The 1936 Olympics: Finding Meaning in a Moment of Victory

The advent of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games gives educators the opportunity to discuss this event’s influence in advancing mutual respect and understanding across the world. It is also an opportunity to examine how events like the Olympics are not immune to bias and injustice toward groups and individuals. This prejudice was especially evident at the Berlin, Germany 1936 Summer Olympics when Nazi ideology was taking hold in Germany.

Leading up to the Games, many countries, including the United States, considered boycotting the Olympics in protest of Nazi persecution of German-Jewish athletes like Margaret Lambert. However, many African-American leaders in the United States opposed the boycott, believing that the achievements of African-American athletes in Germany would challenge and delegitimize both the discriminatory policies in Germany and in the United States. The boycott did not occur, and in what many considered a controversial move, African-Americans Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe replaced two American-Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, on the US 4×100-meter relay team.

Although the reason behind this last minute decision was never confirmed, Glickman has stated that his coaches feared the optics of two Jewish athletes standing on the winning podium under the Nazi flag.

While the 1936 Games were originally an opportunity for Germany to convince the world of their false notion of Aryan supremacy, in a moment of victory, African-American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens defied the Nazi’s racist propaganda by winning four gold medals and breaking two Olympic records.

One would have hoped that Owens’s achievements at the 1936 Games would have had a profound influence on combating antisemitism and racism; however, history has shown that his performance had no immediate influence on the fate of those affected by such ideology. Following the 1936 Olympics, Nazi influence continued to grow, and the US would not officially abolish Jim Crow laws until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

A sign of the times in which Owens lived; President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not meet with the athlete to congratulate him, which was customary for returning Olympic champions. It was not until 1976 that sitting US president Gerald Ford formally recognized Jesse Owens by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Later in his life, Jesse Owens’s reflected on his homecoming:

“After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But none was going to offer me a job.”

The story of the 1936 Olympics provides an entry point for students to grapple with complex questions. Despite Jesse Owens’s achievements, in the aftermath of the Games, why was he not given the same respect as other Olympic athletes? What prevented people from calling out the injustice and hypocrisy of Jim Crow, and why was no action taken by the world to prevent the Holocaust?

Such questions are not meant to undermine the determination of the few who were advocating for the freedoms of African Americans and Jews before, during, and following the Games. Yet, it is clear that the numbers were too few and progress too slow. This unfortunate delay in societal change makes it imperative to bring attention to the inaction that took place following the Games, in the classroom. We must give students the opportunity to explore the setbacks of this history so they can think critically about the world around them today, and make choices that will increase the pace in which freedom and equality are universally accessed.

For an in-depth look at how racism played a role at the 1936 Olympics explore this IWitness activity from our Partners at USC Shoah Foundation The Institute for Visual History and Education.

LIBERATORS AND SURVIVORS: THE FIRST MOMENTS

“When we walked in the gates, every so often there were one or two or three dead bodies on the ground…alongside some of the buildings were large wooden wagons…with bodies stacked like cordwood.”
– Howard Cwick, on liberating Buchenwald concentration camp, from the Survivors and Liberators unit
 

Seventy-three years ago, on January 27, 1945, the concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet army.  While other camps were liberated by the Allies both before and after this date, it was the liberation of Auschwitz, perhaps the most potent symbol of evil in our time, that was chosen by the United Nations to be the date for an annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

In the preamble to its resolution creating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the UN General Assembly specifically chose to honor “the courage and dedication shown by the soldiers who liberated the concentration camps…”

This year, to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we at Echoes & Reflections have created a new resource which, likewise, shines a light on the liberators in those first unique moments after liberation. We are proud to unveil the latest film in our Video Toolbox: “Liberators and Survivors: The First Moments.”

“Liberators and Survivors” provides an entry point for US history teachers into the study of the Holocaust. The story of liberation is a powerful and natural bridge between the study of the military war itself, and the study of the genocide perpetrated against the Jews under the cover of that war. The film interweaves liberators’ testimonies with those of the Jewish survivors they liberated. It describes the intense emotional effect that seeing piles of lifeless bodies and half-dead survivors had on many young American soldiers, who questioned, “How can people do things like that?” It documents, with primary sources, the reaction of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who immediately understood the need for evidence to counter the distinct possibility that no one would believe the horrendous scenes of brutality the soldiers had witnessed. It discusses the compassion that many of the American liberators showed those they had liberated, attempting to provide care and suspending their military missions in order to do so. It also highlights those liberators who were moved to become a moral voice in later years, sharing their unforgettable stories and pleading that humanity learn from their experiences.

The survivors speak of the compassion shown by their liberators, and of their reaction to the American soldiers.

The film was specifically developed for use with students in the classroom. While most historical film footage of liberation contains disturbing visuals including mountains of corpses, we took great care not to include graphic visuals, making the film suitable even for middle school students. The film supports your teaching by opening with footage of WWII, and with a series of maps to illustrate the progress of the Allied armies. But it goes beyond the historical event of “liberation,” presenting the event through the personal stories of the soldiers who were eyewitnesses. It helps educators present this human story to students in order to venture out of the sphere of WWII and into the subject of the Holocaust.

Listening to the stories of the soldiers and survivors we meet in the film, and reflecting on their courage, compassion, and humanity gives real meaning to the purpose of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Join us for webinars on January 22, 2018 and January 24, 2018 where we will discuss the stories of liberators and survivors.

About the Author:  Sheryl Ochayon is the Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.

Applications Now Open! 2018 Echoes & Reflections Advanced Learning Seminars

Don’t miss out! This summer, we are excited to offer two advanced learning opportunities for experienced Echoes & Reflections educators. Consider applying for one of these international programs led by our Yad Vashem colleagues.

Advanced Learning Seminar at Yad Vashem (June 19 – 29, 2018)-This year’s applications have now been now closed. 

Educational Journey through Poland with Yad Vashem (July 14 – 20, 2018)-This year’s applications have now been now closed. 

For any questions, please contact: Sheryl Ochayon, Program Director, Echoes & Reflections, the International School for Holocaust Studies, at sheryl.ochayon@yadvashem.org.il or info@echoesandreflections.org.

About the Advanced Learning Seminar at Yad Vashem:

We invite you to apply for the 3rd Echoes & Reflections Advanced Learning Seminar at Yad Vashem! The 10-day seminar in Jerusalem, Israel will offer an opportunity for in-depth learning about the Holocaust, Echoes & Reflections materials and visual history testimony, as well as a chance to explore Israel.

This year, the seminar fortuitously dovetails with, and includes participation in, the 10th International Conference on Holocaust Education being held at Yad Vashem. Attendance at the International Conference during the final three days of the seminar will give participants the chance to hear from world-renowned international scholars, to meet educators from around the world and to attend special artistic performances arranged for conference participants.

Successful applicants are asked to commit to post-seminar work to support the reach and impact of Echoes & Reflections in the United States, with highest priority to arranging an Echoes & Reflections professional development program for teachers in their local area. Alternatively, participants may be asked to write a blog, create a lesson plan, present at a local conference, etc.

Additionally, please note that if you are selected to attend the seminar on the basis of this application, your participation will be conditional on your successful completion of a project created for the seminar by Yad Vashem, through which you will explore prewar Jewish life on the basis of Pages of Testimony from the Yad Vashem Hall of Names. You will present this project, which will be done in 5-person groups, at the seminar.

This application must be submitted by February 1, 2018. Successful applicants will be notified by March 1, 2018, and will have until May 1, 2018 to complete the project. The costs of tuition and the hotel stay for all ten days of the seminar are fully subsidized. Participants will be reimbursed up to $1000 for their airfare to Israel.

About the Educational Journey through Poland with Yad Vashem:

We invite you to apply for the 2018 Echoes & Reflections Educational Journey Through Poland with Yad Vashem! The 5-day, 6-night journey will offer an opportunity for in-depth learning about the Holocaust in the places where it occurred, highlighting Echoes & Reflections materials and visual history testimony, as well as a chance to see Poland, a cradle of Jewish history and tradition, and a major site of its near-destruction.

This is the first year that Echoes & Reflections is offering this powerful journey to 25 of its educators. The Journey will be led by Sheryl Ochayon, Yad Vashem’s Program Director for Echoes & Reflections and a seasoned guide in Poland. We will visit sites including:

Warsaw, a major center of Jewish prewar culture as well as the site of the largest ghetto in Europe and the foremost acts of both Jewish and Polish resistance during WWII;

Treblinka, the most lethal extermination camp created during the Holocaust;

Lodz, the longest-lasting of the ghettos created by the Germans, and the subject of an entire unit in Echoes & Reflections;

Krakow, where Jewish life once blossomed and is now returning, and the place where Oskar Schindler and others rescued Jews at risk to their lives; and

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the extermination camps of the Holocaust.

The Journey will give participants a chance to collaborate with other educators about best practices in bringing their experiences to bear in the classroom, and the most effective ways to use Echoes & Reflections materials to do so. Discussions will be held every evening at the conclusion of the day’s explorations.

Successful applicants are asked to commit to post-seminar work to support the reach and impact of Echoes & Reflections in the United States, with highest priority to arranging an Echoes & Reflections professional development program for teachers in their local area. Alternatively, participants may be asked to write a blog, create a lesson plan, present at a local conference, etc.

Additionally, please note that if you are selected to participate in the Journey, your participation will be conditional on your successful completion of a project created for the Journey by Yad Vashem, through which you will explore prewar Jewish life on the basis of Pages of Testimony from the Yad Vashem Hall of Names. You will present this project during the Journey. Your participation will also be conditional upon your attendance at three Echoes & Reflections webinars of your choosing between January 1, 2018 and June 1, 2018.

This application must be submitted by February 15, 2018. Successful applicants will be notified by March 15, 2018, and will have until May 15, 2018 to complete the project. The costs of tuition, hotel stays on a full board basis for all five days and six nights of the Journey, entrance fees and ground transportation are fully subsidized. Participants will be reimbursed up to $1000 for their airfare to Poland, and must arrive in Warsaw by July 14, 2018.

Teaching about Genocide, Preserving Human Rights

International Human Rights Day, December 10, marks the anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. This landmark occasion happened the day after the Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. These back-to-back dates were not coincidental, and they are inherently meaningful to any educator who teaches about the past; particularly for Holocaust educators, since both of these documents have their roots in the Holocaust. In our current climate, this anniversary feels somehow extra pressing. Almost daily, we are assaulted with news of human rights violations and instances of what could be called genocide—from the Rohingya in Myanmar to the continuing violence in Syria—and it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

As educators, we have faced the challenge of teaching topics related to violations of human rights, and genocide in particular. We can easily imagine that many of you struggle with the balance between worrying about the emotional toll of the subject on your students, while also knowing the critical importance that teaching about genocide can have in the prevention of future atrocities. We know that when teaching about the Holocaust, larger questions surrounding genocide will inevitably arise in the classroom. For the past several years, the Echoes & Reflections team members have heard teachers express a need and desire for a path forward to explore this broader topic, and we are pleased and proud to be able to now provide that guidance.

The story behind our involvement with Echoes & Reflections’ new educator resource, “Teaching about Genocide,” is deeply personal. The authors of this post met as graduate students and fostered a friendship that has spanned nearly two decades and has included research trips on three continents. We have taught at the university level and led educational experiences at sites of genocidal violence. Our experiences in Rwanda and at sites of Holocaust remembrance in Europe have steeped us in a deep sense of responsibility to continue to educate about the dangers of unchecked hatred and violence. In the words of Paul Parks, an African-American WWII veteran who witnessed Dachau after liberation and played an active role in the American Civil Rights Movement, “I know what the end of bigotry looks like…from the standpoint of the bigot…I’ve seen it, and I don’t want that ever to happen again.” (To hear more from Paul, explore the Survivors and Liberators unit that features his experiences during WWII or IWitness to watch his testimony). We have seen what “the end of bigotry” looks like; we have seen the powerful effect that learning this has on students’ and we know that it is complicated, delicate work. We urgently feel the importance of supporting fellow educators as they engage in these topics with their students. Given our history, we jumped at the chance to work together on the development of a resource to help teachers approach the subject of genocide in the context of their students’ Holocaust education. Getting to work with a good friend and colleague on a topic of critical importance to your value system and to the world was a gift, yet,we weren’t sure how to begin.

So we came to you. This past spring, we conducted a nationwide survey that resulted in responses from nearly 200 teachers from 25 states plus the District of Columbia.  We asked you—the Echoes & Reflections community—what you needed. In addition to seeking introductory materials about the concept of genocide and how to frame that with students, we learned that age-appropriate, primary source-driven content, including brief videos, would be effective and welcome classroom tools.  The resulting resource uses Dr. Gregory Stanton’s model of the “Ten Stages of Genocide” to help you navigate this topic with students.  The site includes a number of resources, including more than 20 clips of audio-visual testimony from survivors of the Holocaust and genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, as well as brief overviews of the genocides discussed in the testimonies, and a graphic organizer to help students engage with the testimonies from survivors of genocide (for other tips on how to effectively use testimony in your instruction, explore this document).

We hope that as teachers approach International Human Rights Day, this new Echoes & Reflections resource can serve as another helpful source to continue to do the good work that you do every day—teaching about the past to build a better future.

About the Authors:  Dr. Amy Carnes is the Program Manager – Development at USC Shoah Foundation and Dr. Emily Musil Church is a Historian of Africa and Human Rights at USC Shoah Foundation.