Teaching the Holocaust Responsibly: Focusing on Life before Death

I am fortunate to be able to teach a semester-long senior level Holocaust Studies elective. I teach in a small rural school; thus, most if not every student who elects to take my course had me as their Civics or U.S. History teacher. On day one of the class, I am upfront with what students can expect, or, not expect. They should not expect Holocaust Studies to be the same as my previous two courses. There are no simulations, games, or any of the other multitude of means I typically use to engage students. Students are not going to “pretend” to be in Auschwitz. They aren’t going to build “models” of a concentration camp or wear the Star of David on their clothes to “simulate” what it was like being a Jew in the ghetto. I set the tone for what students should expect: they should expect deep and meaningful learning about a period of history that may upset them and will likely leave them with more questions than I can answer.

My Holocaust Studies course is a relatively new addition to our school’s History Department, and while it is vastly different from my other courses, it continues to evolve. Upon receiving permission to institute the Holocaust course I was advised of the vast teaching resources offered by Echoes & Reflections. Creating a curriculum map was simple: Echoes had already laid out a scope and sequence via their lessons. They had handouts, videos, survivor testimonies, lists of questions to ask, and much, much more. However, despite my good intentions, as a novice Holocaust instructor, I tended to initially focus on the horrors.

In 2018 I was fortunate to be selected as one of 20 United States educators for the Echoes & Reflections inaugural Journey through Poland with Yad Vashem, visiting Holocaust-related sites, during the summer of that year. During our visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow I heard something I will never forget as an educator. The Director of the museum advised us that many educators focus on the “car accident” of the Holocaust; in other words – they start with the gas chambers. If we stumble upon an accident scene, what draws our attention are the mangled vehicles, the injuries, and the possible deaths; the Holocaust is no different. What draws attention is often the carnage in and of itself. He iterated that car accidents have a history; something led to the accident. There are stories involved. Again, the Holocaust is the same. The story does not begin in the forest outside Vilna, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or Treblinka, or in the gas vans of Chelmno – the story is complex and involves human beings with a rich history and culture. It involves perpetrators who made choices, that led to one of the, if not the largest genocide in recorded human history. It involves millions of stories – not all of which can be told in a semester-long course.

After my trip to Poland and visits to sites such as the former Warsaw and Lodz Ghettos, sites of mass graves of Jews murdered by the SS, Chelmno, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, I was invigorated to vastly improve my Holocaust course. I felt a sense of responsibility to ensure I was honoring the victims and survivors alike and took several steps to alter my course. An initial change was to the first unit of study which now focuses entirely on pre-war Jewish life, an aspect completely missing from my previous classes. Further, I amassed a library of non-fiction books written by or telling the stories of survivors. I did this through grants and a Donors Choose campaign. Students are tasked with choosing a book to read and sharing the story with their classmates. While Elie Wiesel’s Night is a masterpiece, there are countless other stories written by survivors, giving different perspectives on the multitude of aspects of the Holocaust. I also include an activity that I was blessed to do for my Poland trip. Each student chooses a victim of the Holocaust, does research, and tells their story to the class, in a sense, providing the victims with a eulogy. I was able to do this for Jewish football player Eddie Hammel as we stood next to Crematorium II in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Holocaust education remains extremely vital. While it is definitely a means to memorialize the victims and thwart Holocaust denial and distortion, it is much more. It is a study of choices, of human resolve and responsibility to others, and a case study of hatred and its consequences. Unfortunately, antisemitism remains prevalent in our society, manifesting itself last fall at the Tree of Life Synagogue Attack in Pittsburgh, the largest mass shooting on a Jewish community in the U.S. Further, racist and discriminatory choices are still being made in today’s world that denigrate and segregate others, and at times, lead to acts of violence.

Thankfully, many states realize the importance of Holocaust education. Twelve states require it to be taught in their public schools, while a dozen other states have bills pending in their legislatures. However, it should not take a state mandate to realize its significance. I implore you, as a teacher, to truly reflect on teaching the subject. Are you focusing just on the “car accident?”  Are you asking students to take the perspective of a survivor or victim?  Are you simulating anything at all?  Are you doing your due diligence and taking the responsibility to ensure Holocaust education is handled in a respectful, proper manner? Teaching about the Holocaust can be challenging for educators, but thankfully, there are programs and resources that exist to support teachers in tackling this important and complex topic.

About the author: Dr. Joe Harmon is a Civics, U.S. History, and Holocaust Studies teacher at Redbank Valley High School in New Bethlehem, PA where he has taught for the last 15 years. He is currently on the Educator Advisory Committee for Echoes & Reflections and is the 2018 Pittsburgh Holocaust Center’s Educator of the Year. 

FacebookTwitterEmailCopy Link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *