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CLASSROOM LESSONS

HOLOCAUST EDUCATION



In a climate of increased antisemitism and other hate-related incidents, working to encourage empathy and empathic leadership certainly seems to me to be profoundly important in today’s world.

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When I was five years old, my mother presented me with a pair of ice skates that she had worn as a child. She could hardly get the words out to tell me about this special gift and I can still envision her tearful face that day long ago.  These were not ordinary ice skates. They were brown and old and didn’t look at all like the pretty white ice skates that my friend’s parents had bought them at the local store. This was no typical presentation of a childhood artifact to an offspring. These skates had been worn by my mother when she was growing up as a happy Jewish child in Vienna, Austria, before the Nazis took over in March of 1938.  These skates were a physical testament to her life before her parents (my grandparents) were murdered in The Holocaust. My mother had taken these skates with her when at the tender age of thirteen, she was forced to leave her

parents a few days after Kristallnacht.  These skates had then been hidden under the ground for the three horrific war years that my mother had spent in hiding without her family and as a teenager in Holland. These skates were the embodiment of her survival and of her profound losses: of her childhood, home, country, family, and even her sense of self.

I knew that I didn’t have relatives, and that something horrible had happened to my mother. But this actual physical manifestation of her trauma shown to me when I was young left a profound impact on my life.  It shaped who I am and started my own journey toward developing empathy toward others’ suffering. More importantly, directly hearing and seeing the terrible impact of trauma created a desire in me to want to work to develop empathy in others and try to create a better world. Throughout this work, I consciously utilized what I understood about my personal connections to my family’s Holocaust stories, to reach students and help them to care about others.

Research shows that when students learn to become more empathic, they improve their communication skills, lessen the likelihood of anti-social behavior, demonstrate higher academic achievement, and develop more positive relationships.  Research also shows that these skills can assist students to achieve more success in an increasingly complex world.

How Holocaust Education Can Support Educators

Testimony from Holocaust survivors and witnesses as well as artifacts, like my mother’s ice skates, are useful tools for developing empathy among students. The Echoes & Reflections Holocaust education program offers us reflective ways to develop these important skills, specifically through their collection of  visual history testimony  provided by USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness  and the featuring of artifacts and primary sources in their lesson plans. Hearing from Holocaust survivors and witnesses is one of the strongest predictors of citizenship values, as reported by the Journal of Moral Education. When a student watches and hears visual history testimony, they become connected to that person in a way that wouldn’t be possible through another medium. With support from Echoes & Reflections resources, educators can work with students to help them do a deep dive into analyzing testimony and be better able to tap into their imaginations and develop their ability to understand another person’s experiences. Visual history testimony can be used to teach listening skills, how to read body language, and how to have an increased understanding of personal emotions.

To facilitate this process, educators can ask their students to focus on particular aspects of a person’s testimony and ask students to answer pointed questions such as:

  • “How does this testimony make me feel?”
  • “What specifically do I notice about the person’s tone of voice and body language throughout the testimony?”
  • “Does the person’s body language change when they are speaking about different incidents and if so, what does this change tell us about the person’s experiences?”
  • “What does this remind me of in my own life?”
  • “What might I do differently in my own life after seeing this testimony?”

Employing these questions, educators can facilitate classroom discussion, encourage journaling, and foster ongoing reflection projects. Educators can also use these ideas in exploring many other Echoes & Reflections resources such as photographs, literature, poetry, artwork, and other primary sources to better foster empathy.

For me, the ice skates that my mother gave me that day long ago became the embodiment of the reason for the need for empathy. Holocaust education can cultivate that skill in our students so that future generations will foster empathic leaders and improve the world.

About the author: Evelyn Loeb LCSW-R is a retired school social worker and clinician. In addition to serving as a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, she facilitates programs for the  "A World of Difference Institute" and "Words to Action"( Confronting Antisemitism) for ADL. 



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CURRENT EVENTS

HOLOCAUST 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.

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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.



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ANTISEMITISM

HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE



We are clearly living in turbulent times. ADL regularly reports a rise in antisemitic incidents, both here and abroad, and the proliferation of right- wing populist governments continues to be cause for concern. And against the backdrop of increasingly partisan rhetoric in this country as elsewhere, it is incumbent upon teachers to educate our students about the Holocaust and to show them what happens when hateful racist ideology takes hold of governments and even entire societies until only widescale force applied can bring an end to the madness.

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At such a moment, it is sobering to teach about Kristallnacht because, in retrospect, we can clearly see the two-day pogrom as a watershed moment, a three-week period when physical attacks upon Jewish lives and property in Nazi Germany were front page news in this country. But, when international outrage and condemnation resulted in no real consequence to the German State, the Nazi leadership interpreted this inaction as a green light to pursue their anti-Jewish agenda.

To those of us aware of this history, the need to push back against antisemitic, racist, homophobic, and or misogynistic rhetoric and policy is fueled both by moral outrage and by the need to protect against an analogous tipping point in our own times.

It wasn’t long after I started teaching Holocaust literature that I found Echoes & Reflections, or rather Echoes & Reflections found me. I attended several of their workshops and seminars at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and I immediately gravitated to their philosophical approach to the subject matter and to their focus on the individual story. Among their many lesson plans is one about the November Pogrom.

The facts of November 9 and 10, 1938, are well known. “From the time the Nazis came to power in 1933 they began isolating Jews in Germany, and passed many laws to that effect. In the first half of 1938, additional laws were passed in Germany restricting German economic activity and educational opportunities…Later that year, 17,000 Jews of Polish citizenship were arrested and relocated across the Polish border. The Polish government refused to admit them so they were interned in relocation camps on the Polish frontier.”[1] Among the many deportees were the parents of seventeen-year-old Herschel Grynszpan, who was living with an uncle in Paris at the time. Outraged by the Nazis’ treatment of his family, he went to the German Embassy in Paris intending to assassinate the German ambassador there but instead killed Ernst vom Rath, a lesser figure in the diplomatic hierarchy. When vom Rath died two days later from his wounds, the Nazis used his death as a pretext to launch attacks on Jewish synagogues, homes, and businesses throughout Germany.

What is interesting and significant about these events from a teaching perspective, is that we have documents related to the attack which make it perfectly clear to our students that the Nazis planned every aspect of the events over that two- day period. For example, Echoes & Reflections materials include a copy of Heydrich’s Instructions to “All Headquarters and Stations of the State Police and “All districts and sub districts of the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst or Secret Police).”[2] Asking students to examine this document and report their findings to their peers allows them to see for themselves the extent of Nazi cynicism and corruption with respect to the rule of law and of human decency. For example, the police were instructed that “only such measures are to be taken as do not endanger German lives or property (i.e. synagogues are to be burned down only where there is no danger of fire in neighboring buildings).”[3]

As a teacher, I find it imperative that students be guided to discover the truths of these documents for themselves by way of careful questions. For example, you can ask them what instructions they would give to their district commanders were they the officers in charge of managing a demonstration in their home city or community. More poignantly, you can ask them what they think Heydrich is saying when he draws a distinction between German and Jewish property. Finally, you can ask them to think about the international situation in 1938 and the reason Heydrich cautions that “Foreign citizens, even if they are Jews, are not to be touched.”[4]

It is both exhilarating and sobering to teach this material to young people. Hearing their outrage and their determination to never let this happen again gives one hope for a better world. And yet, it is sobering to lead these students inevitably towards the later events of the Holocaust and towards the realization that fellow human beings are capable of such atrocities.

This summer I spent three weeks immersed in Holocaust studies in Israel at Yad Vashem. I now know more about the events of the Nazi era than ever before and paradoxically, the more I know about those years and those events, the harder it becomes to teach this history. It breaks my heart to have to tell these wonderful young people how ugly the human heart can be.

And yet, even the student who most hated to hear what happened, wrote of the Holocaust unit last year that he “needed to hear it” and that “only by learning this can we make sure such things can never happen again.”

At the end of this year’s lesson on Kristallnacht, I gave my students a new homework assignment. I asked them three questions about those events:

  • Does it make a difference how we label those events, calling them either Kristallnacht or The November Pogrom?
  • In what way(s) is your answer complicated by the fact the Nazis called it Kristallnacht and the Jews called it the November Pogrom?
  • Who has the right to label the event: the perpetrators; the victims; or a third party such as a historian?

With few exceptions, my students are able to discuss the importance of the name and to connect the events of November 1938 to the long history of antisemitism that continues to this day. Their outrage gives me hope that teaching a rigorous Holocaust program in schools may help build a bulwark against the tide of hateful rhetoric permeating so much of the world today.

 About the author: Originally from London, England, Dr. Susan Schinleber taught Cultural and Business and Communication at New York University before moving to Chicago with her young family. After teaching in several area universities, she moved to North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, IL, where she teaches English, Public Speaking, and Holocaust Studies.

[1] Excerpt from Studying the Holocaust, Kristallnacht. Echoes & Reflections.

[2] From Heydrich’s Instructions, November 1938 in Studying the Holocaust, Kristallnacht. Echoes & Reflections.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.



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