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 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 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.
“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.
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.