The Choices We Make: What I Learned from Anne Frank and My English Teacher

Turning sixty-five can be a time to think back on one’s career while also considering whether it might not be time to retire and get to that mountain of books that have been gathering on the nightstand and spend more time with the grandchildren. For me, receiving my Medicare card has also been a time to reflect on the important people who have shaped my journey as an educator and as a person. There are many, of course, but two are at the heart of my story. One, Anne Frank, I met only through her Diary; the other Ms. Riley, was the English teacher who introduced me to Anne’s Diary, and who was instrumental in my becoming an educator.

Ms. Riley introduced me and my 7th grade classmates to The Diary of a Young Girl in 1964, the year that was to become known as “the year that changed America.” I remember vividly the race riots in major US cities; three Civil Rights workers being murdered in Mississippi; President Johnson declaring a “war on poverty”; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being signed into law; the US contemplating entering a war that a year later one of my brothers would be drafted to fight in; and the murder of Kitty Genovese prompting inquiries into what became known as the “bystander effect.”  All of this was taking place to the soundtrack from a new group out of England—The Beatles. In her Diary, Anne writes, “I live in a crazy time.” Looking back, I guess I could say I did too. It was with this backdrop that I read the Diary of a Young Girl and began to think about many of the questions that would follow me into adulthood.

I can’t say that I remember reading Anne’s Diary and thinking very deeply (if at all) about her being Jewish or that the terrible events that caused her to go into hiding were the result of a systematic assault against Jews. I didn’t know anything about Jews, or Judaism, or antisemitism. The Diary certainly wasn’t presented in the historical context of Nazi ideology, the Holocaust, or WWII. It was taught as a diary written by a young girl who was facing a very difficult situation and chronicling her thoughts and feelings.  This is not a criticism of Ms. Riley’s teaching; in fact, as Professor Jessica Landfried writes, “When the Diary was published in 1952, there seemed to be a response that universalized Anne into a non-Jewish person that could represent all victims of racism. However, in the 1990s Anne reemerged as a Jewish victim and became the symbol of the Holocaust” (Landfried, 2002).

I remember the classroom discussions about Anne Frank and her Diary even though they were over fifty years ago. Ms. Riley, a young teacher, sitting on the edge of her desk, encouraged us to think about difficult topics like fear, and loneliness, and fairness. Perhaps it was the times in which we were having these discussion that has made them all the more memorable; perhaps it was just the fact that middle school students are often trying to make sense of the world in which they live and have a strong, if not idealistic, sense of fairness in human relationships. The most memorable discussions were the ones that focused on those who helped the Franks and the others in hiding. Ms. Riley asked us to think about what makes a person help another even at great risk. On January 28, 1944, Anne writes, “The best example of this is our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so far and will hopefully bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they’ll find themselves sharing the fate of those they’re trying to protect. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be, never have they complained that we’re too much trouble. ..That’s something we should never forget: while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.”

These discussions had a great impact on me in two ways. One, I wanted to be just like Ms. Riley and teach great pieces of literature and have students discuss complex themes and grapple with questions like the ones Anne’s Diary posed. My journey to becoming an educator began in 1964. The second is more complicated. At the end of reading The Diary of Anne Frank, Ms. Riley challenged us to ask ourselves if we would have helped Anne Frank. A sound pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust does not ask students to imagine what they might have done, as no one can ever truly answer such a question from the comfort of the present, but this was 1964, and there was no “pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust.” There was just a young, idealistic teacher asking soon-to-be teenagers to think about the kind of people they wanted to be. I carried that question with me throughout my life. At various stages I thought I knew the answer but then something in my life would change and I would have to admit to myself that I was back to not knowing. The most memorable was when I had my own children and realized that my answer was “No, I would not help Anne Frank if it meant putting my daughters at risk.” And then my daughters became adults and I thought, “Yes, I would help Anne Frank.” And, round and round for over 50 years I struggled with the question Ms. Riley had posed to us.

Not long ago, I came across a quote that is attributed to Anne Frank, and even though I am unable to verify she was the author, I like to believe she was. The quote, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. First we make our choices. Then our choices make us,” helped me understand what Ms. Riley had been asking us. I believe the question she asked was not meant to be literal, but symbolic; it was an opportunity to begin to explore what it means to be a good person, a fair person, a person who takes risks, and a person who refuses to be a bystander. She was also impressing upon us that the choices we make as young people begin to guide our lives, as one good (or bad) choice leads to another and another until they have simply become who we are.

My choice to become an educator resulted in working with thousands of students and hopefully helping them love literature, to think deeply about what they were reading and the human relationships that literature helps readers explore. Working with students led me to other choices in the education field including working closely with teachers and developing curricula, including Echoes and Reflections.  My choice to keep the story of the Holocaust relevant for generations to come and to keep Anne Frank’s story alive was a choice that was borne out of a deep respect for a young girl who, in one of her last diary entries before being arrested by the Nazis, wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” At every juncture of my personal and professional journey, I have made choices and over time those choices have made me.

As for teaching about the Holocaust, I have been in big cities and small towns in every region of the country. In some places teaching the history is mandated and in other places teachers are taking a risk to teach this content—some of their students are hearing that the Holocaust never happened from social media or even in their own homes. These teachers have made a choice and over time that choice has made them.

Your students live in their own “crazy time,” and are trying to make sense of their world. Let’s do all that we can to help them make brave and caring choices—choices that will eventually make them brave and caring people.

Join the conversation! We invite you to share about a teacher or book that had an impact on your life, or specifically, share what Anne Frank has meant to you.

Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005.

Inspiring Expression in English Language Learners

Recently, I incorporated Holocaust survivor testimony into my English Language Development (ELD) classes as a way to reinforce students’ listening and speaking skills, and activate their engagement in the learning process. It was very powerful to see how focused students became as they listened to these individuals share some of their most personal experiences.

Listening and speaking are difficult skills to master, especially when one is developing English as a second language. Usually students do the bare minimum and might give me three verbal sentences to summarize a five-page story. However, when practicing this skill with survivor testimony, students seek to fully explain the circumstances. They recognize the importance of the content and want to convey what they have understood. When they cannot find their own words to explain, they refer to a specific part in the clip. That step, referencing text, happens naturally, and demonstrates how well they are able to comprehend complex concepts and information.

Nationally the English language learner (ELL) population is an estimated 4.9 million and the states with the highest ELL population are California, Illinois, Colorado, Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia. Among this student population, the graduation rate varies widely from state to state with an average of 60% (Mitchell, Corey). That number drops for students who have not re-designated as fluent English proficient within four years of entering a school in the US (Maxwell, Lesli A.).

Middle and high school aged English language learners are required to meet academic standards in all core classes just like their native English speaking peers. They must take and pass their content classes in order to advance from grade level to grade level, receive a diploma, and have access to higher education. This challenge can be overwhelming for both teacher and student, but developing a well-rounded student and English language skills must take place in tandem with content learning. It is a shared responsibility, not just the obligation of the ELD instructor.

To meet these needs, it is essential for teachers to have access to relevant, impactful, rigorous resources that can easily be adapted for various skill levels. Resources must inform, challenge, and elicit meaningful student engagement. These types of resources can be difficult to find in a ready-to-use format.

The topics and themes made available through Echoes and Reflections are of high interest to my students. This content both provides a valuable outlet for expression and engages students with materials that promote higher-level thinking, prompt questions, and elicit discussions that develop critical academic skills. Primary sources such as letters, diary entries, photographs, and clips of testimony provide material, which is accessible to the various English fluency levels.

For example, at the end of one such lesson, a student told me, “I like these stories. They are important.” When I inquired as to why he felt that way, he explained that in Colombia he had heard about the Holocaust and was interested in learning more. This, for me, was yet another affirmation of the wealth of knowledge students like him can offer, and how those perspectives can be drawn on to expand both their content skills and their English skills.

Students of diverse backgrounds and varying skills bring with them valuable perspectives that when tapped into enrich the learning of all students. As teachers, we must believe in the value of including all students in our daily lessons. Often, it is the lack of time and resources that keeps many of us from bridging this gap. The resources provided by Echoes and Reflections are one way to address this gap, while also profoundly impacting their engagement in the learning process.

Lesly Culp works closely with Echoes and Reflections as Head of Programs for Education at the USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education

Telling the Story of the Holocaust: How Do We Get It Right?

Why do people all too often talk, or even teach, about the Holocaust in ways that trivialize it or get the facts wrong?

And, more importantly, how do we get it right?

A recent incident where students in upstate New York were asked to “argue for or against the ‘Final Solution’” illustrates just how wrong things can go. Similarly, there have been a series of inaccurate comments in the media recently, everything from Hollywood being compared to 1930s Germany to extermination camps referred to as “Holocaust Centers.”

How can we explain this?

On the one hand, the constant barrage of information, and perhaps more importantly, misinformation, does not help; and when alternative accurate sources of information are not readily available – or sought out – such misinformation may become a substitute for facts.

In schools, we see efforts such as that in New York and other locations where teachers, often with the best of intentions, seek ways to compel students to go outside their “comfort zones” to learn about this history. Almost every year we learn of teachers assigning students to take roles of “the Jews” during the Holocaust to help them develop empathy for the victims, largely resulting in upset, complaint, and distress for students, families, and the school community. While simulation-type activities may seem to be a compelling way to engage students, ultimately they trivialize the experience of the victims and can leave students with the impression that they actually know what it was like during the Holocaust.

What we can take from examples such as those described, is the complexity of both teaching, and really learning, about the Holocaust.  

On the positive side, due to media attention, we have also seen a broader awareness in the general population that Holocaust education is critical and relevant. At Echoes and Reflections – a partnership program of the Anti-Defamation League, USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem – we have worked with almost 40,000 committed educators since 2005, providing them with authentic and credible materials and resources for the classroom.  

How can this be addressed?

The truth is, the Holocaust is not easy to understand and certainly challenging to teach. Yet, teachers should not shy away from the challenge. We want them to have the confidence, knowledge, and skills to approach this teaching with commitment and courage. While there are a range of excellent educational resources and activities available to educators, which can help to provide accurate information about the Holocaust, without a sound pedagogy for teaching this complex topic, the impact will be limited and the impact will likely not last.

Recognizing this, Echoes and Reflections recently released “Pedagogical Principles for Effective Holocaust Instruction” and these principles include:

  • Define terms;
  • Provide background on the history of antisemitism;
  • Teach the human story;
  • Make the Holocaust relevant;
  • Encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking; and
  • Ensure a supportive learning environment.

Beyond supporting effective teaching about the Holocaust, we ALL have the opportunity to use the Holocaust’s current presence in larger community conversations and in the media as a teachable moment, and as a platform to encourage critical thinking and dialogue beyond the school walls.

What can you do?

Stay curious, and ask questions. As we are reminded of just how complex the story of the Holocaust is, we should be willing to question what we are hearing in the media or from other sources, and ask whether it makes sense. If it doesn’t, question the assumptions or misinformation, and seek out accurate and reliable sources of facts.

Keep talking. Engage family, friends, neighbors, and when appropriate, policymakers, in a dialogue about how you want the Holocaust to be remembered and discussed. Let’s continue to affirm the societal importance of educating and ensuring that the meaning and relevance of this watershed event in history is not lost.

Make connections. Ultimately, our goal is to reach young people to build the next generation of champions who will remember this history and tell the story. To do this we need to connect with families and caregivers and ensure that they not only understand the stories their children are hearing, but that their children’s schools are teaching about the Holocaust with proper context and sound instructional strategies.

How then do we start to get it right? We do all of the above, we stay engaged with the world, we keep talking and connecting, and in the words of Holocaust survivor Roman Kent, who was recently interviewed by Mic, we never let ourselves forget that “Ignorance is not an excuse.”

Specificity Matters

Specificity matters. It shapes our memory, frames our perceptions, informs identity, and influences responses to the world around us.

I was reminded of this in January during the commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the failure by the new White House administration to specifically mention the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. I was alarmed, offended, concerned, but, as a former teacher, I also wondered about the classroom teachers, navigating those choppy waters with students.

Now, as we prepare to commemorate Yom HaShoah in our classrooms on April 24th, it seems an important time to reflect on why is it important – I argue critical – to specify the targets of the Nazis and their collaborators.  What is lost to our collective memory and to our understanding of this history when Jews are left out of the conversation? And, why is it also important to expand the framework of our own identities by finding hospitality for the specific “other” in our own lives?

Our identities and group membership (imagined or real) are complex and multifaceted. Often we assume insular identities (individual and/or group) to better define ourselves and shun anything that might challenge those boundaries. We might see difference as a problem to be “solved” or “fixed.” Whether our own understanding leads us to view the world in a positive way or not, our perceptions are always influenced by the narratives we are exposed to and the interpretations of our own experiences. Thus, it is no small thing to decide to speak in general terms to “all the victims of the Holocaust.”

An important example of the long-term implications of this can be found in postwar France under Charles de Gaulle. There was no single wartime experience or narrative to unify the nation, so the Gaullists made one up. They claimed that all of France, with a few exceptions, had been resisters to the Holocaust and had liberated the country almost by themselves. Focusing on how French returnees were treated illustrates the problem. The government decided not to distinguish the experiences of returnees. Whether prisoners of war, forced or volunteer labor, Jews from camps, resistance fighters, or political deportees. This had two chilling effects: A generation later, school children “remembered” that Jews had been deported because, like everyone else, they had fought the Germans. Secondly, Jews, unable to find the words to express what they had been through were deeply traumatized, afraid of enflaming antisemitism, and remained silent about their experiences for fear that they would be seen as “privileging” their experience as unique in comparison.

This sense of “privileging” also points to the problem with January’s proclamation, and the importance of getting it right with your students on Yom HaShoah. The proclamation was said to be focused on inclusivity, but the underlying message can be interpreted that the Jews have somehow, wrongly claimed the Holocaust as their own, at the expense of the other victims.

This is not about comparative suffering. Anyone who suffers, suffers the most. This is about specificity of objective of the perpetrators. The Holocaust is never not a Jewish event. This reality cannot be lost in our teachings of the Holocaust, and as we prepare to commemorate the Holocaust this Yom Hashoah, must be understood as part our teaching of this history.  Address the names and faces of the victims with your students. Connect with the specificity of the Holocaust by inviting your students to hear the stories of individuals.

Seeing specificity – especially in an American historical context – can challenge our insular identities and help us to recognize individual and structural targeting of others. As educators, it is our task to help students see the specificity amidst the complexity. This will honor the memory of victims of the Holocaust and will honor the integrity of your students and their unique experiences in the world.

Ideas from Teachers for Commemorating Yom Hashoah

Looking for ideas and inspiration? Read about the creative ways teachers around the country commemorate Yom HaShoah with their students.

From the Teacher’s Resource Guide

Making Connections from Lesson 10: The Children offers a guide for students to plan a meaningful and impactful remembrance of Yom Hashoah.

Thomas M. White is the Coordinator of Educational Outreach for the Cohen Center for Holocaust Studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

“Unprecedented Bravery, Pluck, and Daring”

On International Women’s Day, I want to share some insights about why it’s so important to study the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives who were caught in the maelstrom of the Holocaust. Many of these women exhibited unprecedented bravery, pluck, and daring. Theirs is a type of courage we don’t always recognize as courage – but we should.

The first question is whether it’s legitimate to study women in the Holocaust, since it’s clear that the Final Solution was meant to apply to all Jews without regard to their gender. I contend that it is. One of the goals of Echoes and Reflections is to tell the human story – to give the victims back their identities and their faces and to create empathy for them. We do this by bringing the overwhelming and anonymous statistic of six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust down to the story of one victim at a time. While Jewish women were intended by the Nazis to share the same fate as Jewish men, their experiences along the way to death were not always the same. Often their ordeals were shaped by their roles as mothers or daughters, or colored by their female sensitivities. As such, examining women’s experiences creates a more finely nuanced understanding of the human story of the Holocaust.

According to traditional prewar gender patterns, women were responsible for their homes and for the well-being of their families and needs of their children. But in a world where brutal persecution, ghettoization, dehumanization, and finally, extermination, shattered the life they had known, women were preoccupied with basic daily survival. How were they to provide food for their families, maintain hygiene, and stave off illness in the midst of mass starvation, catastrophic overcrowding, and pervasive filth?

Amazingly, as the chaos escalated in the ghettos and the camps, women found the mental and spiritual fortitude to continue loving their families and caring for their children. Some deprived themselves of food so that their children would not go hungry. Others smuggled food into ghettos, risking their lives, to the same end. Women were confronted with inhuman and impossible dilemmas: should they give up their own children, flesh of their flesh, to strangers who were not Jewish on the tiny chance that the child might survive? Should they continue to care for their older parents who would clearly be deported, or strike out on their own in hopes of staying alive, leaving their parents to their fates?

Women displayed humor, courage, and incredible initiative. They played a unique and important role in various resistance activities as fighters and as couriers. Since they were able to masquerade as non-Jews more easily than male Jews (who were doomed by signs of circumcision), they were able to move from ghetto to ghetto, bringing with them news, weapons, and many times, hope. Some escaped to forests and served in partisan units. The only armed uprising in the history of Auschwitz was made possible by a handful of incredible, fearless women who smuggled gunpowder into Birkenau with which primitive bombs were made.

A story close to my heart is the story of one woman in rural Poland who refused to passively accept the death the Germans planned for her. She hid her family in haystacks in the Polish countryside rather than be herded onto a cattle car speeding towards the death camp of Belzec. When the weather turned too cold to remain outside in the fields, she turned for help to a Polish farmer named Stanislaw Grocholski who miraculously agreed to hide her entire family – 8 adults and 7 young children – in his attic. And when her baby, on the verge of starvation, endangered the rest of the family by crying, she made a decision that no young mother should ever have to make: in the middle of a dark night she left her baby on the steps of the local Church, hoping that someone would have the heart to care for her. The decision took a tremendous toll on her for the rest of her life, but protected her family – most of them survived. That extraordinarily courageous woman was my grandmother, Tsivia Engelberg.

This is one deeply personal story out of many, but for me it expresses the importance of examining the unique experiences of women in the Holocaust, to see how they behaved, reacted, and fought to resist. For me, their stories redefine courage and give inspiration to us all.

Sheryl Ochayon currently serves as the Project Director for Echoes and Reflections at Yad Vashem.

Contemporary Antisemitism in our Classrooms

In my role at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), I manage a suite of programs that provide resources and educational opportunities for students, parents, and teachers that focus on empowering individuals to stand up in the face of anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. In recent years, we have taken a hard look at anti-Semitism in middle schools and high schools and our findings have been alarming.

ADL’s most recent annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, noted that we, “continue to receive a troubling number of complaints about children, adolescents, and teenagers engaging in anti-Semitic behavior, both on and off school grounds. These incidents include physical assaults, threats of violence, and verbal and written taunts promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes or evoking disturbing Holocaust themes.” Sadly, and shockingly, it is common today for students to find swastikas etched into desks or drawn on bathroom doors, stereotypes about Jews having big noses or being cheap and greedy are heard regularly, and using phrases such as “Don’t be such a Jew” or “Stupid Jew” have become almost commonplace.  

In fact, recent focus groups with middle and high school students revealed that instances of anti-Jewish remarks and Holocaust “jokes” sometimes actually increase during and immediately after curricular units on the Holocaust. One student shared, “I received comments on ask.fm [an anonymous social media site] calling me a dirty Jew, JAP [Jewish American Princess], and worst of all, saying I should burn in the oven with the rest of the Jews. I was incredibly disturbed and worried that there was someone who was so anti-Semitic that they would post something so threatening to me.”

So, what is going on here? What are we seeing with these findings?

If we are teaching effectively about the Holocaust, how is it that students are not making the connection between their own actions and the importance of stopping bias and bigotry before it escalates?  In our Bearing Witness programs with Catholic school educators, we speak with teachers about how teaching about the Holocaust necessitates context. It is helpful if teachers guide their students in seeing the complexity of this event as part of a bigger conversation about historical and contemporary anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of bias and bigotry in our world today.

Anti-Semitism, bias, and bigotry existed for millennia before the Holocaust and did not end with the defeat of the Nazis. Rather than seeing anti-Semitism as one small component in the history of the Holocaust, it can instead be helpful to think about the Holocaust as one small piece in the history of anti-Semitism. In this way, we can help students to recognize that they must play a role in combatting this hatred that continues to be present in our lives today, and empower them to take a stance against contemporary manifestations of bias and prejudice.

In this time of increasing divisiveness in our country, when people are targeted because of who they are—their gender, religion, national origin, etc.—it is more important than ever that educators integrate the important lessons about the Holocaust with teaching about concepts of prejudice and hate today.  Echoes and Reflections has excellent resources in Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders and a new resource  on Contemporary Anti-Semitism, that encourage students to consider the importance of taking action when they see bigotry and prejudice exhibited in their own lives.

As teachers think about how best to teach about the Holocaust, and to raise these difficult and complicated topics with their students, I also recommend these 10 Planning Implementation Guidelines and 10 Approaches to Help you teach from Echoes and Reflections. While we can never be fully sure how our students may react to the content, these guidelines can be useful to help set the stage for a thoughtful and respectful learning experience.

Let’s Have a Discussion! How do you address these complex issues with your students and bring them “safely in and safely out”?

Naomi Mayor is the Director of Campus and Community Education Programs for the Anti-Defamation League where she develops new curriculum resources and training materials to address anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias at universities and in schools.

Defending Truth – Holocaust Denial in the Classroom

The recent film Denial, which recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier, provides an opportunity to critically examine Holocaust denial and contemporary antisemitism. For students, analyzing the ways that what they have learned about the Holocaust debunks the assertions of deniers allows them to reach important conclusions based on evidence.

Echoes and Reflections sat down with Dan Leshem, PhD, Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and former Program Manager of the Holocaust Denial on Trial website (HDoT.org), to learn more about what teachers should know as they consider this topic from an educational perspective.

What is Holocaust Denial?

“Holocaust denial is a very strange concept and a very difficult thing to teach,” Leshem explains, “because it requires student to hold a lot of things in their mind at the same time… Students have to reflect on the historical truth of the Holocaust while also considering the denier’s claim, think about why someone would deny the Holocaust, question the way denying the Holocaust hurts the people that were there, and how it hurts Jewish people today. Holocaust denial becomes a complicated story.”

Leshem emphatically states that the most important thing to know is that Holocaust denial is antisemitism. “There is no other reason that it exists other than to hurt Jews and rehabilitate the image of Hitler and the Nazi party.” He goes on to add that, many of the most vehement Holocaust deniers are antisemites as well as being anti-immigrant, racist, misogynistic, homophobic haters of all “others”.

Much of denial focuses on inserting doubt or suspicion into the narrative about the Holocaust and presenting assertions as if they are historical fact and historical proof. “Offering a series of logical fallacies is less detectable. Insert enough doubt and people start to think that ‘maybe there is more to the story than I was told.’”

Dr. Lipstadt uses the term “immoral equivalencies” to describe these logical fallacies. In an interview transcript on HDOT, she explains that Holocaust deniers will say, “Yes, the Germans had camps (because they can’t deny that there were concentration camps. Those were reported even in the German press, which was hardly a free press, but everybody knew there was this system of concentration camps), but the Americans had camps too… they did bad, we did bad, in war bad things happen.” The danger in these assertions, Lipstadt explains, is more than that they’re completely false. It is that, “There is no moral equivalency for the Holocaust,” so deniers need to negate its significance to further their own hateful agenda.

Common Contentions of Holocaust Deniers

According to Leshem there are, at the heart of deniers’ rhetoric, two core themes: that the Jewish people were not the victims but the victimizers, and that the material evidence of a genocide were all fabricated.

In Lipstadt’s trial, Richard Evan’s expert witness report listed the following common contentions:

  1. The number of Jews killed by the Nazis was far less than six million; it amounted to only a few hundred thousand, and was thus similar to, or less than, the number of German civilians killed in Allied bombing raids.
  2. Gas chambers were not used to kill large numbers of Jews at any time.
  3. Neither Hitler nor the Nazi leadership in general had a program of exterminating Europe’s Jews; all they wished to do was to deport them to Eastern Europe.
  4. ‘The Holocaust’ is a myth invented by Allied propaganda during the war and sustained since then by Jews who wish to use it to gain political and financial support for the state of Israel. The supposed evidence for the Nazis’ wartime mass murder of millions of Jews by gassing and other means was fabricated after the war.

“It can be very challenging to debunk some of these ideas if you’re not an expert,” Leshem adds. These contentions require one to be knowledgeable about the Holocaust and able to point to all the pieces of evidence that negate each claim.

Is Denial Unique to the Holocaust?

“Denial is the last stage of every genocide,” Leshem explains citing Gregory H. Stanton, noted Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at George Mason University and President of Genocide Watch. Stanton’s extensive work in genocide studies led to his paper, The 8 Stages of Genocide, which offers a framework that is now used throughout the world. “There isn’t a group in history that has experienced a genocide, that does not have a group that is trying to deny it… The difference with the Holocaust is that the government of Germany has made a conscious effort to acknowledge what they did.”

To most people, given the evidence, to question whether the Holocaust happened or the facts surrounding it is irrational; it is one of the most documented events in human history. And yet, as we move farther away from the event in history, and with the enormous amount of information and misinformation shared through the Internet, students may have seen or heard some of the propaganda that Holocaust deniers spread.

If the topic comes up in class, Leshem recommends approaching it as an opportunity to teach critical thinking and research.  Challenge students to consider, “How do you evaluate the credibility of your source? Where did you get your information?” He also recommends that students dig deeper into their research to find multiple credible sources to measure evidence against. “In this day in age it is also a digital literacy question… If your source is comments on YouTube, how good is that source compared to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum?”

Teaching Resources

Echoes and Reflections provides students and teachers with authentic primary sources, survivor testimony, and historical facts, that reveal what took place. If students, or adults are voicing myths and misinformation about the Holocaust,  HDOT’s Debunking Holocaust Denial provides historical data to refute the most common assertions and provides fact sheets for debunking Holocaust denier claims.

Additionally, consider these new resources from Echoes and Reflections:

  • Teacher’s Discussion Guide – The new film Denial recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier.
  • Contemporary Antisemitism Resource – Provides an opportunity for students to understand that antisemitism did not end after the Holocaust, and tools for interpreting data and content students encounter on and offline.

Dan Leshem, Ph.D. is the Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College.

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.

Let’s Talk about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Over the past ten years, I have had the honor of delivering Echoes and Reflections professional development programs to thousands of educators across the United States. During that time, I have seen the differences from state to state with respect to when and how the Holocaust is covered in school or district curriculum; however, my experiences have also taught me that the similarities greatly outweigh the differences. Educators care deeply about teaching the Holocaust and feel a profound responsibility to provide accurate, authentic, and sensitive instruction―instruction that honors the memory of the victims and provides an opportunity for students to think critically about what the Holocaust can teach us about the moral and ethical choices people make and the impact of those choices.

Another striking similarity is the selection of texts that teachers across the country have told me they use in their classrooms―namely, The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The first two titles have been part of the canon of Holocaust literature for decades, and while there are certainly cautions for how to use these texts  effectively, they are the words of those who experienced the events about which they write and show respect for the survivors and the victims. But, let’s talk about that third title.*

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas calls itself a fable―a story of two young boys who meet in a place that most readers understand to be Auschwitz but that the characters do not know as anything other than where they are at a particular moment in time. In fact, the word “Auschwitz” never appears in the text. Soon after the book was published in 2006, Boyne shared in an interview that he was well aware of the complexity of writing about a topic like the Holocaust and was therefore careful not to portray the storyline as anything other than fiction, changing certain aspects of concentration camp history in order to serve the story. Like any fable, there is no expectation that this story be factually accurate; the purpose is to convey universal “truths” and moral lessons. Boyne hoped that his fable would challenge readers―especially young readers―to think about the “fences” that divide groups of people and be inspired to work to dismantle them whenever and wherever possible.

The question that must be asked, however, is whether students are clear that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable when they begin reading it? This is particularly important when students have an opportunity to self-select texts for independent reading, a practice used in many language arts classrooms. Without adequate framing, students may believe that they are reading a novel based on fact, and walk away with historical inaccuracies in terms of time, place, and events that result in gross misinformation about the Holocaust in general, and Auschwitz specifically.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can leave students thinking that being in Auschwitz wasn’t that “bad”―after all, the inmates who walk around in pajamas seem “fine,” and children move around freely and have clandestine meetings at a fence that is not electrified and even allows for crawling underneath.  Boyne’s book never reveals or even hints at the constant presence of death that permeated Auschwitz, nor the forced labor, starvation, brutal beatings, and dehumanization. The author’s portrayal of young Bruno’s innocence and naiveté about what was happening in the camp his father directed yards from his home allows the myth that those who were not directly involved can claim innocence.

One can argue that works of fiction set during the Holocaust do not present themselves as attempting to tell the history of the Holocaust; however, a topic as sensitive and tragic as the Holocaust if not presented carefully can disrespect the truth of the experience, lead students to doubt the facts of the Holocaust, or cause confusion. Often when romanticized events compete with factual information, it is the romanticized events that will be remembered. For me, this has been reinforced when adults that I have spoken to do not realize that Chelmno extermination camp had an almost zero survival rate and cite Jane Yolen’s fictional Briar Rose as their source of understanding about this camp. In lieu of historical knowledge, the romanticized story of a young female protagonist escaping from Chelmno became what readers knew (or believed they knew) about the camp. It is critical for readers of Holocaust fiction to have accurate historical knowledge so that they are not confused by the historical inaccuracies often found in fictional accounts of the Holocaust.

It is for all these reasons that at Echoes and Reflections, we do not recommend using this text in teaching. Instead, we encourage teachers to select authentic memoirs or diaries that can resonate with teenage readers while giving them accurate information about the Holocaust.

That being said, I have discussed The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with teachers who use it. They often respond that this is a book that resonates for their students; they are thrilled that students are interested in the story and express empathy toward Bruno and Shmuel. While it is true that we can never truly understand what the victims or survivors experienced or felt, Holocaust fiction can appeal to certain readers whose empathy can be aroused from efforts to imagine themselves in the plot.

In my conversations with teachers, I have asked them how they deconstruct these responses with their students. While all good teachers hope to foster empathy in their students, what exactly can students learn from stepping into the fable-like world of two young boys that leads them to think they understand what happened at Auschwitz? Why does the book engender so much empathy for Bruno?  Are students able to consider how they would have felt at the end of the book if only Shmuel had died? Does the story of Bruno and Shmuel add to their understanding of this tragic time in human history?  If Elie Wiesel’s Night honors how Jews fought for survival in Auschwitz and The Diary of Anne Frank is a testament to the human spirit, does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust?  Such questioning allows students to think more deeply about the text―how and what they are feeling and for whom.  

If educators do ultimately make the choice to teach The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with students, it should be done with the greatest care and preparation. Using primary sources including visual history testimony should always be the first choice of teaching materials as they help students be clear about what happened historically and what did not and could not have happened.  In response to queries from teachers about use of the text, Echoes and Reflections recommends that students study the material in our Teacher’s Resource Guide Lesson 5: The “Final Solution.” This will allow students to raise issues and questions about the narrative based on accurate historical knowledge. An activity for helping students analyze fiction about the Holocaust is outlined in Making Connections.

Let’s have a discussion! We invite you to share your experience with this text or others: What literature do you use with students and why? How do you prepare students for reading these texts, and how do you encourage critical analysis of what they have read?

* The focus here is on the text, not the film, even though the commentary here can apply to the film as well. Depiction of the Holocaust in film is a topic that warrants its own discussion.

Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005.

Christadelphians and the Kindertransport – The Untold Story of Rescue from the Holocaust

This blog is reposted from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Impact in Profile

Jason Hensely’s project to interview Kindertransport survivors who were taken in by Christadelphians during World War II began in 2015 with an Echoes and Reflections online professional development program.

In 2014, Hensley, a principal at Christadelphian Heritage School in Simi Valley, California who specializes in teaching about Christianity and the Holocaust, had attended the Belfer National Conference for Educators at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to learn more about teaching the Holocaust.

Following the conference, one of his instructors, Echoes and Reflections trainer and classroom teacher Jennifer Goss, invited him to participate in a new Echoes and Reflections online professional development course. The course would instruct educators on teaching the Holocaust, utilizing testimony in the classroom, and integrating other primary and secondary sources. At the end of the course, each participant was required to create an original lesson to utilize with students in their classrooms.

“It hit me that in teaching my Holocaust Studies course, we’ve been talking about Christadelpians and the ways in which Christadelphians helped Jewish children, and I thought ‘Ah, this is what we need to look at,’” Hensley said. “It really revolved around this idea of individual stories.”

Christadelphians are a small Christian sect. Hensley estimates that about 250 Jewish children were sheltered by Christadelphians in Britain during World War II.

Hensely searched in IWitness for any mentions of Christadelphians and was surprised to find one testimony, Suse Rosenstock.

“No one has any clue who Christadelphians are, they’re such a small little group. I was blown away to find one video,” Hensley said. “She talked about all her experiences in detail and that was hugely inspiring.”

With his students, Hensley set out to find out as much as he could about Christadelphians and the Kindertransport. They pored through old Christadelphian magazines looking for stories written about the Holocaust during the war and even watched testimony in the Visual History Archive (VHA) while on a field trip to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

“The kids started going through the different [museum] exhibits and I went to a computer and searched “Christadelphians,” and found seven videos,” Hensley said. “I started running through the museum telling them all. I think the kids thought I was a little crazy.”

In addition to providing background information about Jewish children’s experiences with Christadelphians, the testimonies in the Visual History Archive also led Hensley directly to survivors themselves and their families. He was able to get in touch with the families of two survivors he watched in the VHA.

So far, Hensely has filmed two interviews with survivors who recount their experiences living with Christadelphian families during the war. He has also written a book, Part of the Family: Christadelphians, the Kindertransport and Rescue from the Holocaust, based on his research.

The project would not have happened if it weren’t for Echoes and Reflections and the professional development course he was invited to participate in, Hensley said. Through Echoes and Reflections, Hensley realized the importance of discovering and sharing the stories of individuals in the Holocaust. And through testimony, Hensley was able to do his own original research and tell stories that in many cases have never been told before.

“I think if you allow it to, Echoes and Reflections will change your life,” Hensley said. “It will give you a whole different perspective on understanding the Holocaust. It will change the way you think about things and, in doing so, change the way you act. It really brings you face to face with survivors and you get to hear what they experienced and you get to be moved by it.”

Jason Hensley, M.A.Ed, is the principal of Christadelphian Heritage School, a small private school in California where he teaches religious studies and a senior-level course on Christianity and the Holocaust.