mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht this month and the youngest Holocaust survivors enter their ninth decade, the world is showing dangerous signs of memory loss.
The editors quote a far-right politician in Germany who stated, “This laughable policy of coming to terms of the past is crippling us.”
The work of coming to terms with the past and connecting it to the present is at the heart of what you do every day.
Five of the magazine’s articles focus on the stories told by young people during the Holocaust and specifically on the story of Polish teenager Renia Speigal. Like Anne Frank in Holland, Renia also kept a diary describing life under the constant threat of death at the hands of the Nazi government. Recently discovered in a desk in New York City, Renia’s words have the power to resonate with your students and make the terrible events of that period real and accessible.
More than 65 diaries written by young people have surfaced from across Europe. In her article “World, Wake Up,” Alexandra Zapruder suggests that “these surviving fragments . . . are valuable beyond measure, endlessly surprising and complex accounts written inside the cataclysm itself.” She adds:
. . . nothing collapses the distance between the reader and the historical past quite like a diary.
Zapruder goes on to share bits of diaries, not just from the Holocaust but from genocides on Cambodia, Bosina, Rwanda, Dafur, Syria, and Iraq.
But perhaps the most powerful article in the series is one written by Dara Horn. Horn challenges us and our students to remember not just Renia and Anne Frank but to be aware of other accounts of the period as well. Horn suggests that while Renia and Anne’s accounts make it clear that they were victims of genocide, this does not mean that we’re reading “a work about genocide.” We’re missing specific details about the actual process.
Other diaries such as that by Zalmen Gradowski, a young member of Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando, better document the details of actual Holocaust events. He buried his notes while at Auschwitz and before being killed himself during a prison revolt. Discovered after the war, Gradowski’s account is just as important, perhaps more important, than Frank’s.
Rather than remembering Gradowski’s stories of escorting newAuschwitz arrivals to gas chambers and extracting gold teeth from their dead bodies before cremation, instead we often choose to remember instead Anne Frank’s famous line:
In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
Perhaps it’s because this line let’s us off the hook. It’s comfortable. We’re good people. We weren’t at Auschwitz, we would never have allowed that because, well . . . we’re good at heart. Horn suggests that “it is far more gratifying to believe that an innocent dead girl has offered us grace rather than to recognize the obvious: Frank wrote about people being ‘truly good at heart’ three weeks before she met people who weren’t.”
And it can make it easier to ignore the fact that these people are still here. Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life shooter who admitted that he “wanted all Jews to die,” is not some random concentration camp prison guard from the 1940s. He grew into what he is right here. Right now.
These Smithsonian articles provide a powerful tool for not just dealing with the past but connecting those events to the present and making action by your students more likely.
You can learn more about Renia’s dramatic story and other stories like Zalmen’s by joining Smithsonian at a live web livestream on November 8. Renia’s sister, Elizabeth Bellak, known as “the Shirley Temple of Poland,” will give her own firsthand account of Renia’s plight and legacy. You’ll also hear from Alexandra Zapruder, an expert on wartime diaries, which continue to be written by young people to this day.
The event will be held on November 8, 2018, from 1 to 2 p.m. Watch the livestream here.
2. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a must go-to when teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides around the world. The Museum has a ton of resources and suggestions:
- Define the term “Holocaust.”
- Translate statistics into people.
- Do not teach or imply that the Holocaust was inevitable.
- Avoid simple answers to complex questions.
- Strive for precision of language.
- Strive for balance in establishing whose perspective informs your study of the Holocaust.
- Avoid comparisons of pain.
- Do not romanticize history.
- Contextualize the history.
- Make responsible methodological choices.
4. The Anti-Defamation League has a ton of curriculum and professional development resources. Find their lessons here. Go to a special section of resources specific to talking and teaching about the Pittsburg shooting.
5. USC Shoah Foundation has a rich database of video oral histories from survivors that can be connected to diary accounts such as Renia’s.
6. Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center has primary source materials and educational materials.
7. Teaching Tolerance has numerous resources for learning about the Holocaust, racism, and anti-Semitism. Be sure to explore a teaching kit titled One Survivor Remembers, a documentary around the oral history of Gerda Weissmann Klein. Get the Teacher’s Guide and primary sources.
Because it happened.
We need to teach it and our kids need to learn it.
Glenn is a curriculum and integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He provides engaging professional learning activities across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.