As a black female Holocaust educator, I have heard my fair share of the following:
“But you’re black, why do you care?”
“But you’re not Jewish”
“What is YOUR connection to the Holocaust?”
While my blackness within Holocaust Education has often been questioned, it has become clear that this type of thinking goes both ways. Many educators have often found themselves struggling to create connections in the classroom with students of color. When teaching about oppressive histories such as the Holocaust to students who have their own oppressive history, many students of color may be left wondering, “what does this have to do with me?” In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the end of May and the social movement that has followed, this undoubtedly may be a reality for many educators.
Around age ten, I watched Schindler’s List. I was intrigued and equally perplexed by the magnitude and scale of what I was witnessing in many of the scenes. My curiosity grew and I began watching documentaries and catching every movie that dealt with this horror called the Holocaust.
Many years later as an adult, I moved to Washington DC and made frequent trips to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). My fascination deepened and I was transported to a different space emotionally, as I had the opportunity to speak to survivors and hear their personal stories.
My trips were so frequent, that on the day that a white supremacist/antisemite walked into the USHMM with a rifle and opened fire, many reached out to make sure I was okay. Thankfully I was not there that day, but sadly an on-duty security guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns was killed on June 10th, 2009.
What started as a casual interest began to shift into something more significant, as this incident was my first exposure to Holocaust denial and virulent hate against Jews.
Fast forward to 2013, and upon the death of Trayvon Martin and the inception of the Black Lives Matter Movement, it became evident that on the subjects of injustice, prejudice and racism there was a dialogue and sense of understanding and empathy in this country for many groups that was severely lacking. And now in 2020, as our nation continues to reckon with the harsh realities of systemic racism and racial injustice, to speak out and bear witness is a burning necessity. As an educator, my hope is that teaching about the Holocaust can help bridge the gaps between past and present, and create connectivity for the volatile times we are in.
Along my journey of becoming an educator, I had the privilege of attending a teacher’s workshop with Echoes & Reflections in 2019, which further helped to ground my teaching philosophy. Echoes & Reflections personalized approach focuses on individual survivors’ stories, which I have been able to implement in my work as a docent at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Destined Project” is born
About five years ago, I came across a book called Destined to Witness, which is the autobiography of Hans J. Massaquoi, an Afro-German who lived and survived in Nazi Germany. This blew me away as I didn’t even know there was a black experience within the context of Nazi Germany.
Hans’ story is devastating in many ways, but nowhere near as horrifying as the plight faced by many Jews during the Holocaust. With that being understood, reading his autobiography felt personal to me as a black woman. I understood the Holocaust on a whole new level because I could now see my blackness within the context of the Jewish Holocaust.
A few colleagues of mine also read the book and have been inspired to begin a project called “Destined Project”. Our objective is to create a class curriculum for high school students that centers primarily on the life of Hans Massaquoi, and the racial abuse he faced in Nazi Germany. He essentially went from one form of oppression to another after he immigrated to a segregated America just before the Civil Rights Movement. This would all be taught after students learn about the Holocaust.
What will make our work different will be a sharp focus on Hans’s identity and psychological journey. The goal is to foster connection and empathy, by encouraging students to think critically about Hans’ phases of life and how they relate to their own identity and life journeys. Using Hans’ unique point of view as an Afro-German, will create new spheres of kinship to the subject manner for all students, especially those of color.
“Part of the reason students of color might reject learning about oppressive histories unrelated to themselves is because they think that it is, in fact, unrelated when it’s not. We are often taught history outside of the psychology of human beings. We learn what happened, why it happened, but often we don’t always connect those elements to patterns of human behavior.”
– Shiree Nicholas Christopher, Co-Producer/writer, Destined Project
In doing our research we’ve found in many spaces, speaking about the black experience during the Holocaust has been written off as insignificant due to low numbers and limited testimonies. But, students of color need to know that they are being seen, and if their history is treated as an afterthought, can they be expected to empathize with the history of another? Furthermore, I do not claim that all students of color reject learning about the Holocaust; many who have learned the history can connect to it just fine. Our aim is to bridge the gap for students who feel this history has nothing to do with them.
“We often say that we teach students about the Holocaust so that it never happens again, and quite rightly so. But what will ‘next time’ look like? Teaching students to recognize and challenge antisemitism remains of the utmost importance, yet through engaging our students with diverse stories, we are preparing them to recognize and challenge all forms of prejudice and discrimination, however and wherever it is found.”
– Sarah Flowerdew, History Teacher, Destined Project
Who tells your story?
I am not the child or grandchild of a survivor, but I am passing the torch by bearing witness to the power of the human spirit. I hope that “Destined Project” and my continued dedication to Holocaust education can serve as a medium to expand our understanding of the Holocaust so that we all “Never Forget.”
About the author: Courtney Ferguson is an actress as well as a voice, speech, and dialect coach based in Atlanta and New York City. She is currently a docent at The William Bremen Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.