From Sympathy to Empathy – Placing the Individual at the Heart of Holocaust Education
About The Author
Tabari Coleman and Esther Hurh
Tabari Coleman (left) is the Project Director for the A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute for the Missouri and Southern Illinois regional office of the Anti Defamation League. In addition to providing Echoes and Reflections professional development for his region, he implements anti-bias and inclusion training workshops for schools, community organizations and businesses. Tabari sits on the Board of Directors for Hate Brakers and the Leadership Council for the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He received his B.S. in Speech Communications and a Masters of Public Administration from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
Esther Hurh (right) is an education program consultant and trainer with 20 years of expertise in civil rights, diversity and inclusion, bullying prevention, and Holocaust Education. Esther received an Ed.M. in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a B.A. in Political Science at Northwestern University.
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.