Echoes and Reflections of My Past: The Best and Worst of Humankind

As I prepare to retire from my role as the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) this month, I have spent considerable time reflecting on my past and the experiences that shaped me over the last half century. I came to the ADL exactly 50 years ago, fresh out of law school, and fueled with a passion to fight for the safety and security of the Jewish people. This passion, no doubt, is always and forever informed by being a child survivor of the Holocaust, hidden by my Polish-Catholic nanny, and then miraculously reunited with my parents. Surely, I am a product of the worst in humankind and the best in humankind.

Many know that I survived World War II and the Holocaust thanks to my nanny, but some don’t realize that after being reunited with my parents at the age of 5, I had to learn how to be Jewish. One thing I remember is making the sign of the cross in the home of my parents, who were observant Jews. Even once I was reunited with my parents, I did not know who or what I was. As a child, with my nanny, I had been a good practicing Catholic. I grappled with this terrible burden for years and those feelings and memories left a lasting impression. The Holocaust changed the trajectory of my life—and millions of others—simply because we were Jewish.

The transformation that followed, and the rediscovery and reengagement with my Jewish faith and culture, was not easy; but the experiences of my childhood coupled with the lessons my parents taught me inspired my lifelong commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and ensuring the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten.

The devastation of the Holocaust has ripple effects beyond what is often taught in textbooks or as a passing reference in a history class.  Every single survivor has a story—stories often replete with horror, desperation, and a one in a million chance of survival. I realized early on that it is very important to provide a human voice to the Holocaust so that others understand that each life lost or saved was a person with feelings, experiences, family, and a future.  It’s easy for people to repeat “six million” and “never forget” without actually understanding what that means for both the Jewish people and the human race.

So it may come as no surprise that as I retire, I do so with the greatest pride in the role the ADL has had in building Echoes and Reflections, our Holocaust education program developed in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem, and the ongoing leadership and support of Dana and Yossie Hollander.  This innovative program lends that human voice to the experiences of the Holocaust and prepares teachers to help students understand the ongoing relevance of this history to our contemporary society.  

This work has never been so critical. Can you imagine my disgust as I read articles about Eric Hunt (a Holocaust denier known for attacking Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel) who is creating a virtual “Holocaust Hoax Museum” that will dispute the Holocaust happened?  It seems inconceivable that in 2015 Holocaust imagery and phrases like, “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job” are being used on college campuses and to desecrate synagogues nationwide.  

How is it possible that seventy years after the Shoah, we are questioning whether or not Jews can live peacefully in pluralistic countries like France, Belgium, Sweden, or Denmark?  And just last month in Spain, three visibly identifiable Muslim women reportedly chanted, “Catch and kill all the Jews…. Exterminate them, exterminate them, the world will be better off,” while one of the women stabbed a doll of an Orthodox Jew with a knife.  

How horrific.

This rise of anti-Semitism here and abroad disturbs me deeply and is heartbreaking for the thousands of Holocaust survivors who remain, who fear that humankind has really not learned from the horrors of its past.  For me, I want my grandchildren to understand that evil exists in this world, and that Jews and other groups of people are being persecuted even today, but just as importantly, I want them to know that there are far more people out there who will stand for others, who challenge misinformation, stereotypes, and who do not and will not sit idly by in the face of hate.  

I have often said that until we develop an antidote to hate, education is our best response. I firmly believe this to be true.  This is why I have such a deep respect and gratitude for the more than 25,000 educators who have worked with Echoes and Reflections these past ten years.

For those of you reading this who are a part of our Echoes and Reflections educator community, I know that teaching about Holocaust history can be daunting and challenging, with limited time, competing priorities, and the need to respond to the many diverse needs of the young people in your classrooms.   I fear sometimes that we are giving you too heavy a burden; the history is too horrible, too complex, too removed for many students in 2015.  

Yet, you do not shy away from the challenge.  Every day, we see more and more of you come to our programs, you help your students understand the seemingly incomprehensible level of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, you ask them the tough questions and help them make meaningful connections, and you find enough grace and hope in this dark past to give belief in a brighter future.  It is your actions that give me hope in a brighter future.

For this, as a Holocaust survivor, as a Jew, as a father and grandfather, I say thank you.

Abraham H. Foxman, is the former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Currently, he is the head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

Storytelling Makes History come Alive

There were 937 passengers on the MS St. Louis, many of whom were Jewish refugees escaping the turmoil of Nazi, Germany. Scott Miller, a research historian, educator, and author at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, along with colleague Sarah Ogilvie, in 1995 found themselves intrigued by the question, ‘What happened to those 937 passengers?’

The St. Louis has come to symbolize American inaction and the threatening consequences of being a bystander. Asylum seekers petitioned for the right to disembark in Cuba and then were denied entry to the United States and Canada. After sailing close to the shores of Miami Beach, the St. Louis was officially turned back and passengers were forced to return to Europe, much of which was already under Nazi domination.

The story of the voyage is well documented and it had long been assumed that the majority of St. Louis passengers perished at the hands of the Nazis. Miller and Ogilvie wanted to know more and in posing the question embarked on what became a decade of research and detective work.

Miller has joined Echoes and Reflections at the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Conference for the past eight years. This unique weeklong professional development opportunity, made possible by the generosity of Charlotte and Jacque Wolf and Dana and Yossie Hollander, brings an exclusive group of secondary educators from across the country together for an in-depth program to learn effective teaching strategies from Holocaust and genocide experts, authors of Holocaust literature, survivors, and other witnesses. Miller offers a captivating presentation in which shares the journey he and Ogilvie took in tracing the stories of the 937 St. Louis passengers inviting educators to join him in unraveling the hidden truth behind what happened to everyone that was aboard the St. Louis.

“I love it! I absolutely love the opportunity to speak with teachers,” Miller said when asked about his upcoming presentation at the Wolf Conference. “Many of the teachers are at the beginning stages of their career and everyone is so full of energy and eager to learn. Its great! We have very diverse participants and everyone is learning to teach the Holocaust.”

In focusing on the passengers and the human experience, Miller’s telling of the St. Louis story emphasizes the reality and the consequences. “It shows that there are real consequences on individual people and their lives when ships are sent back. Focusing on the individual stories brings a valuable perspective. History is about individuals and that is something that is very much a cornerstone of the work that Echoes and Reflections does and why my work fits so well with what educators are learning at the Wolf Conference. History is more than kings and government. In terms of talking with students, I would hope it’s valuable because it’s the detective work that makes history fun and more hands on. This research was about making home visits, going through cemeteries, looking at old telephone books…”

Miller’s presentation about the St. Louis at the Wolf Conference helps teachers think about these moments in history critically. “We all want to make what we teach relevant. Being that we’re in the middle of a lot of refugee crises right now across the globe and with the story of the St. Louis being so obviously about refugees,  it’s a fantastic opportunity.”

Miller emphasizes, however, that his presentation is, “Not a history lecture. I tell the story of how we found out what became of them with a PowerPoint that includes photos of all the people involved… Telling the story of what happened makes the story whole again.”

Using a short video of a St. Louis passenger who survived, Miller models teaching through exploration and takes his audience on a journey. The video is of an older woman who was on the voyage with her brother, newly wed husband, and parents but at the end of the war, she was the only survivor. She talks to the camera about living through forced labor in a munitions factory where she said she sabotaged the war effort by making faulty products. “We filmed her in the US. She passed away at age 90.”

Educators attending the Wolf Conference always have a lot of questions. Miller said, “People want to know how the survivors we tracked down in the US felt about being here after knowing that the US had betrayed them the first time? The answer is not that different from most refugees, but with a bit of a bitter twist. In the end, they feel very grateful for having the chance to be here. Participants also ask what people did once they were here, what kinds of jobs they found, and whether they had families.”

“Questions always come up about Roosevelt and his relationship to the Jews. I always emphasize that things have to be looked at in context and consider the politics of the time. Roosevelt did not do enough to rescue Jews. And, just like today, in the choices our leaders are making, we consider the humanitarian interest versus the political interest. I try not to say things explicitly, which I hope is a take-away. The St. Louis is a relevant story and one of the reasons we wanted to do this detective work is because the lessons are still so applicable in our world today.”

The USC Shoah Foundation offers an IWitness Activity entitled, “The Voyage of the St. Louis: From Hope to Despair,” that features testimonies from survivors who were children on the ship and is an excellent complement to Miller’s work and Echoes and Reflections content.

Scott Miller started working with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1989, four years before it opened to the public. He was research historian for the museum’s Wexner Learning Center and then became program coordinator for its Research Institute. In 2001, he was appointed director of the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. He also taught Jewish history at the American University in Washington DC and co-edited The Nazis’ Last Victims: The Holocaust in Hungary.

In 2006, Miller coauthored a book with Sarah Ogilvie entitled, Refuge Denied — The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust. The product of ten years of research, the book traced the lives of the St. Louis passengers.

Teaching The Diary of Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s wartime diary, The Diary of a Young Girl, documents her thoughts, feelings, and experiences between 1942 and 1944 while hiding with her family during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Friends of the family, Miep Gies and her husband Jan, Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, and Bep Voskuijl, and her father Johannes Hendrik Voskuijl, helped the Franks and the others to survive for the two years they were in hiding. June 12, 2015 would have been Anne Frank’s 86th birthday.

Carol Martin and Sarah Brown are Echoes and Reflections educators with years of experience teaching about Anne Frank in their classrooms. As a central component of their curriculum, they have developed sound strategies for teaching Anne Frank, which they share below.

They emphasize the importance of providing context, understanding what it means to be a bystander, and providing a safe space to ask questions. “My students love it,” Brown says. “They get so much out of it and years later they tell me that the Anne Frank unit is what they remember most from 8th grade.” Martin adds, “I feel strongly that I have to help my students really understand what it must have been like for her. These were peoples’ lives.”    

Preparation and Providing Context

Martin starts with a timeline. “It is like a KWL chart. I do this activity with photos from 1933-1945 and ask my students to put them in order. Then we rate the events from most significant to least significant. I find that using photos of people help students make the connection that these were peoples’ lives and the events we are learning about happened to them. I want to help my students connect on a personal level and pictures work well.”

Martin also emphasizes the importance of framing the historical context. “I provide an introduction to Nazi Germany where we start with the Treaty of Versailles and then move forward.” Helpful resources from Echoes and Reflections Lesson 3: Nazi Germany include – The Weimer Republic and the Rise of the Nazi Party, Europe before 1919, and Europe after 1919. “It is helpful to understand that Otto Frank chose the Netherlands because during World War I it had remained neutral and he thought they would be safe. He chose it strategically. Echoes and Reflections is great because you can pull the resources you need and the procedures organize it all for you step by step.”

Brown adds, “I like to show an excellent documentary called Anne Frank Remembered. It incorporates survivor testimony and gives a lot of background information about what it was like in Germany and what motivated the Frank family to leave and go to the Netherlands. It addresses Hitler’s invasion of the Netherlands and the integration of the Nuremberg Laws.”

In addition to helping students understand the political conditions that gave rise to fascism in Germany, both educators highlight the importance of helping students understand antisemitism. Brown shares, “It is really a study of racism and intolerance… Here in our rural district in upstate New York, I might be the first Jewish person my students have ever met so we get started with the basics.”

Both educators utilize Echoes and Reflections Lesson 2: Antisemitism resources including the Antisemitism Definition and Summary, and the map of Jewish Communities in Europe. Martin notes that she also references the illustrations from this lesson to demonstrate the use of propaganda. “I try and explain what the time period was like and help students consider what it might be like to hear antisemitic messages your whole life.”

Teaching Anne Frank: A Lesson in Taking Action

Building on the historical context, both Martin and Brown introduce their students to Anne Frank, a thirteen-year-old girl who is roughly the same age as their students, by teaching the stage adaptation of the book. They find it better captures students’ attention and creates more opportunities for engagement.

Brown prints copies for all of her students and encourages them to take copious notes and write all over it as they work through the text together. “As we read it we emphasize the interaction between the people in hiding and that they could not have survived without Miep Gies. The people who helped the Frank family chose not to be bystanders. They chose to help because they believed that it was the right thing to do. We talk about this and contrast it to the majority of people during this time that chose to go along with the demands of the regime. What makes a person do what they do or don’t do? What was it in Miep’s values that caused her do what she thought was right and put herself at risk?”

To answer these questions, Brown and Martin utilize Echoes and Reflections Lesson 7: Rescuers and Non-Jewish Resistance. In an article adapted from a speech given by Miep Gies after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Anti-Defamation League she talks about Anne Frank’s Legacy.

Martin highlights that she likes to emphasize the lessons in Anne Frank’s story as having a lot to do with the choices people make. She uses Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders directly from the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide and Salitter’s Report in which he talks about the deportation of Jews. “This ties back to the end when Anne gets deported. As a class, we go back and talk about it. We also do a lot of collaborative work. I put my students in groups and have them talk things through with each other. Echoes and Reflections does a nice job of setting it all up for me and making these connections.”

Questions and Discussions

Martin shares that as an educator in a Catholic school her students often want to know more about the role of the church during the Holocaust. “Students always ask, ‘What did Pope Pius XII say and what was the Catholic response?’ It can be really hard to answer some of these questions and help students work through this material.”

Her students often ask personal questions about Anne Frank as well. They want to know how her hiding place was revealed, what happened to her afterwards when they got to Auschwitz, and how she died. “These are hard to answer because for a lot of them we don’t really know. We talk about Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and what that must have been like. I use Echoes and Reflections Lesson 5: The “Final Solution” to help answer some of these inquiries.”

She said that in her classroom they have started using an anonymous comment box. “This is a great way to make sure all the students questions are answered and gives me a chance to think through how I can best prepare a strong answer to those tough questions.”

Brown says, “My students have a lot of questions like, ‘Why did they kill the Jews? Why did they target them?’ In some ways, our course on Anne Frank and the Holocaust is an introduction to what human nature can be. I try to minimize the atrocities of it in class and put emphasis on what we can learn and what these lessons mean for our role in society today.”

Conclusion

After years of teaching the Holocaust, Martin shares that she has found it helpful to start by having a meeting with parents. Engaging parents as partners in the process of teaching this difficult material helps them prepare for some of the tough questions their children might have. “I tell them everything that we will be doing, reading, learning, and suggest that if their children have questions to please write them down and I’ll be happy to answer them in class.”

As an additional complement to this unit, Martin encourages her students to apply to the Chapman University Art and Writing Contest every year, which focuses on themes central to both the Holocaust and to ethical decision making.

Sarah Brown has taught 7-12th grade in the AuSable Valley Central School District for 25 years and currently teaches 8th grade. Carol Martin is a 6th-8th grade English and History teacher at Our Lady of Fatima Parish School in San Clemente, CA. She has been teaching about the Holocaust for 12 years.

Survivors and Liberators

Q & A.: Jill Rembrandt and Kim Klett on Teaching Liberation and Using Echoes and Reflections Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators

How does one talk about liberation and the end of the Holocaust with students? Jill Rembrandt, Associate Project Director for Echoes and Reflections at the Anti-Defamation League, facilitates trainings for teachers. Kim Klett, a 12th grade English teacher in Mesa, Arizona, teaches an English elective called Holocaust Literature. They have been using Echoes and Reflections for nearly 10 years and, Kim uses Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators in her classroom.

In this Q. and A., Jill and Kim discuss their approach to the topic of liberation and the way they utilize resources in the Teacher’s Resource Guide to facilitate meaningful and engaging conversation with students.

Q. Jill, how do you introduce the topic of liberation to educators?

A. In my trainings, I model teaching with testimony. I open up our conversation for discussion and we explore liberation and all its complexity together as if we were in a classroom. We ask tough questions, put ourselves in the survivors’ shoes, and think about this time from many angles.

When I teach educators about Lesson 8, I like to highlight the testimony from Anton Mason. He was in the same barrack as Elie Wiesel, and when Anton described the experience of being liberated he said, “We were free, but how will we live our lives without our family?”

This is a poignant moment that makes the complexity and mixed emotions of survivors apparent. Exploring this with students helps them understand the lasting impact and what it really meant to have survived.

Q. Kim, how do you prepare to teach students about liberation and survival? Can you share some best practices for getting comfortable with the material?

A. Echoes and Reflections is great because it condenses a lot of material for you and makes it accessible in one place. I recommend finding out what you don’t know, thinking about what you need to know, and then finding additional resources to fill in details and guide you. Look for the background and timeframe for the particular resources you’re teaching. Start small and then branch out from there.

Q. Kim, how do you talk about liberation and the end of the Holocaust with your students?

A. When students come in at the beginning we actually start with Darfur. I bring in present day examples so that students are aware that genocide is still happening. We learn the history of antisemitism and build a timeline on the wall to visualize the history.
In my class, we go from one book to another and I provide context along the way. “The Sunflower,” for example, deals with people’s feelings after liberation and the question of forgiveness. Should I forgive, can I forgive? I help students think about that. I share photos from Echoes and Reflections that guide our discussions.

Liberation is a really good time to talk about the role of the US in the Holocaust. I show my students Paul Parks’ testimony and we talk about the effect that liberating camps had on the young men in the armed forces. My students in ROTC are humbled to learn that for survivors, the soldiers were heroes. It is important for the kids in my class who will be enlisting to see the positive role that the military can play and has played historically.

The testimonies in Lesson 8 also highlight survivors talking about the pride they feel in being American. Gerda Klein, a local survivor in Arizona that I invite to my class, runs a group called Citizenship Counts that is inspired by her own immigrant experience. My immigrant students relate to these stories and feel connected to the sense of pride in being an American.

Q. Jill, what is important for educators to remember in helping students to think through the complexity that marked the end of the war?

A. Teachers have a chance to encourage students to dig into the psychological questions that come up for all the people involved in liberation. What was it that allowed people to move on and find a way to be happy again? Remembering that we facilitate the questioning and encourage the exploration is important in talking about the end of the war. It is always interesting to encourage both educators and students to think about the mental place survivors would have been in at this stage.

Q. Kim, what kinds of responses do you get from your students after they engage with this material? What kind of impact does it have on them?

A. I would say that for a lot of them our unit on liberation makes them proud of their country. For others, it motivates them to emulate the soldiers, to do the right thing, and try to help people in need. It is inspirational for sure, and for the kids it’s an eye opener. I want them to realize that genocide and the Holocaust is much more complex than people remember or think.

Jill Rembrandt is the Deputy Project Director for Echoes and Reflections. She resides in Cleveland, Ohio. Kim Klett has taught English at Dobson High School in Mesa, AZ since 1991. She teaches A.P. English Literature and Holocaust Literature.

Teaching Kristallnacht

After using Echoes and Reflections for many years with students, I was telling a friend of mine about a particular primary source from Lesson One: Studying the Holocaust that has always struck me. In it, the director of an orphanage describes his experience during Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” and the way he struggled to protect the kids under his care. As the night went on, children from all parts of the city came seeking safety until there were 90 with him being sheltered from the destruction happening around them.

My friend said that the story sounded incredibly familiar and I learned that her father was a child in that orphanage. He was there the night that Kristallnacht occurred. Her father survived because an American family adopted him just before emigration was no longer possible from Germany. This experience makes using these materials in my classroom even more meaningful.

Lesson One: Studying the Holocaust is one of my favorite sections of the Echoes and Reflections Teacher Resource Guide.  I’ve used components of this lesson many times since I was first introduced to Echoes in 2005; first as part of a quarter-long “Introduction to the Holocaust” while teaching at a high school in Pennsylvania, and more recently, as part of a semester-long “Holocaust and Genocide” elective for eleventh and twelfth graders at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, Virginia.  Although I use various aspects of Lesson One in other areas of my course, I love to share the components I use in my lesson on Kristallnacht with other teachers.

Kristallnacht is one of the most studied aspects of the Holocaust in American high schools.  Nearly every American History textbook section that mentions the Holocaust makes note of this turning point on November 9-10, 1938.  The “Night of the Broken Glass” was the first major public display of antisemitic violence against Jews in Germany and annexed Austria.   

In talking about Kristallnacht, my class examines primary sources, like the one in which the orphanage director accounts his experiences. As we discuss these documents and photos I fill in other aspects of the history of Kristallnacht.  I provide background, describe the unfolding of events on the night itself and we discuss the seizure of Jewish property that followed.  Students are challenged to consider some of the most complex aspects of studying the Holocaust including, collaboration and complicity.

Following this document analysis, we then watch the testimony of Kurt Messerschmidt.  Kurt was a young teacher at the time of Kristallnacht and his powerful description of events challenge my students to further consider what it means to be a bystander.  His testimony is one of my favorites from the entire resource guide and I find that it also becomes a favorite of my students.  I also make an effort to include the testimony of Esther Clifford, featured in Lesson Two: Antisemitism, at this point because her description of Kristallnacht adds another special layer.

I spend one ninety-minute block scheduled class on this material. In the days that follow I then introduce students to iWitness where their first task, is to take part in a lesson that I built specifically to examine a variety of experiences on Kristallnacht.  As my students explore and respond to content in IWitness they gain an added dimension of understanding. They enjoy working with both the traditional resources and the new technology. I’ve been told that for many students, this one of their favorite lessons all semester.

Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012. She currently teaches a Holocaust & Genocide elective in addition to Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics and US/VA History.

Helping Students Understand Literature of the Holocaust

Since 2009, I have been using Echoes and Reflections as an essential resource with English/language arts and history/social studies teachers to help their students understand the literature (fiction and non-fiction) of the Holocaust. Using the well-crafted lessons, powerful visual testimonies, and carefully selected primary documents in Echoes and Reflections, I help teachers learn compelling content and effective strategies that deepen students’ engagement and analysis of Holocaust literary and historical texts. By integrating these texts into Echoes and Reflections, teachers and students personalize the history of the Holocaust; reflect on the role of individual responsibility, and learn to act on behalf of social justice for all.

A lesson that I have found to be particularly effective is a lesson that I developed for use with in-service and preservice teachers using Lesson 4: The Ghettos and We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust (Jacob Boas, Scholastic, 1995).

Below is an outline of the lesson “Integrating Holocaust Non-fiction into Echoes and Reflections.”

  • Write the word “ghetto” on the board and ask students to write their images and thoughts about the word in a journal.
  • Introduce Ellis Lewin and Joseph Morton to the group using their Biographical Profiles and then show their testimonies from Lesson 4. Have students compare their original images and thoughts about the word “ghetto” to what they learned from these survivors.
  • Distribute primary source materials in Echoes and Reflections to enhance students’ understanding of the ghettos.
  • After an introduction to the teenagers in We Are Witnesses, have students divide into groups by teenage author and then read about their chosen teenager as a group.
  • Initiate a jigsaw exercise, asking students to move into new groups with at least one representative from each diary. Have students discuss their teenagers and perceptions of life in the ghettos.
  • Share testimony from additional survivors featured in Lesson 4: Leo Berkenwald, Milton Belfer, George Shainfarber, and Eva Safferman to provide students with additional perspectives of ghetto life.
  • Ask students to consider what they learned about the ghettos from the diary entries and visual history testimonies shown in class using the following questions to guide the discussion:
    • What did the young people you learned about do to survive in the ghettos?
    • How did the people you read about or listened to maintain hope?

Lesson 4: The Ghettos addresses Common Core State Standards and the NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts with its focus on citing textual evidence, analyzing multiple mediums, and referencing texts.

Beverly Ann Chin is Professor of English, Director of the English Teaching Program, and former Director of the Montana Writing Project at the University of Montana in Missoula.