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.
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.
I teach in a small community in the Midwest. Two years ago I found that many students were leaving our school without a thorough understanding of the Holocaust, one of the most unprecedented acts of inhumanity in modern world history. Located in a homogenous, semi-rural part of southwest Wisconsin, most of my students are unfamiliar with cultural and religious practices different from their own.
After attending a one-day Echoes & Reflections seminar hosted by the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, my colleague and I felt inspired and equipped to implement a Holocaust elective studies course that not only teaches the history but also challenges students to grapple with the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping that are increasingly embedded in our world today.
As an educator, it was important for me to find a sound visual representation of the progression of time during the Holocaust, in hopes that students would be able to easily grasp the overlap of these historical events. With this year’s release of Echoes & Reflections new interactive Timeline of the Holocaust, which was also their first student facing resource, I felt this would be an engaging tool to enhance my course and students’ understanding of how one decision, decree, or act of complicity could impact an entire population. As an English teacher, I appreciate the Timeline’s multimedia incorporation of photographs, primary documents, and personal testimonies to help humanize this complex period.
I first introduced the use of the Timeline through a scaffold process of guided note taking. I provided students with a digital template of the pre-war years and walked them through how to view and “read” the Timeline. I modeled what it looked like to take notes from the Timeline and we discussed the significance of the early years’ events.
Students were instantly comfortable utilizing this learning tool. They engage with not only the material, but also one another during what we refer to as “Timeline Time” as they interact with the online content and discuss the significance of the events. There is a plethora of primary sources available; we do not use a textbook. The students, who crave a tangible resource from which to study, have latched onto the Timeline as a means of creating their own sort of “textbook.”
It can be difficult for a student without a comprehensive world history background to understand all the puzzle pieces that enabled the Nazi rise to power and ultimately the implementation of the “Final Solution”. As a visual representation of years progressing, the Timeline enables students to easily grasp the overlapping of world events and how seemingly isolated events relate to larger scale history. Students interact with the photographs, poems, and audio recordings in a way that helps them build a personal, humanizing connection to the text and the individuals impacted.
The use of the Timeline prompts inquiry-based learning, where the class can question, discuss, and analyze events both in the context of the Holocaust and through the lens of broader world history implications. For example, when students learn that Dachau concentration camp was established in 1933, some ask “why didn’t the world intervene then?” It elicits early conversations about the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust and the roles other countries played throughout the war.
As the course moves from one unit to the next, students have more autonomy with the Timeline. Some work in pairs to read, discuss and analyze the events; others prefer to work alone offering their insights during larger class discussions. Exploring the Timeline and concurrent note taking encourages students to synthesize that information with what they have already learned.
This new resource provides the opportunity for students to read, listen, and connect with individual survivors and victims of the Holocaust. It encourages them to question complicity and celebrate acts of resistance. The interactive Timeline engages students with primary documents and personal artifacts at a level of understanding that no textbook can similarly accomplish.
As we wrapped up this past school year, I felt confident that my students now had a thorough understanding of the Holocaust and were equipped to carry these lessons beyond the walls of the classroom.
About the author: Natalie White teaches Holocaust Studies, 9th grade English, and Creative Writing at Prairie du Chien High School in southwestern Wisconsin. She is currently a member of the Echoes & Reflections Educator Advisory Committee.
When introducing myself at an Echoes & Reflections training, I often tell the teachers that I have the best of both worlds: I teach high school students by day and work with teachers and adults at other times in professional development to educate them about the lessons of the Holocaust.
Having taught high school English for the past 27 years has been rewarding, allowing me to learn along with my students and to learn about them. In 1999 I developed a semester-long Holocaust Literature course, which sent my teaching in a new direction. For someone who hadn’t even learned about the Holocaust in high school, I had a lot to catch up on. I took courses, read voraciously, watched hours of videos (on VHS, nonetheless!) and attended every training I could find. Then I became a Museum Teacher Fellow with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and soon after discovered Echoes & Reflections, when it emerged in 2005. One of the components about the Holocaust that has always intrigued me is that new information is still coming out, 86 years after it began. New research, new perspectives, new voices and narratives arrive almost daily; thus, I can never teach the subject the exact same way. And this is one of the components I love about Echoes & Reflections; they are constantly updating, changing, and even adding new programs (like the Connecting the Past with Today: Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust, or their session on Contemporary Antisemitism), making the lessons relevant to current topics and scholarship.
Most of my trainings for Echoes & Reflections take place in the Southwest region, and I travel to Texas often; in fact, I have joked that I probably need to get a driver’s license there! I have had the pleasure of presenting at the Dallas Holocaust Museum’s three-day conference several summers, and after the second conference, I realized that many teachers return year after year (a testament to the quality of the program). Thus, I needed to create new agendas each year, focusing on different units in Echoes & Reflections. Last year, for example, I chose a unit that I use in my own classroom but one that I had never utilized fully in a training: Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Collaborators. It is a strong unit, and complex. It is difficult and potentially imprudent to discuss perpetrators. Echoes & Reflections pedagogy is geared to focus on the stories of victims and rescuers because we want their stories to be heard; to honor their memories. It can be challenging to balance addressing perpetrators and collaborators, while still maintaining integrity and respect for the victims.
The Echoes & Reflections unit on the subject introduces the topic in a sensitive manner and supports educators in responsibly introducing this complex topic. One perpetrator mentioned in the unit is Salitter, a German official who was in charge of a train which held Jews being deported to a camp. His report allows students and teachers alike to grapple with tough questions. Did he have to do this job, or did he choose to? Why is his tone so clinical? Does he ever feel emotional about the situation? Does he even see the victims as people, as individuals who had full lives before this terrible event? We then read a complementary piece, a victim’s account of the same experience, and discuss how it differs from the report and adds a more human element. This opens another discussion about choices that people made to collaborate or perpetrate, or not. We grapple with the complexities of these documents and the feelings they arouse, and they force us to consider our own choices we make, lending to a great discussion—not on what we might have done in Salitter’s case, for that is an exercise in futility--but thinking about choices we make in our daily lives. How do we make those decisions? Do we even consider how others might be affected? Do we think of consequences only after a crime or bad deed has been committed?
This is not an easy topic to teach, nor should it be. However, my experience with Echoes & Reflections, as a facilitator and classroom teacher, has made it easier for me to get the information and learn ways to use it in the classroom, utilizing lessons that engage students in our ever-changing world.
About the author: Kim Klett has taught English at Dobson High School since 1991. In addition to being a trainer for Echoes & Reflections, she is a Museum Teacher Fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Deputy Executive Director of Educators' Institute for Human Rights, a Carl Wilkens Fellow, and secretary on the board of the Phoenix Holocaust Association.
What do we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do? It’s a question with which I continuously grapple. It is impossible to deny that much of this history showcases the most devastating and bleakest views of humanity. Yet, despite this heart-breaking reality, as educators, we understand the critical importance of teaching our students the consequences of allowing antisemitism and other forms of bias and hate to pervade a society. From this realization, another equally vital question emerges: How do we best teach this history?
The horrors of the Holocaust are undeniable, and though they must be taught, it is imperative that students are able to understand the material in a way that inspires them to engage positively with their communities to ensure that the past does not repeat. Art can act as an excellent gateway for students to effectively connect to the lessons of this history. Art raises questions seldom addressed when dealing with a historical subject. Art elevates viewpoints to a whole different level, which traditional historical approaches alone cannot inspire. While there are many types of art mediums from the Holocaust, poetry in particular is an excellent way to engage students. Poetry highlights an individual’s voice. This allows the reader to more fully empathize with the author’s experience and inspires both personal reflection and a greater understanding of the subject matter. Essentially, Holocaust poems are the whispers and cries from a dark past that we must bring to light.
A poem I often recommend educators introduce into the classroom is Five, by Hanuš Hachenberg, a Jewish boy from Prague who wrote these words in 1943 when he was 13 years old.
This morning at seven so bright and so early
Five novels lay there, sewn up in a sack
Sewn up in a sack, like all of our lives
They lay there so silent, so silent, all five.
Five books that flung back the curtain of silence
Calling for freedom and not for the world
They’re somebody’s novels, somebody who loves them...
They call out now, they cried, they shed tears and they pleaded
That they hadn’t been finished, the pitiful five.
They declared to the world that the state trades in bodies,
And slowly they vanished and went out of sight
They kept their eyes open, they looked for the world
But nothing they found, they were silent, all five.
Hanuš wrote this poem and others, for Vedem (“We Lead”) - a clandestine magazine produced by Jewish teenage boys imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There, amidst their crushing reality of ever-present death and disease, horrific overcrowding and hunger, living in constant fear of transports “to the east”, Hanuš and the boys of his dormitory performed an incredible act of resistance: they created. They secretly wrote stories, poems, jokes, and essays. They illustrated comics and drew fantasy drawings. They wrote bitterly about the inhumane prison they were forced to endure while trying to make sense of the hatred that had engulfed their lives. Mourning their lost childhoods, they still dared to hope that the world they knew would one day be restored. They cautiously dreamed of a brighter future. They remained determined to retain their human dignity in a world that had betrayed them, and their magazine was a means to that end.
Almost of all the young contributors to Vedem were murdered in Auschwitz and other death camps. Of the 7,590 children deported eastward from Theresienstadt, a mere 142 survived to be liberated. Of Hanuš, all that remains behind to show that a person of such sensitivity and brilliance ever existed are his beautiful Vedem poems and writings and a few black and white sketches. Not one photograph of this young man survives. We know almost nothing of his early life, except that it probably wasn’t a very happy one — following his parents’ divorce Hanuš spent 5 lonely years in an orphanage. The few people who remember Hanuš can only tell us that he was a frail, thin child with very dark and expressive eyes. Even in death he left nothing tangible behind. We will never have the solace of putting a memorial rock on his tombstone, running our fingers lovingly over the name engraved on its surface, sanctifying it with our tears. Auschwitz is his grave, and his poem Five is his epitaph.
For me, Hanuš lives on in his poetry, and its power to move us. His maturity, sensitivity, and brilliance are almost palpable in each line that he writes. Reading the poems of Hanuš, I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of loss. And anger. And yet, his poetry offers us a conduit to connect students to his inner world, to give voice to his fear and despair, his anger, his hope, and his dread of being forgotten. It is a towering testimony to his humanity and individuality. The imagery in Five leaves us to face difficult and important questions to address with students:
- How could such grotesque hatred have led to these young innocent lives being cut short, like unfinished novels? How was this possible?
- What sack are the 5 books sewn into? Is it the closed sack of the impenetrable walls of Hanuš and his friends’ prison, Theresienstadt? Or are the novels engulfed by the indifference of the world, a world that would bury them out of sight, muffling their pleas and stifling their cries?
- And the most heartbreaking question of all: If only the five books had been completed, if only they had been allowed to reach their natural conclusion, what might have been contained in their chapters and pages? What could Hanuš and his friends have given the world? Furthermore, what could a million and a half murdered children have given the world?
I think this is at the heart of what we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do. As we accept the challenge of teaching our students this painful history we can amplify it by the use of powerful mediums such as poetry; mediums that can inspire important and meaningful reflection. As educators, we want our students to be the ones to open the sealed sack, take out the forgotten books within, read their brief unfinished chapters, vow to remember the stories, and assure the voices behind them are still heard. By adding to our teaching the personal artistry of the poet, we not only honor the memory of Hanuš, his friends, and all victims of the Holocaust, but also inspire students to reflect on and create more healthy and humane futures.
About the Author: Liz Elsby is a Holocaust Educator and Museum Guide who has worked at Yad Vashem since 2006.
Looking for additional ways to teach about the Holocaust using art and poetry? Please explore the following resources from Echoes & Reflections and our Partners:
- Webinars: Creating Portraits as Testimony and Using Poetry to Teach the Holocaust
- Lesson Plans:
- IWitness Activity: Found Poetry from Holocaust Testimony
- Article: A Creative Response to the Holocaust, Genocide, and Injustice
- Video Toolboxes (Yad Vashem):
- Poetry in Holocaust Education: this toolbox video includes a discussion of “Written in the Sealed Railway Car” by Dan Pagis, found in the Echoes & Reflections unit on “The Final Solution”
- Poetry in Holocaust Education: “Testimony” by Dan Pagis: this poem is also found in the Echoes & Reflections unit on the “The Final Solution”
International Human Rights Day, December 10, marks the anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. This landmark occasion happened the day after the Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. These back-to-back dates were not coincidental, and they are inherently meaningful to any educator who teaches about the past; particularly for Holocaust educators, since both of these documents have their roots in the Holocaust. In our current climate, this anniversary feels somehow extra pressing. Almost daily, we are assaulted with news of human rights violations and instances of what could be called genocide—from the Rohingya in Myanmar to the continuing violence in Syria—and it is easy to feel overwhelmed.
As educators, we have faced the challenge of teaching topics related to violations of human rights, and genocide in particular. We can easily imagine that many of you struggle with the balance between worrying about the emotional toll of the subject on your students, while also knowing the critical importance that teaching about genocide can have in the prevention of future atrocities. We know that when teaching about the Holocaust, larger questions surrounding genocide will inevitably arise in the classroom. For the past several years, the Echoes & Reflections team members have heard teachers express a need and desire for a path forward to explore this broader topic, and we are pleased and proud to be able to now provide that guidance.
The story behind our involvement with Echoes & Reflections’ new educator resource, “Teaching about Genocide,” is deeply personal. The authors of this post met as graduate students and fostered a friendship that has spanned nearly two decades and has included research trips on three continents. We have taught at the university level and led educational experiences at sites of genocidal violence. Our experiences in Rwanda and at sites of Holocaust remembrance in Europe have steeped us in a deep sense of responsibility to continue to educate about the dangers of unchecked hatred and violence. In the words of Paul Parks, an African-American WWII veteran who witnessed Dachau after liberation and played an active role in the American Civil Rights Movement, “I know what the end of bigotry looks like…from the standpoint of the bigot…I’ve seen it, and I don’t want that ever to happen again.” (To hear more from Paul, explore the Survivors and Liberators unit that features his experiences during WWII or IWitness to watch his testimony). We have seen what “the end of bigotry” looks like; we have seen the powerful effect that learning this has on students’ and we know that it is complicated, delicate work. We urgently feel the importance of supporting fellow educators as they engage in these topics with their students. Given our history, we jumped at the chance to work together on the development of a resource to help teachers approach the subject of genocide in the context of their students’ Holocaust education. Getting to work with a good friend and colleague on a topic of critical importance to your value system and to the world was a gift, yet,we weren’t sure how to begin.
So we came to you. This past spring, we conducted a nationwide survey that resulted in responses from nearly 200 teachers from 25 states plus the District of Columbia. We asked you—the Echoes & Reflections community—what you needed. In addition to seeking introductory materials about the concept of genocide and how to frame that with students, we learned that age-appropriate, primary source-driven content, including brief videos, would be effective and welcome classroom tools. The resulting resource uses Dr. Gregory Stanton’s model of the “Ten Stages of Genocide” to help you navigate this topic with students. The site includes a number of resources, including more than 20 clips of audio-visual testimony from survivors of the Holocaust and genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, as well as brief overviews of the genocides discussed in the testimonies, and a graphic organizer to help students engage with the testimonies from survivors of genocide (for other tips on how to effectively use testimony in your instruction, explore this document).
We hope that as teachers approach International Human Rights Day, this new Echoes & Reflections resource can serve as another helpful source to continue to do the good work that you do every day—teaching about the past to build a better future.
About the Authors: Dr. Amy Carnes is the Program Manager – Development at USC Shoah Foundation and Dr. Emily Musil Church is a Historian of Africa and Human Rights at USC Shoah Foundation.
In recognition of the 55th anniversary of the publication of Night by Elie Wiesel, Echoes and Reflections’ Deborah Batiste, Project Director for the Anti-Defamation League, and Shani Lourie, Director of the Pedagogical Division of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, share their expert strategies for teaching this memoir.
With years of classroom teaching, educator training, and curriculum development experience, Batiste and Lourie highlight elements of the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide that support students’ contextual and historical understanding of Night.
Providing Context with Echoes and Reflections Resources
“I recommend getting a sense of what students already know prior to reading Night, and use Echoes and Reflections resources to help fill in the gaps,” Batiste says. “Whenever possible the teacher can then add necessary context.”
Night, which begins in 1941, portrays a town where life was continuing much as it always had, relatively undisturbed by the Holocaust or the war, which had begun two years prior with the German invasion of Poland. “In March of 1944, when Hungary was invaded and Wiesel’s experiences began, the war was actually almost over and approximately 5 million Jews had already been murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators,” Batiste says. “Yet, when the Jews of Sighet are round up it is a shock.” Batiste recommends using the Echoes and Reflections timeline to help students understand the chronology of events. She adds that such an understanding gives deeper meaning to Wiesel’s words, “The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were now left behind in the wagon and, with them, finally our illusions.”
Lourie agrees with the importance of providing context. “Early in the book Wiesel talks about Jews being targeted, being sent to the ghettos, being sent away… We have to raise the question of ‘Why? What was it like in the world at the time?” Both Batiste and Lurie highlight Echoes and Reflections Lesson 2: Antisemitism, which is designed to help teachers translate abstract ideas (e.g., antisemitism, propaganda, stereotypes, scapegoating) into active learning experiences. This context offers students the tools to create a framework for processing and organizing difficult information. In particular, the Summary of Antisemitism helps introduce a basic understanding of the context and ideology behind the Holocaust. “The memoir offers Wiesel’s account. It is also important to have a broad sense of what happened,” Lourie says.
Later in the text, Wiesel describes his experience in the spring of 1944 when his parents’ home was absorbed into the ghetto in Sighet and extended family members came to live with them. Building on the exploration of antisemitism and Nazi racial policies, Lesson 4: The Ghettos, offers educators resources to discuss the larger context of the “Ghettos in Europe” and offers a comparison with the larger ghettos in Lodz and Warsaw that were in existence for longer.
In addition, Batiste recommends utilizing Reflect and Respond to encourage student to consider the way ghettos marked the end of freedom for Jews. Integrating testimony offers additional insight. She highlights Joseph Morton who describes the experience of living in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, and shares that in the several years he spent in Lodz, he lived in a constant state of fear.
The “Final Solution” and Auschwitz
“Night raises profound questions for students,” Batiste notes. “I dig deeply into Lesson 5: The “Final Solution” with educators and together we think through how it connects with Night. Teachers always have wonderful ideas about how these resources can enhance their teaching and encourage students to think in complex ways about the ideas presented.”
Lesson 5: The “Final Solution” offers historical information and personal stories from survivors of the Nazi extermination camps. An excerpt from Night and the accompanying resources in the Teacher’s Resource Guide, ask students to consider why families were forcibly separated. Testimony from survivors offer additional insight and include Ellis Lewin, who describes his arrival at Auschwitz, and Abraham Bomba, who describes his first moments in Treblinka.
“I always show the Auschwitz Album,” Batiste notes. The photographs provide a visual reference for the selection process that Wiesel describes in Night. In his book, Wiesel says, “I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes,” to which his father responds, “The world? The world is not interested in us…”
Lourie recommends doing a deep read of this passage and supporting students in considering how the world responded and the idea of responsibility as discussed in Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders. “What made it possible for people to live?” she asks, “In 1944 what did the world know? What did the world do? I have found that art, like Thou Shall Not Kill, is helpful in deepening students learning and promotes critical thinking. Consider moral questions: What is the foundation of morals? What the artist is saying in this piece is everything is crushed. If the Holocaust crushed it, what is left?”
“The book ends when Elie sees himself in the mirror. What happens after? How does one reconstruct life?” Lourie asks. She recommends referencing Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators and discussing returning to life and what it means to be a survivor with students. Batiste emphasizes Anton Mason’s testimony as a powerful conclusion for a lesson on Night. Also a survivor from Sighet, Mason describes the day he was liberated and that the first person he talked to was Elie Wiesel. In his testimony he says, “We are free but how will we live our lives without our families?”
Preparing to Teach Night?
Register for an Echoes and Reflections professional development program that focuses on materials and instructional strategies that prepare teachers to effectively teach Elie Wiesel’s Night. Our Night programs also provide additional background on the memoir that teachers can integrate into their instruction.
Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005. Shani Lourie has been at Yad Vashem since 2002 and is currently the Director of the Pedagogical Division of the International School for Holocaust Studies.
Q & A.: Jill Rembrandt and Kim Klett on Teaching Liberation and Using Echoes and Reflections Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators
How does one talk about liberation and the end of the Holocaust with students? Jill Rembrandt, Associate Project Director for Echoes and Reflections at the Anti-Defamation League, facilitates trainings for teachers. Kim Klett, a 12th grade English teacher in Mesa, Arizona, teaches an English elective called Holocaust Literature. They have been using Echoes and Reflections for nearly 10 years and, Kim uses Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators in her classroom.
In this Q. and A., Jill and Kim discuss their approach to the topic of liberation and the way they utilize resources in the Teacher’s Resource Guide to facilitate meaningful and engaging conversation with students.
Q. Jill, how do you introduce the topic of liberation to educators?
A. In my trainings, I model teaching with testimony. I open up our conversation for discussion and we explore liberation and all its complexity together as if we were in a classroom. We ask tough questions, put ourselves in the survivors’ shoes, and think about this time from many angles.
When I teach educators about Lesson 8, I like to highlight the testimony from Anton Mason. He was in the same barrack as Elie Wiesel, and when Anton described the experience of being liberated he said, “We were free, but how will we live our lives without our family?”
This is a poignant moment that makes the complexity and mixed emotions of survivors apparent. Exploring this with students helps them understand the lasting impact and what it really meant to have survived.
Q. Kim, how do you prepare to teach students about liberation and survival? Can you share some best practices for getting comfortable with the material?
A. Echoes and Reflections is great because it condenses a lot of material for you and makes it accessible in one place. I recommend finding out what you don’t know, thinking about what you need to know, and then finding additional resources to fill in details and guide you. Look for the background and timeframe for the particular resources you’re teaching. Start small and then branch out from there.
Q. Kim, how do you talk about liberation and the end of the Holocaust with your students?
A. When students come in at the beginning we actually start with Darfur. I bring in present day examples so that students are aware that genocide is still happening. We learn the history of antisemitism and build a timeline on the wall to visualize the history.
In my class, we go from one book to another and I provide context along the way. “The Sunflower,” for example, deals with people’s feelings after liberation and the question of forgiveness. Should I forgive, can I forgive? I help students think about that. I share photos from Echoes and Reflections that guide our discussions.
Liberation is a really good time to talk about the role of the US in the Holocaust. I show my students Paul Parks’ testimony and we talk about the effect that liberating camps had on the young men in the armed forces. My students in ROTC are humbled to learn that for survivors, the soldiers were heroes. It is important for the kids in my class who will be enlisting to see the positive role that the military can play and has played historically.
The testimonies in Lesson 8 also highlight survivors talking about the pride they feel in being American. Gerda Klein, a local survivor in Arizona that I invite to my class, runs a group called Citizenship Counts that is inspired by her own immigrant experience. My immigrant students relate to these stories and feel connected to the sense of pride in being an American.
Q. Jill, what is important for educators to remember in helping students to think through the complexity that marked the end of the war?
A. Teachers have a chance to encourage students to dig into the psychological questions that come up for all the people involved in liberation. What was it that allowed people to move on and find a way to be happy again? Remembering that we facilitate the questioning and encourage the exploration is important in talking about the end of the war. It is always interesting to encourage both educators and students to think about the mental place survivors would have been in at this stage.
Q. Kim, what kinds of responses do you get from your students after they engage with this material? What kind of impact does it have on them?
A. I would say that for a lot of them our unit on liberation makes them proud of their country. For others, it motivates them to emulate the soldiers, to do the right thing, and try to help people in need. It is inspirational for sure, and for the kids it’s an eye opener. I want them to realize that genocide and the Holocaust is much more complex than people remember or think.
Jill Rembrandt is the Deputy Project Director for Echoes and Reflections. She resides in Cleveland, Ohio. Kim Klett has taught English at Dobson High School in Mesa, AZ since 1991. She teaches A.P. English Literature and Holocaust Literature.
After using Echoes and Reflections for many years with students, I was telling a friend of mine about a particular primary source from Lesson One: Studying the Holocaust that has always struck me. In it, the director of an orphanage describes his experience during Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” and the way he struggled to protect the kids under his care. As the night went on, children from all parts of the city came seeking safety until there were 90 with him being sheltered from the destruction happening around them.
My friend said that the story sounded incredibly familiar and I learned that her father was a child in that orphanage. He was there the night that Kristallnacht occurred. Her father survived because an American family adopted him just before emigration was no longer possible from Germany. This experience makes using these materials in my classroom even more meaningful.
Lesson One: Studying the Holocaust is one of my favorite sections of the Echoes and Reflections Teacher Resource Guide. I’ve used components of this lesson many times since I was first introduced to Echoes in 2005; first as part of a quarter-long “Introduction to the Holocaust” while teaching at a high school in Pennsylvania, and more recently, as part of a semester-long “Holocaust and Genocide” elective for eleventh and twelfth graders at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, Virginia. Although I use various aspects of Lesson One in other areas of my course, I love to share the components I use in my lesson on Kristallnacht with other teachers.
Kristallnacht is one of the most studied aspects of the Holocaust in American high schools. Nearly every American History textbook section that mentions the Holocaust makes note of this turning point on November 9-10, 1938. The “Night of the Broken Glass” was the first major public display of antisemitic violence against Jews in Germany and annexed Austria.
In talking about Kristallnacht, my class examines primary sources, like the one in which the orphanage director accounts his experiences. As we discuss these documents and photos I fill in other aspects of the history of Kristallnacht. I provide background, describe the unfolding of events on the night itself and we discuss the seizure of Jewish property that followed. Students are challenged to consider some of the most complex aspects of studying the Holocaust including, collaboration and complicity.
Following this document analysis, we then watch the testimony of Kurt Messerschmidt. Kurt was a young teacher at the time of Kristallnacht and his powerful description of events challenge my students to further consider what it means to be a bystander. His testimony is one of my favorites from the entire resource guide and I find that it also becomes a favorite of my students. I also make an effort to include the testimony of Esther Clifford, featured in Lesson Two: Antisemitism, at this point because her description of Kristallnacht adds another special layer.
I spend one ninety-minute block scheduled class on this material. In the days that follow I then introduce students to iWitness where their first task, is to take part in a lesson that I built specifically to examine a variety of experiences on Kristallnacht. As my students explore and respond to content in IWitness they gain an added dimension of understanding. They enjoy working with both the traditional resources and the new technology. I’ve been told that for many students, this one of their favorite lessons all semester.
Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012. She currently teaches a Holocaust & Genocide elective in addition to Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics and US/VA History.
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