Heroes of the Holocaust?

According to the late David Bowie, “We can be heroes, just for one day.” In countries all over the world, social studies curricula have used the past to create and highlight heroes, models of civic duty and individual sacrifice to inspire a nation. Some heroes may even become significant sources of identification, moral formation, and identity development for students (Yair, 2014).

Reading a personal, emotional story–albeit sad–can often resonate with people of all ages, especially the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Echoes and Reflections content does not focus on heroism per se, though after watching featured video testimonies and reading primary source documents, we often see some students identify and/or begin to empathize with Holocaust victims. Though never will you hear survivors refer to themselves as heroes, some students may be inspired by Holocaust survivors who managed to rebuild their lives, often against all odds.

Over the past decade, Scholastic Inc., a long-standing reading hub of ongoing popularity, has published two Holocaust-related books by Mara Bovsun and Allan Zullo: Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust and Heroes of the Holocaust: True Stories of Rescues by Teens. These books focus on the personal stories of Holocaust survivors and/or non-Jewish teenagers who dared to help Jews during this period.

Echoes and Reflections content can offer a bridge of understanding and context to those themes raised in Bovsun and Zullo’s books. For example, in Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust, students are introduced  to George and Ursula Levy. In Chapter 7, Ursula shares her experience hiding in a Dutch orphanage. The Levy children’s story in this book highlights many difficult dilemmas and may be of special interest to students after studying material in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance and Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators.

Zullo and Bovsun’s books have been widely reviewed on the Internet by young readers, as well as by adults who are interested in this genre. In the opening notes to both books, the authors express their hope that readers will “Find the stories in the book inspiring and that they help you to understand how important it is to keep recalling the past… so no one ever forgets.”   

On the Goodreads website, two students reviewed Heroes of the Holocaust: True Stories of Rescues by Teens as follows:

I rated this book as five stars because I was very fascinated by it. I can’t believe how brave these teenagers were. It was very touching. Bad things can sure bring out the best in people. This book was also very motivating. It’s good to do what’s right.”

Another wrote, “I thought it was amazing to read about teenagers who were caught doing good [sic], instead of bad, for once. These teenagers, by simply choosing to do what they knew was right, saved a lot of people. Because of what they did, and by hearing their stories, I honor them as heroes. It’s great to know that anybody can change the world for others.”

In the eyes of these two students, and perhaps those of their peer group, heroes are driven by a moral compass, trying in essence “to do what’s right.” These two students openly state that they were inspired by the stories researched and written by Bovsun and Zullo.

The dilemmas that people faced during the Holocaust are powerful stories that can be inspirational for some students, yet the gray zones of human behavior raise questions more often than they provide clear answers. As outlined in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance and Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders, most people were apathetic bystanders during the Holocaust and elected not to help many Jewish people. We also know that while people may be considered heroes for their so-called brave actions on one day during the Holocaust, they may have collaborated with perpetrators the following day. Recalling again the chorus of David Bowie, some people really were heroes – just for one day.

As educators, it is our mission to encourage the use of primary sources and critical thinking so that our students can study this paradigmatic event in world history as the complex event that it was.  Teachers should introduce their students to the history of antisemitism in Lesson 2 so that they can gain a better understanding of the power of propaganda and the roots of antisemitic legislation in the Third Reich and other European countries during this period. Students should also learn more about the stages of the “Final Solution” in Lesson 5 so that they begin to grasp how and why Nazi Germany developed an extermination camp system. By learning more about the historical context, students may begin to better understand that the people whom they perceive as “heroes of the Holocaust” did not always “do what’s right,” either by virtue of circumstances or as a result of decisions they made at the time.

Echoes and Reflections can help us teach our students about the past as we strive to shape a better future. By gaining more knowledge about how human beings failed to respond to antisemitism and hatred in their midst, we hope our students will internalize the words of the German-Jewish essayist Kurt Tucholsky: “A country is not just what it does, it is also what it tolerates.”

Richelle Budd Caplan has served as the Director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem since 2009, and has been working at Yad Vashem since 1993.

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