- 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.
About the Author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.
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)
Educational Journey through Poland with Yad Vashem (July 14 – 20, 2018)
For any questions, please contact: Sheryl Ochayon, Program Director, Echoes & Reflections, the International School for Holocaust Studies, at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.
We live in a world that moves fast. We run from one thing to the next while texting our half-formed thoughts in 140 characters or less. We are bombarded with sound bites and news headlines. At Echoes and Reflections, however, we believe that it’s critical to invest in slowing down and making time to engage in deep learning and reflection with one another. We especially believe this when it comes to learning about the Holocaust.
We can all agree that professional development for teachers is critical, and that during the school year your time is limited, which is why we are proud to offer a range of programming that is short, focused, and introduces you to the content and pedagogical skills needed to effectively teach about the Holocaust.
Beyond our webinars and half- and full-day programs, we are also responsive to those of you who want to enhance your knowledge about the Holocaust, explore new instructional strategies for the classroom, and make connections to a network of like-minded educators. This is why we sponsored two advanced programs this summer: the Echoes and Reflections Advanced Seminar at Yad Vashem and the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Educators Conference on Echoes and Reflections held at the Anti-Defamation League.
The nearly 60 educators from across the country who participated in these two programs have worked with Echoes and Reflections in the past, are currently using the materials in their classrooms, and wanted to learn more! They dedicated their time, knowledge, and experience to join these professional learning experiences. Each of the 60 has a story to tell about participating in these programs; we have chosen to share highlights from six of them:
Building Confidence with New Teaching Tools
Luz Brito has been teaching English as a New Language (ENL) for fourteen years at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, NY. Brito attended the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Educators Conference in both 2016 and 2017. Participation in the Wolf Conference has sparked her interest in teaching about the Holocaust and she finds the Echoes and Reflections resources to be practical and engaging for her student population of English Language Learners.
After the Wolf conference, Brito shared that she now understands the importance of teaching about the Holocaust as a human story, and has decided that survivor testimony and diary entries will be incorporated into all of her Holocaust lessons.
“Meeting and hearing from Holocaust survivors is a privilege that has inspired me even more to teach about the Holocaust. Each of their testimonies has renewed my commitment as an educator to teach my students to become responsible and caring citizens. Listening to survivors’ personal accounts of the Holocaust is a unique experience,” Brito said.
A Life Changing Experience
Nicole Barth is a US History/AP Government teacher at South Forsyth High School in Cummings, GA. One year after being introduced to Echoes and Reflections and using the resources in her classroom, Nicole Barth attended the 2017 Echoes and Reflections Advanced Seminar at Yad Vashem.
Barth journeyed to Israel with the hopes of being able to explore a country she had never seen before and learn from the best in the field. However, she claims that her experience far exceeded her original expectations, “What I got out of this trip was so much better. I made lasting friends and was able to network with other educators whom I can continue to work with and use as resources.”
Listening to survivors speak at Yad Vashem was a life-changing experience for Barth. She felt that every story was both extremely meaningful and unique. Now that Barth has had the opportunity to attend the Advanced Seminar she is invigorated to return to her classroom and share the knowledge she gained with her students.
Holocaust Educators Have Heart
Emily Bengels is an theater and French teacher at Readington Middle School in Whitehouse Station, NJ. As someone who has dedicated her life to teaching and empowering youth and has experienced firsthand acts of contemporary antisemitism in her community, Bengels believes that now more than ever she must work towards fighting hate. She strives to do this by promoting compassion, love, and understanding among her students through the lessons and teachings of the Holocaust.
Prior to attending the Advanced Seminar, Bengels had used many of the Echoes and Reflections’ lessons in the classroom. Bengels applied for the Advanced Seminar to gain more knowledge about human resilience in connection with the Holocaust. She feels that Echoes and Reflections is a model program for its emphasis on individual spiritual resistance.
“My new saying is: Holocaust educators have heart,” said Bengels in reference to her lasting impressions of the Advanced Seminar.
A Meeting of the Minds
Wendy E. Lockard is the reading specialist at St. Jerome Catholic School in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Lockard has a long history with Echoes and Reflections. She first learned about the program through the Anti-Defamation League’s “Bearing Witness” program in 2011, hosted two professional development programs that year, and participated in the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Educators Conference on Echoes and Reflections in 2014.
Returning this year for the 10th Annual Wolf Conference, Lockard hoped to gain new tools for connecting her students to visual history testimony and “to be in the midst of those who believe, like me, that Holocaust education is a valuable subject, and who love and dedicate themselves to Holocaust studies in order to foster greater tolerance and equality among their students.” She was not disappointed.
Like Barth and Bengels, Lockard felt the impact of being around so many dedicated and passionate educators. She describes the conference as a “meeting of the minds,” sharing that “participants strive for authentic knowledge and current methodologies to further enhance their Holocaust and social justice programs already in place. Sessions are conducted in an atmosphere of professionalism and openness which, in turn, lends itself to forge lasting friendships.”
Creating Critical Thinkers and Action Takers
Tyrone Shaw is a World History and AP World History teacher at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC where he also teaches an elective course focused on Social Justice, and Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Shaw was just beginning his career in education when he first attended the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Educators Conference in 2010 as a preservice teacher at Syracuse University. Reflecting on his experience in 2010, Tyrone shared that he learned a tremendous amount about the Holocaust and best practices for teaching about this difficult topic.
He returned this year for the 10th Annual Wolf Conference with an expectation of refreshing his pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust and learning about new strategies from colleagues, but gained much more. The conference exceeded Shaw’s expectations and gave him a renewed sense of purpose when teaching about the Holocaust. He has been inspired to begin incorporating some of the new content he learned into his Holocaust lessons this year.
What motivates Shaw to teach about the Holocaust? “I want my students to understand what injustice looks like, and the signs that indicate it is happening so they can name it when they see it happening around them,” he said.
Time to Reflect
Jill Dragiff is a social studies teacher at Christ Church’s Academy in Jacksonville, FL. Dragiff has spent the past five years engaging with Echoes and Reflections through its online courses and webinars. After receiving an invitation to apply to the Echoes and Reflections Advanced Seminar at Yad Vashem and gain the opportunity to meet some of the experts behind this Holocaust education program, she immediately applied.
“The description of this program sounded like something I could only dream of being able to do… I hoped to meet other educators who were as passionate as I am about Holocaust education and to learn from their perspectives and experiences,” said Dragiff.
Like Shaw, Dragiff believes that by teaching the lessons of the Holocaust she can fight intolerance and foster increased levels of empathy among younger generations. Dragiff was further inspired by how the sessions consistently gave her the time to reflect on how students absorb the material, which she believes will make her teaching more effective and give her students’ a deeper connection to the Holocaust. “If we concentrate on teaching our students about the life of individuals, families, communities— their hopes and dreams as well as their life experiences —we will remember them as people and not numbers,” said Dragiff.
Slowing-Down, Learning More, Digging Deeper
Sixty educators decided to slow down, learn more, and dig deeper. They wanted to become more effective Holocaust educators and share their learning with students. They accomplished this and so much more. While we cannot offer Advanced Programs like these more than once a year, the response to these programs reminds us of the need to stay connected to the content and to one another however we can, and whenever an opportunity presents itself. Connect with Echoes and Reflections at an upcoming program.
Turning sixty-five can be a time to think back on one’s career while also considering whether it might not be time to retire and get to that mountain of books that have been gathering on the nightstand and spend more time with the grandchildren. For me, receiving my Medicare card has also been a time to reflect on the important people who have shaped my journey as an educator and as a person. There are many, of course, but two are at the heart of my story. One, Anne Frank, I met only through her Diary; the other Ms. Riley, was the English teacher who introduced me to Anne’s Diary, and who was instrumental in my becoming an educator.
Ms. Riley introduced me and my 7th grade classmates to The Diary of a Young Girl in 1964, the year that was to become known as “the year that changed America.” I remember vividly the race riots in major US cities; three Civil Rights workers being murdered in Mississippi; President Johnson declaring a “war on poverty”; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being signed into law; the US contemplating entering a war that a year later one of my brothers would be drafted to fight in; and the murder of Kitty Genovese prompting inquiries into what became known as the “bystander effect.” All of this was taking place to the soundtrack from a new group out of England—The Beatles. In her Diary, Anne writes, “I live in a crazy time.” Looking back, I guess I could say I did too. It was with this backdrop that I read the Diary of a Young Girl and began to think about many of the questions that would follow me into adulthood.
I can’t say that I remember reading Anne’s Diary and thinking very deeply (if at all) about her being Jewish or that the terrible events that caused her to go into hiding were the result of a systematic assault against Jews. I didn’t know anything about Jews, or Judaism, or antisemitism. The Diary certainly wasn’t presented in the historical context of Nazi ideology, the Holocaust, or WWII. It was taught as a diary written by a young girl who was facing a very difficult situation and chronicling her thoughts and feelings. This is not a criticism of Ms. Riley’s teaching; in fact, as Professor Jessica Landfried writes, “When the Diary was published in 1952, there seemed to be a response that universalized Anne into a non-Jewish person that could represent all victims of racism. However, in the 1990s Anne reemerged as a Jewish victim and became the symbol of the Holocaust” (Landfried, 2002).
I remember the classroom discussions about Anne Frank and her Diary even though they were over fifty years ago. Ms. Riley, a young teacher, sitting on the edge of her desk, encouraged us to think about difficult topics like fear, and loneliness, and fairness. Perhaps it was the times in which we were having these discussion that has made them all the more memorable; perhaps it was just the fact that middle school students are often trying to make sense of the world in which they live and have a strong, if not idealistic, sense of fairness in human relationships. The most memorable discussions were the ones that focused on those who helped the Franks and the others in hiding. Ms. Riley asked us to think about what makes a person help another even at great risk. On January 28, 1944, Anne writes, “The best example of this is our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so far and will hopefully bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they'll find themselves sharing the fate of those they're trying to protect. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be, never have they complained that we're too much trouble. ..That's something we should never forget: while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.”
These discussions had a great impact on me in two ways. One, I wanted to be just like Ms. Riley and teach great pieces of literature and have students discuss complex themes and grapple with questions like the ones Anne’s Diary posed. My journey to becoming an educator began in 1964. The second is more complicated. At the end of reading The Diary of Anne Frank, Ms. Riley challenged us to ask ourselves if we would have helped Anne Frank. A sound pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust does not ask students to imagine what they might have done, as no one can ever truly answer such a question from the comfort of the present, but this was 1964, and there was no “pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust.” There was just a young, idealistic teacher asking soon-to-be teenagers to think about the kind of people they wanted to be. I carried that question with me throughout my life. At various stages I thought I knew the answer but then something in my life would change and I would have to admit to myself that I was back to not knowing. The most memorable was when I had my own children and realized that my answer was “No, I would not help Anne Frank if it meant putting my daughters at risk.” And then my daughters became adults and I thought, “Yes, I would help Anne Frank.” And, round and round for over 50 years I struggled with the question Ms. Riley had posed to us.
Not long ago, I came across a quote that is attributed to Anne Frank, and even though I am unable to verify she was the author, I like to believe she was. The quote, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. First we make our choices. Then our choices make us,” helped me understand what Ms. Riley had been asking us. I believe the question she asked was not meant to be literal, but symbolic; it was an opportunity to begin to explore what it means to be a good person, a fair person, a person who takes risks, and a person who refuses to be a bystander. She was also impressing upon us that the choices we make as young people begin to guide our lives, as one good (or bad) choice leads to another and another until they have simply become who we are.
My choice to become an educator resulted in working with thousands of students and hopefully helping them love literature, to think deeply about what they were reading and the human relationships that literature helps readers explore. Working with students led me to other choices in the education field including working closely with teachers and developing curricula, including Echoes and Reflections. My choice to keep the story of the Holocaust relevant for generations to come and to keep Anne Frank’s story alive was a choice that was borne out of a deep respect for a young girl who, in one of her last diary entries before being arrested by the Nazis, wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” At every juncture of my personal and professional journey, I have made choices and over time those choices have made me.
As for teaching about the Holocaust, I have been in big cities and small towns in every region of the country. In some places teaching the history is mandated and in other places teachers are taking a risk to teach this content—some of their students are hearing that the Holocaust never happened from social media or even in their own homes. These teachers have made a choice and over time that choice has made them.
Your students live in their own “crazy time,” and are trying to make sense of their world. Let’s do all that we can to help them make brave and caring choices—choices that will eventually make them brave and caring people.
Join the conversation! We invite you to share about a teacher or book that had an impact on your life, or specifically, share what Anne Frank has meant to you.
Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005.
Why do people all too often talk, or even teach, about the Holocaust in ways that trivialize it or get the facts wrong?
And, more importantly, how do we get it right?
A recent incident where students in upstate New York were asked to “argue for or against the ‘Final Solution’” illustrates just how wrong things can go. Similarly, there have been a series of inaccurate comments in the media recently, everything from Hollywood being compared to 1930s Germany to extermination camps referred to as “Holocaust Centers.”
How can we explain this?
On the one hand, the constant barrage of information, and perhaps more importantly, misinformation, does not help; and when alternative accurate sources of information are not readily available – or sought out – such misinformation may become a substitute for facts.
In schools, we see efforts such as that in New York and other locations where teachers, often with the best of intentions, seek ways to compel students to go outside their “comfort zones” to learn about this history. Almost every year we learn of teachers assigning students to take roles of “the Jews” during the Holocaust to help them develop empathy for the victims, largely resulting in upset, complaint, and distress for students, families, and the school community. While simulation-type activities may seem to be a compelling way to engage students, ultimately they trivialize the experience of the victims and can leave students with the impression that they actually know what it was like during the Holocaust.
What we can take from examples such as those described, is the complexity of both teaching, and really learning, about the Holocaust.
On the positive side, due to media attention, we have also seen a broader awareness in the general population that Holocaust education is critical and relevant. At Echoes and Reflections – a partnership program of the Anti-Defamation League, USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem – we have worked with almost 40,000 committed educators since 2005, providing them with authentic and credible materials and resources for the classroom.
How can this be addressed?
The truth is, the Holocaust is not easy to understand and certainly challenging to teach. Yet, teachers should not shy away from the challenge. We want them to have the confidence, knowledge, and skills to approach this teaching with commitment and courage. While there are a range of excellent educational resources and activities available to educators, which can help to provide accurate information about the Holocaust, without a sound pedagogy for teaching this complex topic, the impact will be limited and the impact will likely not last.
Recognizing this, Echoes and Reflections recently released “Pedagogical Principles for Effective Holocaust Instruction” and these principles include:
- Define terms;
- Provide background on the history of antisemitism;
- Teach the human story;
- Make the Holocaust relevant;
- Encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking; and
- Ensure a supportive learning environment.
Beyond supporting effective teaching about the Holocaust, we ALL have the opportunity to use the Holocaust’s current presence in larger community conversations and in the media as a teachable moment, and as a platform to encourage critical thinking and dialogue beyond the school walls.
What can you do?
Stay curious, and ask questions. As we are reminded of just how complex the story of the Holocaust is, we should be willing to question what we are hearing in the media or from other sources, and ask whether it makes sense. If it doesn’t, question the assumptions or misinformation, and seek out accurate and reliable sources of facts.
Keep talking. Engage family, friends, neighbors, and when appropriate, policymakers, in a dialogue about how you want the Holocaust to be remembered and discussed. Let’s continue to affirm the societal importance of educating and ensuring that the meaning and relevance of this watershed event in history is not lost.
Make connections. Ultimately, our goal is to reach young people to build the next generation of champions who will remember this history and tell the story. To do this we need to connect with families and caregivers and ensure that they not only understand the stories their children are hearing, but that their children’s schools are teaching about the Holocaust with proper context and sound instructional strategies.
How then do we start to get it right? We do all of the above, we stay engaged with the world, we keep talking and connecting, and in the words of Holocaust survivor Roman Kent, who was recently interviewed by Mic, we never let ourselves forget that “Ignorance is not an excuse.”
Over the past ten years, I have had the honor of delivering Echoes and Reflections professional development programs to thousands of educators across the United States. During that time, I have seen the differences from state to state with respect to when and how the Holocaust is covered in school or district curriculum; however, my experiences have also taught me that the similarities greatly outweigh the differences. Educators care deeply about teaching the Holocaust and feel a profound responsibility to provide accurate, authentic, and sensitive instruction―instruction that honors the memory of the victims and provides an opportunity for students to think critically about what the Holocaust can teach us about the moral and ethical choices people make and the impact of those choices.
Another striking similarity is the selection of texts that teachers across the country have told me they use in their classrooms―namely, The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The first two titles have been part of the canon of Holocaust literature for decades, and while there are certainly cautions for how to use these texts effectively, they are the words of those who experienced the events about which they write and show respect for the survivors and the victims. But, let’s talk about that third title.*
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas calls itself a fable―a story of two young boys who meet in a place that most readers understand to be Auschwitz but that the characters do not know as anything other than where they are at a particular moment in time. In fact, the word “Auschwitz” never appears in the text. Soon after the book was published in 2006, Boyne shared in an interview that he was well aware of the complexity of writing about a topic like the Holocaust and was therefore careful not to portray the storyline as anything other than fiction, changing certain aspects of concentration camp history in order to serve the story. Like any fable, there is no expectation that this story be factually accurate; the purpose is to convey universal “truths” and moral lessons. Boyne hoped that his fable would challenge readers―especially young readers―to think about the “fences” that divide groups of people and be inspired to work to dismantle them whenever and wherever possible.
The question that must be asked, however, is whether students are clear that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable when they begin reading it? This is particularly important when students have an opportunity to self-select texts for independent reading, a practice used in many language arts classrooms. Without adequate framing, students may believe that they are reading a novel based on fact, and walk away with historical inaccuracies in terms of time, place, and events that result in gross misinformation about the Holocaust in general, and Auschwitz specifically.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can leave students thinking that being in Auschwitz wasn’t that “bad”―after all, the inmates who walk around in pajamas seem “fine,” and children move around freely and have clandestine meetings at a fence that is not electrified and even allows for crawling underneath. Boyne’s book never reveals or even hints at the constant presence of death that permeated Auschwitz, nor the forced labor, starvation, brutal beatings, and dehumanization. The author’s portrayal of young Bruno’s innocence and naiveté about what was happening in the camp his father directed yards from his home allows the myth that those who were not directly involved can claim innocence.
One can argue that works of fiction set during the Holocaust do not present themselves as attempting to tell the history of the Holocaust; however, a topic as sensitive and tragic as the Holocaust if not presented carefully can disrespect the truth of the experience, lead students to doubt the facts of the Holocaust, or cause confusion. Often when romanticized events compete with factual information, it is the romanticized events that will be remembered. For me, this has been reinforced when adults that I have spoken to do not realize that Chelmno extermination camp had an almost zero survival rate and cite Jane Yolen’s fictional Briar Rose as their source of understanding about this camp. In lieu of historical knowledge, the romanticized story of a young female protagonist escaping from Chelmno became what readers knew (or believed they knew) about the camp. It is critical for readers of Holocaust fiction to have accurate historical knowledge so that they are not confused by the historical inaccuracies often found in fictional accounts of the Holocaust.
It is for all these reasons that at Echoes and Reflections, we do not recommend using this text in teaching. Instead, we encourage teachers to select authentic memoirs or diaries that can resonate with teenage readers while giving them accurate information about the Holocaust.
That being said, I have discussed The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with teachers who use it. They often respond that this is a book that resonates for their students; they are thrilled that students are interested in the story and express empathy toward Bruno and Shmuel. While it is true that we can never truly understand what the victims or survivors experienced or felt, Holocaust fiction can appeal to certain readers whose empathy can be aroused from efforts to imagine themselves in the plot.
In my conversations with teachers, I have asked them how they deconstruct these responses with their students. While all good teachers hope to foster empathy in their students, what exactly can students learn from stepping into the fable-like world of two young boys that leads them to think they understand what happened at Auschwitz? Why does the book engender so much empathy for Bruno? Are students able to consider how they would have felt at the end of the book if only Shmuel had died? Does the story of Bruno and Shmuel add to their understanding of this tragic time in human history? If Elie Wiesel’s Night honors how Jews fought for survival in Auschwitz and The Diary of Anne Frank is a testament to the human spirit, does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust? Such questioning allows students to think more deeply about the text―how and what they are feeling and for whom.
If educators do ultimately make the choice to teach The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with students, it should be done with the greatest care and preparation. Using primary sources including visual history testimony should always be the first choice of teaching materials as they help students be clear about what happened historically and what did not and could not have happened. In response to queries from teachers about use of the text, Echoes and Reflections recommends that students study the material in our Teacher’s Resource Guide Lesson 5: The “Final Solution.” This will allow students to raise issues and questions about the narrative based on accurate historical knowledge. An activity for helping students analyze fiction about the Holocaust is outlined in Making Connections.
Let’s have a discussion! We invite you to share your experience with this text or others: What literature do you use with students and why? How do you prepare students for reading these texts, and how do you encourage critical analysis of what they have read?
* The focus here is on the text, not the film, even though the commentary here can apply to the film as well. Depiction of the Holocaust in film is a topic that warrants its own discussion.
Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Include the definition, history, response, and actions taken in the face of genocide, including the Holocaust and any other genocide perpetrated against humanity.
- 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.
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.