On New Beginnings, COVID and How The Human Story – Unexpectedly – Can Give Us Comfort

So, it’s that time of year again – back to school. For students, no matter their age, the beginning of a new school year is always stressful. Will their new teachers be interesting? Will their friends be in their classes? COVID doesn’t help. The old stressors are still around but new ones kick in, too. Will they be going to school physically or will learning be hybrid? Will they have to wear a mask? Maybe they have suffered personal loss during this health crisis, or fear that they or someone they love will get sick.

I found an unexpected source of comfort that has helped me deal with COVID, lockdowns and restrictions. Yes, there was Netflix and often, a little too much ice cream. But I found a surprising support group that included six teenagers, all going through teenage issues, who helped me get through each day. They aren’t exactly your run-of-the-mill teenagers – Anni, Esther, Hannah, Jakub, Petr and Victor are teenagers who lived before WWII, and they are the beating heart of the new Echoes & Reflections lesson on Prewar Jewish Life. Writing about them meant entering their worlds – in Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Tunisia. It meant seeing life through their eyes and understanding their concerns.

Getting to know these six young people while writing the Prewar Jewish Life lesson helped distract me from quarantines, vaccines and the endless news cycle. I wanted to understand them better. I wanted to experience the world they lived in, a world that existed before the shadow of the Holocaust crept up on them.  Who were they?

To figure this out, I poured over their diary entries. I scoured their old photographs. I searched for more and more clues about their lives, all at a time when I wasn’t able to go outside. They intrigued me and kept me from dwelling on the pandemic. They also led me to an astonishing realization, made even more potent by the circumstances. The more I immersed myself in their lives, the more I realized that human beings are all connected across time and space. We all face the same personal issues and challenges, no matter when and where we live.

This is the beauty of the Prewar Jewish Life lesson – its ongoing resonance. As Anni, Jakub, Esther, Petr, Hannah and Victor transported me into their worlds, I understood the universality of the human story. Each of these six teenagers was just starting to figure out who she/he was, as are today’s teenagers. Burning issues of identity were starting to bubble up to the surface: What do I want to be when I grow up? Will I fit in? Will I be religious or will I assimilate into secular society? What does my heritage mean to me? Should I rebel against my parents or toe the line? Should I be a vegetarian? Do I have the talent to become what I’ve always dreamed of becoming?

I was truly struck by how many of these questions reflected similar hopes, dreams, fears and life questions that many young people ask today, despite the fact that they live 80 years later and half a world away. This was an excellent confirmation of the Echoes & Reflections mantra: that teaching the human story is important and impactful.

Last school year was a tough one, and by the looks of it, this school year will not be any easier. Let the young people profiled in Echoes & Reflections show the students in your class that they all have much in common. Let them build empathy, as you teach the Holocaust, for the Jewish teenagers (and others) throughout Europe who were thrown into a horrific crisis. Let them transport your students across time and space to really connect with the human stories that were just taking shape. These young people are wonderful examples of the indomitable human spirit. They wrote and painted and pursued their dreams in a world that, unbeknownst to them, was soon to be destroyed. Let them show your students the enormity of what was lost during the dark years of the Holocaust. Hopefully, your students will resolve to be the kind of people who will do their share to make sure that atrocities like these will never happen again.

These past months have possibly been the most complicated and unnerving period your students will ever experience. To all of you, who have been there for them, teaching them, guiding them – Bravo!! Be proud that you supported them.

As we enter the new school year as well as the Jewish New Year, we at Echoes & Reflections would like to wish you all good health and much success this year, and a brighter future of greater tolerance, respect and empathy. May this new year herald a time of health and growth for all.

About the author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Director of Echoes & Reflections for Yad Vashem.

Exploring James Q. Whitman’s “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law”

A few years back, in front of an audience of a hundred school administrators and educators focused on implementing Holocaust education, one thoughtful participant shared how the study of the Holocaust, particularly the study of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policy, can be an important opportunity for students to connect this to the US’s Jim Crow laws passed after the Civil War.  I didn’t scan the room but I imagined that his remarks may have landed uncomfortably on some participants for reasons ranging from the unsettling idea of the US as a “beacon of freedom” being a model of racist policies and practices for Nazi Germany to the discomfort and insufficient knowledge and ability to broach such a discussion in the classroom.  Without skipping a beat, I smiled and agreed with him wholeheartedly, and encouraged folks to read James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017). 

The book’s title can easily offend those who believe in the idea of America as the land of the free.  Just the hint of a connection between America and Nazi Germany can make such persons uneasy.  Because Holocaust survivors in the US found safe haven and in many cases thrived in this country, so the logic goes, how could this same country be the source of inspiration and guidance for Nazi Germany’s efforts to dehumanize and destroy the Jewish people? But if those same people read this book, they would be confronted with a well-researched, evidence-based documentation of how Nazi politicians and lawyers tackled the creation of their “race law” by looking to the US.  Early on in the book, Whitman states, “In the early 1930s the Nazis drew on a range of American examples, both federal and state.  Their America was not just the South; it was a racist America writ much larger.  Moreover, the ironic truth is that when Nazis rejected the American example, it was sometimes because they thought the American practices were overly harsh”(5).

As educators, we may have heard our students – particularly students of color and LGBTQ+ students – advance a burgeoning connection: How an anti-Jewish law or decree reminds them of our country’s racist segregation laws or our ban on interracial and same-sex marriages.  This is the moment where we are confronted with a choice: how do we respond?  

Do we provide a tepid acknowledgment or else a statement that this is not the same thing, and continue with the prepared lesson?  Are we even confident and competent enough to navigate this huge “aha” moment? Whitman implores us to dive right into the discussion without hesitation. “America was the leader [in racist law making] during the age of the rise of Hitler. That is the truth, and we cannot squirm away from it” (139). There are consequences to racist, dehumanizing policies, not only on targeted communities whose lives were severely compromised or cut short because of them but also on other countries watching closely to gauge the effectiveness and success of these policies.  Simply put, that’s what the Nazis did with our country’s racist policies. There is a need to reckon with this truth, that the US inadvertently but nonetheless significantly became a model for the anti-Jewish policies in Germany.

Whitman does a huge service by evidencing the intentional and thorough discussions of US racist policies – not just Jim Crow segregation laws but also its racist immigration laws, citizenship laws, and miscegenation laws – in key Nazi reports, articles, memos and meetings that contributed to the crafting of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. He explores the crafting of the Reich Citizenship Law – the second of the three Nuremberg Laws – by highlighting the Nazis’ keen interest in America’s anti-immigration laws (namely its race-based quotas) and citizenship laws with its creation of de jure and de facto forms of second-class citizenship – not only for Black Americans, but also for Puerto Ricans, Filipina/o/x, Chinese and Native Americans – that maintained our country’s racial hierarchy and power.  While these anti-immigration laws were more inspirational rather than serving as a blueprint for the Nazis, more critical and closely examined were the US anti-miscegenation laws that informed the third of the Nuremberg Laws – the Blood Law, which banned race mixing in sex and marriage between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans.  Here, Whitman argues, is where “we discover the most provocative evidence of direct Nazi engagement with American legal models, and the most unsettling signs of direct influence” (76).  He highlights the legal techniques — policies and procedures — that Americans employed to justify their “race madness” as the source of influence for the Nazis.  Simply put, Whitman writes, “The United States offered the model of anti-miscegenation legislation…and it is in the criminalization of racially mixed marriage [in the US] that we see the strongest signs of direct American influence on the Nuremberg laws” (78-29). 

Whitman’s book provides educators with a valuable opportunity to connect with the Holocaust, particularly the anti-Jewish laws, within US history of race-based immigration, segregation, citizenship, and interracial marriages.   Connection points to consider include:

1. The invitation to students to connect these two histories is as easy as using the worksheet  “What Rights are Important to Me” in the Nazi Germany unit. Many educators who have used this in their classrooms have shared stories of students seeing the natural connection: “Voting wasn’t allowed by the Black community after Reconstruction,” or “Asians who were able to immigrate to the US weren’t eligible for citizenship and couldn’t even vote,” or even “This country didn’t allow people of the same sex to get married for a long time.”  This is the actualizing of one of our pedagogical principles: Making the Holocaust relevant. 

2. Encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking, specifically when viewing visual history testimony.  Students, with their US-centric 21st-century lens, need brave educators to guide them in applying the lessons of the Holocaust to our own racist history without “squirm(ing) away from it.” This connection is not saying that the anti-Jewish laws and the assortment of US racist laws are the same; Whitman states very clearly that they are not carbon copies. However, we should not downplay or brush aside these connections as they are truly linked.  Let’s use these moments to face our own ugly truths and discuss them openly and critically, knowing that our country’s racist laws and practices played a significant role in providing the Nazis with a model that informed their efforts to create their own dehumanizing legal system.

We as educators can no longer rely on the excuse that because we were not taught about racism in our elementary and high school classes, we are ill-equipped to teach and navigate these discussions in our classrooms. It may be an explanation of our shortfalls, but not an absolution of taking on this mantle.  We also cannot turn our heads from the indignities that many Americans suffered in our country’s history while exalting inspirational values and focusing only on the good.   Such silence is a practice in denial, and is an anathema to the education profession.  Current legislation in some states to restrict teaching about the realities of the racism embedded in our laws, policies and practices is codifying this silence, and denies students a robust and honest education.  

Our student population – growing in its racial and ethnic diversity, and its connection to the global community – cannot be burdened by and held back because of our denials, fears, and excuses.  We owe it to them to put our learner hat on, find our courage, and delve into this history and its implications, to guide our students to become critical historians and work toward a model of justice and human dignity for all.

About the author: Esther K. Hurh is a highly seasoned education consultant with over 25 years of experience in facilitation, training, curriculum development and program management.  In addition to her work with Echoes & Reflections as its senior trainer since 2014, she is deeply interested in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), social justice education, and Asian American history. 

How Can We Responsibly Connect the Holocaust to Today?

When it comes to the Holocaust, is it appropriate to make comparisons to current events? While not a new phenomenon, many individuals invoke imagery and language traditionally associated with the Holocaust to describe or address contemporary events and personalities and educators often wrestle with the question of how comparisons can or should be made in the context of their teaching.

We had the honor of discussing this very issue with Professor Yehuda Bauer, world-renowned historian and Holocaust scholar, and Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem. What follows is an abridged version of our conversation:

Q: Teachers today often have difficulty knowing whether they can make comparisons between the Holocaust and current events. What advice can you give them?

A:  One has to remember that all historical comparisons have to be based on two things: 1) the parallels between two events, and 2) the differences. When you do not mention the differences between two events then the fact that there are some similarities is meaningless. Comparison is the toolkit of every historian and we do it all the time. However, we must make it very clear that we not only compare the parallels but also the differences. Teachers must explain the comparisons and the historical context very carefully.

You have similar comparisons all the time: everything bad is compared to the Holocaust or to the Nazis. That in itself is not such a bad thing. It is a good thing to realize that Nazism is bad. However, teachers have to clearly explain to their students that comparisons have to be very carefully examined with knowledge and with understanding. Do not deny the fact that historical comparisons are important and possible, but they have to be weighed very carefully to make students aware that they must look at events and comparisons in a historically balanced way.

The fact that the Holocaust is such a central issue in so many places is because it is still the unprecedented genocide. It can happen again – not in exactly the same way because nothing is repeated in exactly the same way but, after the Holocaust, there were genocides where the perpetrators consciously learned from the Nazis, like in Rwanda.

When you study the Holocaust, you can take certain dilemmas from it and transpose them very, very carefully and show parallels.

Q: Recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger made a video after the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol where he made comparisons to his experiences growing up in Austria and the build-up to Kristallnacht[1] with what happened on January 6, 2021.  What are your thoughts on this analogy?

A: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s statement was, without doubt, made with the best of intentions. However, comparing the events at the Capitol building to Kristallnacht is absolutely false.

Certain parallels can be made with the past and, with careful consideration, the lesson to be learned in this case is the defense of democratic values, which was missing in Germany. Abandonment of democratic values should be prevented in democratic countries like the United States. We have to fight for these democratic values. The parallel in this situation – the dangerous parallel – is the global rise of nationalism, segregation, and dictatorships and the anti-liberal, authoritarian regimes that are taking over in more and more places in different ways.

When comparing the past to the present, be very careful.

Q: The connections being made by teachers are not necessarily always related to other genocides but sometimes relate to modern-day political events. For example, some people compared the treatment and incarceration of asylum seekers and refugees at the southern US border last year to concentration camps in Germany in the 1930s. Is this a valid comparison?

A:  Again, a comparison like this must be made very carefully. In other words, there are certain elements that are parallel, sure, but also significant differences. When the Trump administration not only prevented, or tried to prevent, the immigration of Latin Americans into the United States and separated children from their parents, there is no exact comparison between that and what happened in Germany in the 1930s because the Germans never faced any question of immigration into Germany. The question was whether they would allow any emigration from Germany – not only for Jews but also for all opponents of the Nazi regime.

In addition, the comparison of US policy at the border to “concentration camps”, which caused a big furor, was made without considering what the purpose of the German concentration camps was, historically. [Ed.: These camps exploited prisoners through harsh forced labor, and two of the concentration camps also functioned as death camps at which Jews were murdered].

Q: Let’s address the issue of relevance. Many students have no personal connection to the Holocaust, either because they are not Jewish or, geographically speaking, because the Holocaust happened in Europe, which seems far away. We know that the Holocaust was a watershed event in human history, not just Jewish history. How do we bring more meaning and relevance to our lessons? Is it helpful to use contemporary issues to teach the Holocaust?

A: The answer is yes, very clearly. What educators need to do is to emphasize that the whole world was involved in World War II, which was a war against the Nazi regime, whose ideological centerpiece was the persecution of the Jews. The Nazis said it themselves. In Hitler’s view, World War II was a war against the Jews and documents exist to prove this.  However, Nazism endangered the whole world amongst other things in its hatred of Jews. Therefore, the Holocaust is relevant to everyone and we have to teach it.

[1] Kristallnacht, or the November pogrom, was a violent, State-sponsored attack against the Jews of the Third Reich (Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland) beginning on the night of November 9, 1938. More than 1,400 synagogues were torched; approximately 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and at least 91 Jews were murdered. https://timelineoftheholocaust.org/?evtyear=1938&evtmonth=11&evtday=9

 

About the authors: Sheryl Ochayon is the Director of Echoes & Reflections for Yad Vashem and Sarah Levy is the Program Coordinator for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.

“Why Do You Care About the Holocaust?”

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.

My Journey

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.

Making it Work: Teaching the Holocaust in a More Distanced Environment

Whether you have returned to the classroom, are embracing a hybrid model, or are entirely virtual, we can all agree that teaching this school year comes with more distance. As a former classroom teacher who now works with educators, I have heard and understand the many concerns teachers have about how to teach the Holocaust in these environments. Like you, Echoes & Reflections has been learning throughout the pandemic from students, teachers, and other educational experts on best practices for this new way of life. You can find some of these suggestions in a previous blog.

Although much has changed, there are many aspects of teaching the Holocaust that remain the same. Good pedagogy is essential although how we implement it may need some updates. Our rationale for teaching the Holocaust ought to be consistent with several of our principles of pedagogy: to foster empathy, to encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking, and to make the Holocaust relevant to our students.

Primarily, it’s important to:

  • Highlight powerful themes that are relevant to today and inspire action in students: resilience, resistance, and rescue, just to name a few. Emphasize agency, individual choice, and how lessons of the Holocaust invoke the need for positive action in the world today.

How do we do this in a classroom with more distance between ourselves and our students?

1. Ensure a supportive learning environment, what we call “Safely in and Safely out.” Topics such as the Holocaust elicit strong emotions, require deep reflectivity, and extensive debriefing. Providing opportunities for students to express their emotions comes naturally in the classroom but with more distance, teachers must be deliberate in facilitating these vital conversations. Utilize the time you have together, in-person or online, to connect with your students in conversation and to address questions. Structure social-emotional check-ins and activities often and encourage student reflection on the events of the Holocaust. Remember, emotion can be a powerful source of knowledge.

2. Focus on the entirety of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). We often focus on the “E” of emotion when we talk about SEL, but the “S” is just as important. In the classroom, it is natural to group students together or have them have a quick conversation with a partner. In a more distanced environment, we must structure these social learning opportunities more concretely. Asynchronous learning can be a great opportunity to foster these conversations in discussion boards, to task students with creating a shared product, or to engage in project-based learning. Grant students the freedom and flexibility to research, connect, and share new knowledge with you and their classmates in multiple modalities. Enable students to engage with this material in a meaningful and personal way to “leave something of themselves,” such as an artifact they can share with the class. We know that successful teachers imbue their lessons with elements of themselves; create opportunities for students to do the same.

3. Work to connect our students with us, with each other, and with humanity in general. Again, we look to our pedagogy to guide our instruction when we proclaim: “Teach the Human Story”. This principle is the fulcrum of Echoes & Reflections pedagogy, and in a more distanced environment only carries more weight. The human story should be a focus in developing and delivering lessons to students who must connect themselves to these narratives on an individual basis.

4. Rely on primary sources to highlight the events of the Holocaust. Highlight multimedia projects, videos, and other multi-modal sources such as artwork, poetry, diary entries, photographs, and especially testimony. Push students to interact with these sources in depth to read between the lines and foster empathy. For example, when viewing testimony, such as Kurt Messerschmidt’s recollection of Kristallnacht, challenge students to read his emotional reactions through body language, tone inflection, and facial expressions.

There is great concern that students are behind due to the upheaval caused by COVID-19. Although there is a desire to overload on content to “catch up,” we mustn’t allow this to cloud our judgment or change our rationale for teaching the Holocaust. Our role as Holocaust educators is to inspire our students to learn more, seek understanding, and grow as individuals to become more human. Knowledge can be acquired but empathy, compassion, and activism must be cultivated. That should be our focus as we enter a school year unlike any other. Teach the human story, teach it to the humans who so desperately need your support, and cultivate in them a desire to positively impact the world which so desperately needs their support.

To learn more, participate in the webinars in our new series on supporting Holocaust education in the virtual classroom:

About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Operations and Outreach Manager for Echoes & Reflections. He holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is a current Ph.D. student beginning his dissertation on female concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan.

One Voice; One Act; One Step Towards Change

In the fall of 1968, Margaret Michaels stood in front of her middle school American History class and shared a difficult truth: her 99.99% white school district had accepted its first Black teacher from Central State University in nearby Wilberforce. At the time, the Beavercreek School District covered fifty square miles of suburban and rural families in the southwestern portion of Ohio. Over seven thousand students filled the high school, two middle schools, and seven elementary schools, and most of the faculty, staff, and administration lived in the community. Some of these individuals still carried the names of the founding families who settled in the area as Ohio emerged from the unexplored west. Parents worked in major industry, owned mom and pop businesses, and farmed the land, and raised the livestock. Busing was a topic of discussion, usually out of earshot of children, as demands for desegregation for the students of the West End of Dayton grew. The West End was home to most of the Black community members, while the North Side housed the synagogue. Unspoken yet clearly understood lines had been drawn long ago. Parents worried that forced busing would send their children to the questionable neighborhoods just outside the township’s borders. Margaret Michaels, one of the most honest and courageous people I have ever known, explained to her students that day that she was prejudiced. She related how her family ardently believed in the inferiority of Black people. She explained how having a Black friend or dating a Black person was completely beyond the realm of reality in her community and would have resulted in being disowned by her family. She described her qualms about meeting this student teacher and working with him. Mrs. Michaels went so far as to admit that she asked him if she could touch his hair since she had never come in physical contact with a Black person before that moment. Then, Mrs. Michaels explained that although her family would never understand or accept her changing attitude, she was admitting her prejudice and taking responsibility for letting go of the hatred and seeing the individual human, as well as the greater Black community, for who he is: a person deserving of respect and equal rights and access; a person with hopes, skills, and ideas just like anyone else in the world. Margaret Michaels opened my eyes and my mind when she bravely explained that she chose to change the way she judged people. More than fifty years later, I can still see her standing there telling us that we alone are responsible for our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. We may choose to use the excuse of our upbringing, our families, our friends, our religious institutions, or anything else, but ultimately, we must own our stance in this world. It is difficult, uncomfortable, and even embarrassing, at times, to speak out when family, friends, or colleagues disagree vehemently. But we must. We must hold up the mirror as individuals and as a country to see honestly why we are where we are in 2020. This requires ongoing reflection and learning and is a fundamental principle that has guided me throughout my personal and professional life. Our responsibility as educators is to show our own discomfort with past and present decisions and actions and impart this value to our students. We must also admit our failings, our moments of hesitation, our fear of speaking up, and speaking out. Just as we admit when we do not have an immediate answer, one that requires additional thought or research, we must admit that we are humans who have and will again fail our fellow humans. That does not excuse our shortcomings; it makes us work harder to acknowledge our own prejudices and fears of peer pressure. As a Holocaust educator, I could not discuss the prejudice and hateful actions of the Nazis and their collaborators without discussing other examples of hatred around the world and throughout history in the U.S. Pointing a finger at Germany in 1944 is easy; but looking honestly at ourselves and our past is immensely uncomfortable. Yet, we must own that while we may not have personally forced Native Americans to walk the Trail of Tears, or forced those of Japanese descent into internment camps, or enforced the Jim Crow Laws, or supported the sundown laws for People of Color, or denied women equal pay, and the list goes on, we are obligated to fully acknowledge how these pieces of history have caused damage to both the human spirit and body and have consequences that continue to impact us today. It is long past time to stand up for what we know is right in this country. When I speak with groups about the Holocaust, I do so not just to teach history, but to show the power of one individual. One perpetrator, one victim, one rescuer, one bystander – each has the power to change the world at that moment. The survivors I have met have talked about spiritual resistance which might have included practicing their religious beliefs in Auschwitz, listening to a scholar in the Warsaw Ghetto, or sharing food in hiding. One person can make a difference, and one person can change the world. Margaret Michaels made her choice and accepted the consequences. When I look at my grandson, I try to see the legacy I will leave for him as a citizen of this country and of this world. I think of my paternal grandparents who decided to travel to Nazi Germany to bring one orphaned Jewish child to the safety of their home in the United States. I believe that most people are loving, caring individuals with the capacity to make the world better, but I also know that our voices and our actions are the only tools that can make long-lasting and positive change. About the author: Lynne Rosenbaum Ravas retired from teaching and began presenting with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s Generations Program. In addition to serving as a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, she volunteers with the Federal Executive Board’s Hate Crimes Working Group, FBI’s Citizens’ Academy, and other organizations in the area.

Find the “Silver Linings”: A Perspective on Teaching during COVID-19

For me, like nearly every other teacher in the United States, March 11th was a fairly regular day. That week, my students had competed in their regional National History Day competition and my juniors had gone on a field trip to nearby Monticello. Although it was a Wednesday, I had scheduled time off for the next two days and told my students to have a great rest of their week at Staunton High School and that I would see them on Monday. Little did I know, it would be the last time I would see them for the 2019-2020 school year – at least in person.

The next morning, I received notification early on that an appointment I had in Northern Virginia had been canceled due to accelerating COVID-19 cases in that area. As Thursday turned into Friday, as a Department Chair, I found myself in frequent contact with my Principal regarding possible release to spring break one week in advance. Still, nothing was certain, and it wouldn’t be until 2:40 PM on Friday, March 13th.

Staunton’s initial plan was to add an additional week onto spring break; however, on the first day of our “official” spring break, we received word that Governor Ralph Northam would be canceling traditional schooling for the remainder of the year. I knew that this would be a challenge for my colleagues and myself and quickly switched into planning mode. Additionally, as a regional consultant for Echoes & Reflections, I also began to think about how I could assist the school districts in my region to meet the challenge of delivering effective Holocaust instruction in this unfamiliar setting.

In my time teaching virtually, I have experienced a lot of highs and lows. My colleagues and I all missed interacting with our students in-person, and we spent many hours mourning for their lost opportunities. We also worried about those young people who live in less than ideal home-situations, and for whom school was a refuge. We deeply cared about finding ways to help our students and colleagues navigate life in quarantine. Yet, these experiences have forced me to grow as an educator and more importantly, as a human being, and to recognize “silver linings” in the midst of an overwhelming situation.

Overall, despite the craziness of the time, I have seen many students eager and ready to “take the reins” to keep learning and to pursue their intellectual and emotional curiosity in new and exciting ways. This includes hearing from an African-American student who encountered liberator Leon Bass’ USC Shoah Foundation IWitness testimony, and who shared that this was the first time she has seen “someone like herself” represented in this era of history. His impact went well beyond his experience in the Holocaust and translated into a voice of inspiration for this young person and several of her peers. Curious to learn more about African-American liberators, she asked for other testimonies to review. In many ways, the bravery and strength showcased by my students during this turbulent time was inspiring and gave me continued hope that despite the countless losses, humanity would ultimately survive in spirit and fortitude.

Another powerful moment for me was the opportunity to help a first-year colleague tasked to teach about the Holocaust for the first time via a virtual setting. He has a strong background for someone in his first semester of teaching and knew that he needed to take careful steps but was not exactly sure how to navigate the situation. Echoes & Reflections provided the perfect pedagogy and resources through which to guide him in structuring a meaningful educational experience for his sophomores, and he ultimately ended up sharing it with other colleagues because he knew it was working well. Even though I was physically distant from my colleagues, I was grateful that I still had the power to support others to succeed.

This time is also about seizing new opportunities to learn and build community with my educator colleagues. The quarantine has allowed us to rethink professional development and explore “in-person” virtual opportunities at a deeper level. My participation in the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teacher’s Program partnership allowed me and nearly 50 other educators to reunite without the cost of travel expenses and extended time away from families and work. We spent an incredible three hours learning together about Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust and further discovering how we can connect our students with this content in a virtual setting.

As we end the 2019-2020 school year, in many ways we also say goodbye to a distant world. Education will likely look different as we move forward and we will need to keep innovating, be willing to leave our own comfort zones, and take some risks. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that these unknowns, guided by our collective strength and dedication to this field, will unequivocally lead to success and allow us to positively impact our students’ futures.

About the Author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012. 

Commemorating Yom HaShoah in These Times

…feels different this year. As we prepare to honor Holocaust Remembrance Day (beginning the evening of April 20 through sundown on April 21) an unprecedented global health crisis unfolds. In many ways, tragedies can bring out the best in humanity. However, historically, such crises can also lead to an increase in scapegoating, xenophobia, and hurtful or damaging rhetoric. Today, as COVID-19 continues to affect us all, ADL has documented a rise in these behaviors, specifically against Jewish and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the U.S. Teaching about the dangers of unchecked hate and antisemitism, both past and present, remains paramount.

Yet, in these dark times we are hopeful. We believe that one of the most effective ways to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate is through a deep understanding of the history behind these harmful attitudes and how they continue to influence our world today. Yom HaShoah, a call for remembrance, presents a meaningful opportunity for educators to help their students reflect on the past in order to build a positive and peaceful present and future. And, although you may not be in your regular classroom or have the ability to physically make a school trip to a memorial or museum, you can still honor this day and positively impact students with lessons from the Holocaust.

How can we remember the victims of the Holocaust during this turbulent time?

Teach the Human Story

Teaching the human story of the Holocaust is one of Echoes & Reflections key pedagogical principles, as it can have a profound impact on students’ connection to this event. Fostering empathy through personal stories is especially essential during this unsettling period of uncertainty and separation. We encourage educators to commemorate this upcoming day of remembrance by sharing visual history testimony from Holocaust survivors and witnesses with students, all of which are found in our lesson plans. Each testimony is accompanied by guiding questions to support student reflection and comprehension. The testimony of survivor Henry Oertelt in our Contemporary Antisemitism Unit is particularly powerful, as he states:

“I am the prime example of what can happen when no one speaks up against prejudice.”

Poignant words like Henry’s help students understand the importance of being an ally and work to make the world a better place.

Human stories are not only found in visual history testimony, but can also be accessed through works of poetry, art, photographs, and other artifacts from the Holocaust, also found in our lesson plans. These primary sources act as powerful tools to enrich students’ understanding of this history and can compel them to make change.

Engage with The Power of Community

Many of our friends at local Holocaust Museums and Centers, who would normally host in-person commemorative events for Yom HaShoah, have shifted to online ceremonies. We encourage you and your students to connect with others by participating in virtual commemorations offered by these institutions in your area. Additionally, we invite you to join our Partner Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center’s live broadcast marking the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day on 4/20 as well as their virtual name-reading campaign on 4/21 to record the name reading of a Holocaust victim and share the video on social media.

Even during this deeply difficult time, we still have the power to work towards change and connect with our communities. On Yom HaShoah, by looking towards the past we can support our youth to examine the present and build a more secure and peaceful future. Through remembrance we can inspire positive action.

Strategies and Tools for Teaching and Learning during COVID-19

During these unprecedented times, we remain committed to supporting you to teach about the lessons of the Holocaust. As many of you move to a virtual environment, we recognize that this creates added challenges to teaching about this complex topic effectively.

As you navigate this new education landscape, please find our recommendations for revised approaches to Echoes & Reflections lesson instruction that will best support students’ social-emotional well-being and bring them “safely in and safely out” of their learning.  Furthermore, we offer some general strategies for Holocaust instruction in an online format:

  • Take a “pulse check” of your students: use the “chat” function or a verbal check-in to ask students to share how they’re feeling at the top of the lesson
  • Focus on the expansiveness of the “human story”: what lessons about strength and resilience can we apply to today?
  • Provide spaces for reflection like journaling, personal connections, and break-out conversations
  • Fully utilize the features of your distance learning tools: chat boxes, word clouds, quizzes, and breakout rooms can put students at the center of the conversation.

While all Echoes & Reflections content is digital and accessible to you and your students, we want to highlight a few student-facing resources that can be readily brought to your students:

As a reminder, we hope you’ll join us on an upcoming session of our newly formed Professional Learning Community to connect with colleagues and share best practices over the next month. This includes a series of 30-minute virtual meetings that support educators who plan to teach about a specific Holocaust topic online, such as Antisemitism and Nazi Germany, The Ghettos, The “Final Solution”, Jewish and Non-Jewish Resistance,and Survivors and Liberators. Registration information for these meetings and our regularly scheduled online offerings can be found on our program calendar. Please note, if you are unable to attend any of the meetings or webinars, all will be available to view on-demand.

Healing from Tragedy with the Promise of Education

We want to believe an attack on Jewish people worshipping in their synagogue is supposed to be a part of history, at least as far back as the Holocaust and on another continent. But, the Tree of Life shooting caused nightmarish memories to resurface and shook Pittsburgh’s residents, especially the city’s Holocaust survivors and their families. Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods and communities filled with diverse ethnic groups, religious beliefs, and immigrants from nearly every nation. Residents may argue over the best recipe for pierogis or which Penguin player is the most valuable, but working together for the sake of Pittsburgh binds its residents into one group. Pittsburgh came together before the Tree of Life tragedy, and Pittsburgh has not allowed the tragedy to change its fundamental identity.

Leading up to the first anniversary of the shooting, delicate questions were raised.  How does a community mark this date? Nearly thirty different events were planned to commemorate the victims. Some of the events were private – for the victims and their families; for the specific congregations that worship at Tree of Life. Yet disagreements did arise. Wanting to honor the memories of the victims, some people insisted that politics be completely removed from any speeches or comments made during memorial services while others felt that this was impossible, under the circumstances. Agreement was reached on the overall goal: “Remember; Repair; Together” to prevent a similar tragedy in another time or place and to heal as a community.

One year after the Tree of Life shooting our work as Holocaust educators carries increased significance. With the fading memories of the Holocaust and the rise in global antisemitism, educating our students, and, hopefully, the broader community, is our most important tool for shaping a future of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. As a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, I am sent to a variety of educational sites. Each group of educators is a product of their own upbringing, their political views, the expectations of the community within which they teach, and the laws of their state.  I cannot assume that in six hours of a program I can correct all misconceptions about this history. At the same time, I must reassure those educators that neither can they correct all the misinterpretations that their students believe. We are human, and changing another person’s thinking and understanding takes practice, empathy, and patience.

Hope for a more tolerant and accepting world grows when school administrators and teachers recognize issues within their buildings. Beginning with the 2015-2016 school year, the Act 70 Mandate for Holocaust and Genocide Education was implemented in Pennsylvania. Other states have enacted or are considering similar mandates. As Holocaust educators, this should fill our hearts with joy. At the same time, it should give us pause. Demanding that an individual only mention the words “Holocaust” and “genocide” is ineffective. Handing an educator a curriculum guide that includes a Holocaust lesson or unit does not mean that the educator is informed or prepared to tackle such a complex topic. The rise of antisemitic comments, information, and behaviors in this country and around the world make it clear that not all students, their families, or our fellow educators will accept the facts and welcome the discussions. Administrators and state education officials must provide the designated teacher with emotional support, professional development, and properly vetted resources.  When parents, guardians, or community members question or criticize the curriculum, the administration must be prepared to defend vehemently and concisely the reasoning behind the lesson.

Educating people of all ages and situations in life is the best tool we have for fixing the misinformation, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation that have become facts in the minds of a significant number of people. We educators work diligently in our classrooms to create informed and compassionate individuals, and this is valuable and necessary work. But we also recognize that our students’ actions and thoughts are shaped and fueled by their home environment. Family members, religious leaders, and friends all wield power over our student’s vision of the world and their definition of “them.” Holocaust and genocide education must reach all members of society if anything is to change. This education includes recognizing and analyzing the propaganda and deliberate lies spread by selfish, fearful, or angry groups and individuals. This education must help to uncover the events and reasons that have encouraged hatred and distrust. Educators often carry the burden of providing a safe environment for students to discuss what they have heard at home or within their communities. At the same time, we educators sometimes think we know and understand but do not always recognize our own blurred vision of facts. If we are to help in preserving and protecting democratic values and institutions, then we must continue to educate ourselves and recognize exactly what we say and do in the classrooms, the faculty rooms, the meeting rooms, and in the world at large. We must continue to help each other to make a positive difference to create a more just world and to prevent future tragedies from occurring.

About the author: Lynne Rosenbaum Ravas retired from teaching and began presenting with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s Generations Program. In addition to serving as a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, she volunteers with the Federal Executive Board’s Hate Crimes Working Group and other organizations in the area.