From Sympathy to Empathy – Placing the Individual at the Heart of Holocaust Education

Tabari Coleman and Esther Hurh are part of the team of Holocaust education professionals that deliver Echoes and Reflections professional development programs nationwide. As educators dedicated to fighting antisemitism and all forms of bias and preparing teachers to deliver accurate and authentic Holocaust education to today’s students, Coleman and Hurh spent two weeks in December 2015 with Echoes and Reflections at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel, studying with scholars, experts, and fellow educators. In the following writings, they reflect on their personal journeys, share their learning, and consider how to most effectively bring the experience of individuals to the center of Holocaust education in US classrooms.

Tabari Coleman – As I think back to when I first learned about the Holocaust, my memories are mainly of sympathy for all those who died. At the time, I think my teachers thought it was more important for me to be shocked by the deaths, the pictures of piles of bodies, and the enormity of six million Jews perishing during this terrible time. Not once did we consider the individual lives that were lost, or individual stories about people’s parents, children, grandparents, neighbors, or friends.

Since engaging with Echoes and Reflections, I’ve wondered how that history could have been made more relevant in my own life and the lives of our students. As I prepared to come to Jerusalem, friends and colleagues asked why I would come so far to learn about the Holocaust since I’m not Jewish.  I was reminded of how valuable it has been in my professional development to meet and hear from Holocaust survivors and how their stories have changed my perspective on this history.

The survivors’ stories are what took me from sympathy to empathy. As we relate to their stories, we see ourselves. I saw my grandparents, my family, someone I loved being mistreated for something as small as their religious identity. Each of us, whether it is because of our race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, or religion, can relate to being the “other.” We make the Holocaust relevant for students by highlighting individual stories, bringing an individual face to six million, and allowing our students to understand them not only as victims, but as human beings.

At Yad Vashem, we also examined strategies to help teachers talk about life before the Holocaust, highlighting the activities that students can relate to: going to school, laughing, playing music, and writing. Until, one day it all changed. One day their world stopped and was forever changed. By taking the time to help students understand even one or two individual stories, they have a chance to see themselves. I see that learning as even more valuable than fully understanding all the historical facts and figures. The numbers only tell us part of their stories; the photos, diary entries, poems, and other primary source materials complete the story.

Being in Jerusalem has been powerful on another level, because this sanctuary didn’t exist for the Jewish people in 1933 when most of the world turned a blind eye to their pleas for help.  Seeing a community thriving after more than half of its population was killed gives me hope.

Hate, bias, and discrimination are the building blocks to genocide. Educators have a responsibility to ensure the next generation never forgets what happens when oppression goes unchecked.

Esther Hurh In high school, the Holocaust was another set of paragraphs to read in my textbook.  It might as well have been a list of factoids written on the side of a cereal box. I came away with a basic framework about World War II, Hitler, and Nazi Germany. I knew about the murder of six million Jews, and remembered Anne Frank. Now, several decades later, I recognize that the Holocaust, and Holocaust education, is so much more than facts and figures.  

The Holocaust is, more than anything, a human story.

When looking at what happened as the Nazi anti-Jewish policy evolved into the establishment of the ghettos and, later, concentration and extermination camps, I ask myself not only about death but also about life.  How did Jews live and cope in the face of increasing dehumanization?  How was it possible that families could stay physically, emotionally, and mentally intact in the various ghettos, designed explicitly to confine, control, and weaken the prisoners?  

As I studied at Yad Vashem to enhance my work with teachers, we thought about how to help students better understand the Holocaust. What moves us, and what will be memorable for them, are the stories of people.  It begins before the Holocaust.  Learning about people’s lives prior to the war helps us appreciate the transformation and what they lost.

At Yad Vashem, we considered the importance of recognizing emotions that give meaning to these events and therefore to these people.  Visual history testimonies communicate how survivors felt about the situation in the words, the tone, and the pace of their voice, and their body language.  Margaret Lambert’s testimony helps paint a picture of life before and after 1933.

Diaries can trace the changes in people’s psyche.  Dawid Sierakowiak who lived in Lodz and died in the Lodz ghetto wrote at the start of the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939: “Long live humor; down with hysteria!”  Fast forward to April 15, 1943 in the ghetto: “I feel myself beginning to fall into melancholy.  There is really no way out of this for us.”  

We also studied inanimate objects and considered how they tell a story of how people reacted in the face of dehumanization and despair.  A series of posters found on the walls of the Vilna ghetto advertised theater productions, symphonies, and basketball games, which were attended by many.  Incredulous as it may be― to care about anything above the physiological needs― these events brought some respite in their hellish reality.  Jews made an effort to find light in the darkness, to stave off despair as much as they could.

Individualizing and therefore humanizing the story is what has connected me to this history.  As we spent this week looking more deeply into material that will enhance our Echoes and Reflections professional development programs, I couldn’t help but keep asking questions about how people lived in this upside-down world and, in the same breath, how others could participate or else let it happen.  

Students, like me, are curious about more than the numbers and facts. Helping them see the individual stories and consider the moral decisions and dilemmas Jews faced, opens up new perspectives. The Holocaust begins to resonate differently when we see people with full lives impacted in terrible ways, and understand the struggle and the choices people faced in order to survive.  Like the individual threads of a tapestry—with their various colors, textures, lengths and thicknesses― these individual and unique stories intertwine to create a larger, richer, more complicated, messy, and confusing narrative that have no pat answers but rather inspire more vexing questions. The stuff of drama. The Human Story.

Tabari Coleman is the Project Director for the A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute for the Missouri and Southern Illinois regional office of the Anti Defamation League. Esther Hurh is an education program consultant and trainer with 20 years of expertise in civil rights, diversity and inclusion, bullying prevention, and Holocaust Education. She currently resides in Chicago, IL.

Deciphering the Noise: Teaching Teens Through Holocaust Testimony

There is a lot of hate and fear to go around these days. With the recent attacks in Paris and the larger civil unrest happening across the United States, the current social climate is difficult to comprehend, even for adults. How do we recognize the face of hate and intolerance in 2015? How do we counter acts of violence that rock our foundation to its core? How do the youth of today envision countering such acts?  

The current generation of youth must navigate a complex social, economic, and political climate and they often struggle to make sense of the world around them.  Technology adds to the complexity.  We are in the midst of a technological revolution and the rapid development of digital platforms as extensions of ourselves in the 21st century.

So, the question is, how do we teach the Holocaust to today’s youth? This is an increasingly important question.  How we, as adults, educators, mentors, and authority figures, help the youth of today see the nuances of the world, while still being grounded in the history of the past, and the mark of the Holocaust in defining the 20th century. Answering that question is about identifying the personal and the political. It is about showing students a way to see the events of the Holocaust as relevant to their own lives, to a larger historical legacy that we all share and must grapple with. History never lives in a vacuum.

In our partnership with Echoes and Reflections, one of the ways that we seek to help answer these complex questions is through the integration of testimony with the teaching of the history. At USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education, we see testimony as the key to critically engaging with these complex stories that allow for students to see the relevance of the past to their present. The Institute’s theory of change asserts that when students and teachers work with testimony, they will experience attitude and behavior changes that will make them more likely to contribute to civil society. Our online IWitness program provides students with the tools to explore testimony through a variety of activities that target student’s abilities to think critically, gain multi-media skills, and to deconstruct stereotypes.

A good example of the power of testimony can be seen in the IWitness activity entitled “Kristallnacht.” The activity, which was developed for use with Echoes and Reflections, illustrates a powerful example of anti-Semitism and the systemic cultural violence that marred Europe before World War II. In 1938, Germany unleashed a number of violent acts against the Jewish population across Germany and Austria known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass.” This IWitness Information Quest allows students to explore a variety of primary source material, including film footage, photographs, and survivor testimony to make sense of how this event fits within a larger Holocaust history.  

As students complete tasks associated with this activity, they are asked to create a word-cloud by the end to demonstrate a personal understanding of the historical information, including a better understanding of anti-Semitism across Europe.  Engaging with testimony from someone like H. Henry Sinason, who as an adolescent experienced violence and hatred first hand, allows students to develop empathy for others who are experiencing violence.

By learning about the specificity of the Holocaust through personalized testimony, students can begin to decipher the noise of larger social, political, and cultural events that not only paint the past, but also contribute to current positive social change relevant to their own community and peers. Through participation, we can help students make sense of this current and past landscape. And, we can provide the necessary tools for students to be engaged and to be active participants in countering hate in today’s world.

Dr. Stephen D. Smith is the Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation ‐ The Institute for Visual History and Education.

Taking Responsibility: The Value of Holocaust Education for Students

In 1994, the New Jersey Department of Education implemented a mandate that required Holocaust and genocide education for all K-12 students. The legislation was finalized shortly after New Jersey experienced an upsurge in ethnic hate speech and vandalism. Believing that there is a link between violence and ethnic and racial intolerance, the New Jersey legislature determined that teaching the Holocaust and genocide “must be made a priority” if the State’s ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity was to remain one of its strengths.

Dr. Paul B. Winkler has been an instrumental force in guiding New Jersey’s Holocaust education policy since the 1970s. With over 50 years experience as a teacher and administrator, and as the current Executive Director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, his leadership has informed the implementation of Holocaust education statewide.

Winkler shares, “I am proud that New Jersey led the way with a well-thought-out approach that will not only lead to a thorough understanding of the history of the Holocaust, but to steps that will ensure that tragedies like the Holocaust will never happen again.”

Since 2005, Winkler has worked closely with Echoes and Reflections to offer professional development opportunities to educators implementing this mandate. “Echoes and Reflections is an outstanding professional development program and that is why we have gone out of our way to recommend that schools and programs in New Jersey utilize it,” Winkler shares. “Our teachers use it because it is an incredibly good resource and provides educators excellent guidance and value.”

The Role of Educators

As a strong proponent of the impact education can have on students, Winkler shares that, in the case of the Holocaust, it is important that teachers consider more than the history, the knowledge, and the facts. “In Western society, we have always believed that education, particularly universal education, is the answer to most of the world’s problems. But, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were highly educated people with expansive knowledge. Engineers designed the crematoria; doctors prepared and implemented the experiments. How was this possible?” And, what does that mean about the role of education and the role of teachers?

Winkler suggests that Holocaust education requires educators to consider deeply the way they teach and how they choose to present information. The Holocaust is unlike other subjects in that it requires teachers to take a particularly active role in developing students’ critical thinking skills that will enable them to identify and analyze human nature and behavior.

Understanding that genocide is “a consequence of prejudice and discrimination” is central, according to Winkler. “The issues of moral dilemma and conscience have a profound impact on life.” Examining these subjects highlights the personal responsibility that each citizen bears to fight antisemitism, racism, and all forms of bigotry and hatred wherever and whenever it happens.

Taking Responsibility

According to Winkler, the Holocaust raises many questions that inform students’ behavior in the world: “What is our individual responsibility? If we see something evil, should we report it? What if reporting it would endanger your job or personal safety? What is our responsibility as a nation? Are we collectively tasked with speaking out against persecution and injustice in our communities? What about injustice in other parts of the world?”

Winkler highlights the power in asking these questions and considers the impact of this line of questioning the most important lesson for students when studying the Holocaust. As students confront these and many other difficult questions it becomes clear how individual choices have an impact on other people and one’s broader context.

The New Jersey mandate to teach Holocaust and genocide education is a strong statement about the value of teaching respect and building strong communities. It encourages a “depth of conscience” in students that ultimately highlights one’s personal responsibility to combat prejudice of any sort. With the Commission emphasizing the importance that students grasp the consequences of ignoring those who hate, Winkler feels that Holocaust education will play a central role in encouraging awareness in students.

“The Holocaust remains one of the most disturbing and horrific events of all time…” Winkler adds. “If we are to ensure that it is never repeated, we must understand how the Holocaust happened in the first place, and spend time thinking through what these lessons can teach us about our lives today.”

The late Dr. Paul B. Winkler served as the Executive Director of The Commission on Holocaust Education in New Jersey. Winkler was formally involved in Holocaust, genocide, and prejudice reduction education since 1974.

Why Teach About the Holocaust?

A new statewide initiative is being implemented in Pennsylvania that encourages educators to integrate Holocaust education into their curriculum. Act 70 provides, “Children with an understanding of the importance of the protection of human rights and the potential consequences of unchecked ignorance, discrimination and persecution.” Pennsylvania has determined that, “It is a matter of high priority that children in this Commonwealth be educated concerning the Holocaust, genocide, and other human rights violations.”

Randi Boyette, Associate Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia Regional Office, and Cynthia Murphy, Director of Curriculum, Technology, and Resources at Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9 (IU9), talk about Pennsylvania’s efforts to prioritize Holocaust education through Act 70.

Enacting Act 70

As a convener of the Regional Consortium of Holocaust Educators in Greater Philadelphia, and consultant on the Act 70 Implementation Committee, Boyette shares, “The Department of Education has made a strong commitment to increase Holocaust, genocide, and human rights violations education in Pennsylvania… Act 70 is the document that says, ‘We think it is important to teach about the Holocaust, this is why, and we at the Department of Education are going to help you do it.’”

Pennsylvania consulted experts from across the country in the development of Act 70. Dr. Kori Street, Director of Education at USC Shoah Foundation, joined Boyette, along with representatives from the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, and more.

Murphy works with educators in fourteen districts in Pennsylvania and is responsible for facilitating and providing professional development for teachers and administrators. In implementing Act 70 she shares that, “As educators, we have the responsibility to teach the Holocaust in a thoughtful, purposeful, and safe way for our kids. We have that opportunity, that obligation.”

Why Teach the Holocaust?

“Holocaust education is so linked to character education, civic engagement, and the kind of people students are – or can be,” Boyette shares. “That is the power of Holocaust education. It engages students intellectually while also appealing to their hearts.”  Murphy echoes that this is best achieved when strong pedagogy is coupled with compelling material. “When our teachers have a good understanding, our students get a good understanding. It is our responsibility to make sure that they know what happened in the past, and that teachers use this material in a way that fosters empathy.”

Holocaust education presents the unique opportunity to contemplate hard questions about human nature, and challenges students to consider their own choices while learning about an important period in history.

Key Components of Comprehensive Holocaust Education

Act 70 outlines curriculum guidelines to teach the Holocaust effectively to students. “Echoes and Reflections, along with IWitness, are excellent examples of resources that meet the Act 70 guidelines in terms of its pedagogy. The Pennsylvania Department of Education sees Echoes and Reflections as a wonderful partner in offering teacher training programs,” Boyette shares.

Act 70 encourages the inclusion of the following subjects where appropriate in instruction:

  1. Discuss the breadth of the history of the Holocaust, including the Third Reich dictatorship, concentration camp system, persecution of Jews and non-Jews, Jewish and non-Jewish resistance, and Post World War II trials.
  2. Include the definition, history, response, and actions taken in the face of genocide, including the Holocaust and any other genocide perpetrated against humanity.
  3. Discussion of human rights violations, antisemitism, racism, and the abridgment of civil rights.

“I think Echoes and Reflections is going to make it easier for Pennsylvania teachers to be compliant with Act 70,” says Boyette. “It is crafted to keep the focus on the lives of the victims and not the perpetrators, and it contextualizes the history while complying with Common Core.” Resources in Lesson Components on the Echoes and Reflections website relate directly to the guidelines in Act 70.

Examining the Holocaust challenges students to consider difficult questions. “How did people stand by and watch?” Murphy asks. “Echoes and Reflections is so rich with primary sources that it makes you think and wonder about why people made the choices they made. Listening to survivor testimony and hearing their stories is really impactful to students as well as teachers. You can’t put yourself in their place but it’s a question that will challenge kids to really think. What is the level of responsibility for people who knew and how do you determine the difference between guilt and blame?”

Professional Development in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has added Holocaust education resources to their website and will be offering professional development opportunities for educators statewide.

Echoes and Reflections is hosting 18 professional development programs in Pennsylvania in October and November 2015. Teachers will learn about the requirements of Act 70 along with effective teaching strategies to help students understand what happened during the Holocaust, why it happened, and how it relates to different issues they face today.

Cynthia Murphy is the Director of Curriculum, Technology, and Resources at Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9 (IU9), in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. Randi Boyette is the Associate Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia Regional Office.

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.