“April is the Cruelest Month…,”

Wrote T.S. Eliot in “The Burial of the Dead,” the first section of The Waste Land. That line could not have been about April 19, 1943, when Jews in the Warsaw ghetto took up arms to resist Nazi soldiers who had come to deport them to concentration and extermination camps. Nor could it have been about April 7, 1994, when the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda began. The Waste Land was published in 1922. But, by some sort of irony, Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, is often in April, as is the case this year. Also, the commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi begins on April 7.

On April 7, 1994, all of my wife’s relatives who lived on a hill called Kunanga, a total of 118 of four generations, were killed. Among the victims were my two aunts, Nyirabagenera and Kamamure, who were married to my wife’s cousins. What happened on that hill on that fateful day was also happening on several other hills and in several valleys across the mountainous country, and would continue to happen in the following 99 days. By July 4, when soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of the entire country, ending the genocide, over a million Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers had been killed. As a kid in 1959, I had seen houses go up in flames; unbeknown to me then was that the houses were torched because they belonged to Tutsis. Thirty-five years later when the genocide was carried out, I was living and teaching in Zimbabwe. Although I knew then of the many anti-Tutsi pogroms, I was not prepared for the incessant news of indiscriminate killings of Tutsis —the old, the young, the infant, and even the unborn. The news, though numbing, gave rise to a hatred for Hutus who had killed innocent beings just for who they were. They must have been monsters, I erroneously thought. You see, I had no historical references whatsoever for what was happening in Rwanda. I had not read Karl’s confession to Simon Wiesenthal, author of The Sunflower, to understand how ordinary people become perpetrators. Karl, a dying Nazi soldier, had been raised Catholic and had joined Hitler’s Youth and the SS, institutions in which he had been taught that doing what he was commissioned to do was a patriotic duty. Granted, I knew that approximately six million Jews had been killed during the Second World War, but I did not know why or how they had been killed. The Holocaust had never been part of my curriculum.

That was to change 14 years later when I had opportunities to learn about the Holocaust, which to me was an entry into learning about the genocide against the Tutsi. These opportunities included a seminar on Holocaust education at The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI) in 2008; an Echoes & Reflections seminar at Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Centerin 2011; a TOLI educational tour of Poland’s Holocaust sites and Israel’s historical sites in 2012. From these educational opportunities, I learned two fundamental lessons: one, that all genocides have histories; two, that genocide is preventable. Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor who spoke at the 2008 TOLI Summer Seminar I attended, used the term “signposts” along the road to the Holocaust to underscore the fact that the Holocaust was not a spontaneous event: there had been the Nuremberg race laws, which codified policies of discrimination against Jews; the Kristallnacht Pogrom, when several synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed; the letter “J” on Jewish identity cards, which made it possible for Nazis to single out Jews for any nefarious purposes.

The road to the genocide against the Tutsi too, like all roads leading to genocides, had signposts. Using criteria of scientific racism, the Belgian colonial administration had noses of individuals in Rwanda measured to determine who was Hutu and who was Tutsi. Gerard Prunier in The Rwanda Crisis quotes a colonial administration document which described Tutsis as having “features [that] are very fine: a high brow, thin nose and fine lips” and as being “gifted with a vivacious intelligence”; Hutus as being “short and thick-set with a big head” and “less intelligent”; and Twas as having “a monkey-like face.” The administration also issued identity cards with Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa labels, and enacted policies that favored Tutsis and discriminated against Hutus and Twas. For example, it removed Hutu chiefs and replaced them with Tutsis. In the late 1950s, when the Tutsi elite demanded political independence from Belgium, the colonial administration switched its allegiance to the Hutu. In 1959, rumors of an attack of a prominent Hutu leader by a group of Tutsi young men sparked the first anti-Tutsi pogrom. In 1962, following Rwanda’s independence, the exclusively Hutu government continued the policy of issuing identity cards with Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa labels in order to enforce discriminatory policies against Tutsis. For example, teachers were mandated to regularly do a headcount of Tutsi students in their classes so as not to exceed the allowed quota. In her memoir, Chosen to Die, Destined to Live, Frida Gashumba wrote, “The head count of Hutus and Tutsis came to be a three-month occurrence, as the headmaster complied with the government’s directive…. Each time the Hutu children would laugh at us and goad us, and neither the headmaster nor our teacher would make any attempt to shut them up.” The Hutu government also oversaw anti-Tutsi pogroms in 1963, 1967, 1973 when all Tutsi students were expelled from the only university in the country then, and 1990.  Perhaps worst of all signposts on the road to the genocide was the dehumanization of Tutsis; they were called cockroaches, rats, and snakes, which justified their extermination.

In On Austrian Soil, one of the texts we used at the 2008 TOLI Summer Seminar, Sondra Perl wrote: “You are not responsible for the past. But I think you do have, that we all have, a responsibility to the future…. Not to turn our backs. Not to be silent [in the face of any form of social injustice].” Perl’s primary audience was educators, who have the responsibility to teach against prejudice, discrimination, and persecution—beliefs and practices that potentially lead to genocide. That ordinary people in Germany and in Rwanda became genocide perpetrators indeed speaks to the failures of institutions, such as schools, which taught or tolerated prejudice and hatred. This April month we remember the Holocaust, the genocide against the Tutsi, and other genocides to recall mistakes of the past so that they are not repeated.

About the Author: Gatsinzi Basaninyenzi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at Alabama A&M University.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

I Never Met Elie Wiesel…

I felt such a sense of loss on Saturday when I heard the news of Elie Wiesel’s death. It felt so personal and profound. I never met Elie Wiesel, but I felt as if had lost someone I knew, someone I cared for, someone who, perhaps on some ridiculous level, I thought would always be here.

I have been so moved reading the tributes to him from those who knew him – as a friend, a teacher, or a speaker who forever changed their lives. I have enjoyed seeing friends and colleague post photos of their proud moments shaking his hand, looking at him so intently, listening for a word of wisdom or insight, which was no doubt plentiful.

For me, who has spent many years working in anti-bias education and now in Holocaust education, his presence was ubiquitous.  I think how often he is quoted in my circle – about the dangers of indifference, the precious gift of a life saved, about being a witness.  I recall first reading Night in college:  actually not wanting to read it, but feeling a duty to not look away, not to ignore the world that was lost and the cruelty of humanity. Now, at Echoes and Reflections, we offer a program and resources to support teachers in their teaching of Night, and we hear continuously how profound this reading is for students and what it means to teachers to teach his memoir, which can be difficult to grasp. However, they feel a sense of duty to get it right – to do him justice, to use his voice to give voice for the millions who lost theirs.

In some ways, I suppose it is all of these moments that make this loss feel so personal.  Elie Wiesel somehow managed to share the worst possible moments of his ruptured childhood with us. He brought us with him on this tortured path of trauma and loss, and the absolute worst of man’s inhumanity to man.  Yet in his survival – in his dedication to being a witness to the history, to challenging our continued indifference to hatred, racism, bigotry, and his commitment to the world – to life – he carried with him, and perhaps for all of us, a suggestion of hope for a better future.  Right now, the world feels more fractured than ever, but I say this without having lived through the Holocaust, so I know this is just one moment in time, my moment in time, to try to make a bit of difference. What will I do with it? What will we all do?

Lindsay Friedman is the Partnership Director for Echoes and Reflections. She resides in Chicago, IL.

Human Rights and Genocide Awareness – Where Do I Begin?

Human Rights and Genocide Awareness Month offers a unique opportunity for educators to think about meaningful ways to raise complex and challenging topics with students.

In an effort to bring students, “safely in, and safely out,” seasoned Echoes and Reflections’ educators Kelly Bales and Tyrone Shaw discuss, “Where do I begin?” and share their different approaches to introducing students to the Holocaust and other genocides.

Where do I begin?

“When I speak with my students about the Holocaust and about genocide for the first time, it is hard to anticipate their reactions,” Bales shares. “Will they be shocked? Interested? Horrified? I try to start the conversation about genocide with something that is relevant and familiar to my students…”

She notes that because students are familiar with human rights as a buzzword she starts there, and challenges them to identify examples where they think human rights have been violated. “We look at recent cases of young teens in urban areas… I bring in examples from history such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Together, we begin a dialogue about what factors contribute to human rights violations, which begins a longer discussion about the way our choices and actions today are influenced by the way we understand the Holocaust and other historical human rights abuses.”

Shaw begins by asking his students to look within. “Who am I?” he asks, and challenges his students to consider, how studying the Holocaust and other genocides might inform their lives today. “My students encounter real life experiences of classism, sexism, and racism,” Shaw explains. “But, they don’t always have the tools or the language to talk about it… In my course, we develop those skills and explore the social construction of identity…” He adds that in starting with identity, his students gain a strong understanding that human rights abuses, the Holocaust, and genocide, don’t “just happen.” “They are the result of choice, prejudices, and a lot of people remaining silent.”

Resources – Deepening the Conversation

Building on the conversation about human rights, Bales introduces her students to the Holocaust and other genocides. “I rely heavily on primary and secondary sources,” Bales shares. “Echoes and Reflections is an excellent tool for any teacher in reaching students… I generally start with Lesson 2: Antisemitism. Students understand being discriminated against or targeted because of their skin color, race, or national identity… Echoes and Reflections’ primary sources help me introduce the idea of antisemitism and explain its historical origins.”

Shaw adds that building from identity, “I use the three definitions of the Holocaust that appear in Lesson 1: Studying the Holocaust.” He asks students to explain why there are different definitions and why each group might think differently about the same event. “We then do an activity where students discuss the way identity influences our perspectives on events and I use the Pyramid of Hate to explore this further.”

Bales shared that a key component of introducing students to the study of the Holocaust and other genocides is exposing them to the idea of being a bystander. She uses Echoes and Reflections Lesson 7: Rescuers and Non-Jewish Resistance and notes, “Many of my students identify with the people and their experiences that are highlighted in this lesson–the power of the individual becomes evident.”

Both Bales and Shaw utilize resources from Lesson 4: The Ghettos to support their students in understanding the context. In framing a conversation about this lesson, Shaw uses resources from this lesson in conjunction with the external resource, Iris Marion Young’s, “Five Faces of Oppression,” to explore the idea of powerlessness and the experiences of marginalized, oppressed groups. Bales’ students read Excerpts from the Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, which she feels helps them better understand what life was like for Jewish people in Europe during the Holocaust.

Key Messages

“I try to focus on the survivors and emphasize that life did not end for the Jewish people after the Holocaust,” Bales shares, emphasizing that people’s experiences rather than the numbers and statistics are central to the study of human rights and genocide. “One action, one statement, one look, could have changed or altered people’s lives… Human interactions and human behavior are key to these historical events… What can we do as individuals to bring attention to this? What is our role as human beings? It is important to have these conversations with your students.”

Shaw adds that, “What I hope students take away is an understanding of some of the reasons the Holocaust and other genocides have taken place and continue to take place. I hope they come to understand that atrocities like these are not random or inevitable. They stem from society not acknowledging and respecting human rights.”

Kelly Bales has been teaching at Tates Creek High School, an International Baccalaureate School, for four years. She is an alumna of the 2015 Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Conference in New York. Tyrone Shaw is in his fourth year of teaching at McKinley Technology High School in Washington D.C. He teaches World History I, AP World History, and an elective focused on Social Justice, the Holocaust, and Genocide Studies.

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.