The Loudness of Silence: Studying Kristallnacht through Literature

The day I began teaching eighth grade, I was handed a copy of Anne Frank, the Diary of a Young Girl.  I was asked to teach it. The problem was…I had never read this book.  It took me a few hours to get to know Anne, but once I did, I was hooked, but I also realized that the “it” I was being asked to teach came with an enormous responsibility. Where would I begin? How would I teach about the Holocaust in a way that had meaning for young teenagers?

I have been teaching Holocaust literature now for ten years. I have studied and become familiar with the resources available from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Echoes & Reflections, which provide me with a sound pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust. Still, given recent events that have rocketed the ideology of hate and intolerance onto the front page, I am once again struggling to find the path forward to incorporate the lessons of the Holocaust with the world my students are facing and the news that surrounds them.

As we prepare to remember the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, I find that the material from the Echoes & Reflections lesson, Kristallnacht: “Night of Broken Glass” in the Studying the Holocaust Unit provides me with an excellent entry point. In this lesson, Holocaust survivor Kurt Messerschmidt provides his first-person account of Kristallnacht. Although I am not a history teacher, I find his story compelling, and unfortunately, still timely. Kurt speaks of the silence he witnessed in response to that day and there is much to be learned from his testimony. Learning about Kristallnacht as a turning point in Holocaust history provides important context and offers an essential question we discover time and again in the Holocaust literature, “Would I have been a bystander, hiding behind silence?”

Unfortunately, my students see hate and the consequences of hate on television and in social media every day. When Kurt says, “Their disapproval [of Nazi actions] was only silence, and silence was what did the harm,” I challenge my students to consider if they are allies or silent bystanders in their own lives. We look at events, not only in the United States, but around the world, that are a result of hate and intolerance and consider appropriate actions.

My students and I explore a wide variety of Holocaust literature throughout my unit, and the students use the lesson about Kristallnacht and Mr. Messerschmidt as a year-long theme. We examine the results of inaction. What would those two Nazis at the cigar shop have done if the crowd of forty or fifty bystanders would have all started picking up the glass? I ask them to consider the ways that they can pick up the symbolic shards of glass that litter the landscape of our schools, communities, and beyond. We address silence in the context of World War II and the Holocaust, but I also show and discuss how it can be translated to current events. This year, I will also show the remarks of Holocaust survivor Sonia Klein to CNN after the events in Charlottesville, when she stated, “Silence is the first thing after hate that is dangerous because if you are silent, it is an approval of what’s going on.” I will show Sonia alongside Mr. Messerschmidt’s testimony to bridge the gap of decades between World War II and today.

This theme is also integrated into my advanced English classes when we read Elie Wiesel’s Night, and consider what Wiesel meant, when in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he stated, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We also consider Anne Frank’s excruciating words when she wrote, “Sleep makes the silence and the terrible fear go by more quickly, helps pass the time, since it’s impossible to kill.” At this point, silence has taken on a new meaning for my students. Anne Frank could not have been anything but silent, as she was in hiding, yet the power and bravery of her writing gave her a voice that continues to inspire millions.

Expanding on the theme this year, I will also implement the concept of “silence” into our poetry unit.  The lyrics of the 1964 Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence” will be introduced for student interpretation. I am excited to see how my students will translate the theme into poetry.

Teaching students about Kristallnacht is an opportunity for students to critically examine pivotal moments in history and to consider how their own actions or silence in the times in which they live will have far-reaching implications. As I have grown as an educator, inspired by the words of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Kurt Messerschmidt, and others, I am gratified to have discovered the many ways that this history can be approached in my curriculum, and to have seen how this teaching not only promotes my students’ academic learning, but also their emotional and moral development as citizens of the world.

About the Author: Kristy Rush is an 8th grade English Language Arts educator at Pine Richland Middle School. She lives in Wexford, PA.

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.