A swastika emblazoned on a wall. A cruel and insensitive joke. A comment seeping with antisemitic tropes of Jews having too much power or controlling the media. A shallow and inappropriate comparison of medical guidelines to the Holocaust. These are just a few of the countless antisemitic acts we see every day from our political leaders, news pundits, community members and, unfortunately, even students. But why has there been such a proliferation of comparisons and references to the Holocaust and Nazism recently? And perhaps more importantly, why and how should we address these issues in our classroom, especially when it is happening in our own schools and communities?
To prepare and guide our dialogue with our students, we must recognize, understand, and convey the power of symbols and symbolic language. As we have seen time and time again, both historically and in our present day, hate does not end with odious language and imagery. It has the real potential to cause increased harm by influencing more destructive acts–attacks on safe and sacred places: schools, places of worship, as witnessed by the attack in Colleyville, TX earlier this year, or cemeteries, just to name a few. It is clear these symbols of hate are influential, pernicious, and harm our entire communities, not just those who are targeted by their bigotry. These are spaces that help create and develop our identities and thus an attack on them is a clear, direct, and simple message of “you don’t belong here.” They are unsettling, foundation-shaking, and evoke fear and uncertainty on both our present lives and our hopes for the future.
Discussing dangers of the appropriation of Holocaust Imagery and Jewish Trauma with Students
Along with the obvious symbols of hatred, poor analogies and inappropriate comparisons to the Holocaust and Nazism can do just as much damage, but again, why are they so ubiquitous? Adolf Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust are universally known in our society. Yes, studies have shown that many don’t know a lot of the specific facts and figures about this era, but a majority do believe the Holocaust was the most evil event in human history, perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis. When trying to describe something or someone as evil, it is a cheap, shallow, but sadly an effective tool to brand it as Nazism or as terrible as the Holocaust.
Further, antisemitism is latent but ever-present in our society, and its hatred is rising and becoming increasingly overt. Because of this widespread bigotry, references that demean, delegitimize, and attack Jews and Judaism will continue to be effective until antisemitism is rooted out of our culture, our country, and our world. The politicians, world leaders, and adults who make these statements know what they are doing. It isn’t an accident. In an age of instant news and social media, there is an astute awareness that any inflammatory post or tweet will receive increased exposure. When this occurs, we should deconstruct this damaging rhetoric to help students understand the motivations and effects of these appalling statements. Using age-appropriate and constructive strategies to engage students, we can help them explore these incidents and understand the harm caused.
How do we address these issues when they happen in the classroom?
When confronted with an antisemitic comment or verbal attack, or presence of a symbol, be firm, direct, and give no leniency. This type of behavior is threatening, hateful, and completely unacceptable. The student(s) in question may backtrack their comments or actions and frame them as a joke or not important. Regardless, it is vital to convey to the student(s) that this is a serious matter and then invite them and all students to learn why.
After this point, we want to engage with our students to become critical thinkers, who examine images and statements with an analytical lens, seek truth and understanding of similar and opposing views, and ultimately be able to evaluate these actions in a rational manner. Echoes & Reflections’ pedagogy and approach centers student inquiry, utilizes tools such as graphic organizers and our Learn and Confirm Chart will help students navigate their way through difficult history.
For additional guidance on how to comprehensively address incidents of bias and hate in schools, including specific examples of antisemitic behavior, view ADL Education’s resource on this topic.
As we teach about the Holocaust, we obviously want our students to gain knowledge and learn the content, but we must not lose sight of the true purpose of education: To develop young people's characters and thinking processes, and ultimately make them engaged global citizens who will improve the world in which we live in today. Thankfully, we know that Holocaust education is a powerful tool to achieve these goals and it has been shown to foster social responsibility, civic efficacy, and a greater willingness to challenge intolerant behavior in others.
And while we are seeing more and more hate-motivated incidents — which should always be reported to the proper authorities—we know that educators can play a critical role in intervention, education, and ideally prevention of the escalation of antisemitism and hatred among students. This is meaningful and transformative, yet challenging work. Echoes & Reflections is here to support you with our resources, professional development, and our team of experts.
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Program 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.
As we know, a Tennessee school board voted recently to ban use of the graphic novel Maus in its 8th grade classrooms. Sadly, the losers in this fight are – as always – the students, for whom a great work of literature is erased. Interestingly, the winner by a landslide is Maus – sales of which have skyrocketed on Amazon since the ban, and free copies of which are set to be provided to students. All this proves that banning books can be quite the boomerang.
Books can open new worlds. They can spark imagination. They can transport readers to different places, show them different perspectives, and introduce them to different ideas. But not when they are banned.
Those of us who teach the Holocaust know the value of books. Readers can literally explore the unknown and transcend physical boundaries: this is why so many ghettos during the Holocaust had libraries and so many imprisoned and persecuted people – especially children – read books. In December, 1942 in Vilna, even after tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered and death was all around, the ghetto library held a ceremony marking the loan of the 100,000th book. In the Warsaw ghetto, children continued to borrow books during the Great Deportation in the summer of 1942 during which almost 300,000 Jews were murdered. Often the books they borrowed were never returned; they were packed into the bundles the children took with them to the Treblinka death camp. "The ghetto child, robbed of the world—the river, the green trees, freedom of movement—could win all this back through the magic of the printed word."
For these reasons, books hold a special reverence for us.
The Supreme Court has agreed, holding in Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982) that the First Amendment limits the power of officials to remove books from school libraries.
It turns out that book banning goes back at least as far as Plato in 360 B.C. For as long as books have been written, there have been those who have pushed to ban them. Even classic literature such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and classic authors such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, have been challenged. In 2001 student access to the "Harry Potter" book series was challenged (because of references to witchcraft and the occult). Those who support book bans generally fear that the books in question present ideas, raise issues or provoke critical inquiry that they find inappropriate. Yet, isn't that the function of education? Don't we want to support freedom of thought, of expression, of speech? Don't we want students to explore new issues and to think for themselves? Often, challenged books are entry points into difficult subjects that need to be discussed.
This is why it's so sad for the students of McMinn County to lose a book like Maus over eight curse words and one ostensibly objectionable picture.
Maus is a brave and unflinching work. It is the author's father's first-person, eyewitness account of the Holocaust. As such, it functions as Holocaust history through a personal story (something Echoes & Reflections firmly advocates). But it is also the author, Art Spiegelman’s, account of his relationship with his aging survivor father, and how he experienced writing about the experience of being a survivor's son. On this level it depicts the process of transmitting and recording memory and trauma, and how the present is continuously shaped by the past.
Maus is both an authentic Holocaust story and a story of the "second generation" – its honesty without sentimentality is what makes it so memorable and powerful. In its pages are discrimination, persecution and hate, as well as resilience, resistance and perseverance: all very human, very real, very gritty. Nothing is sugar-coated; this is part of its appeal.
What distinguishes Maus still more is that it is written as a graphic novel, where mice are used to represent Jews, Germans are represented by cats, and other ethnic groups are represented by other animals. It is an allegory: the Germans viewed Jews not as people, but as vermin, which is why the book begins with a quote by Adolf Hitler, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” Spiegelman has said that his anthropomorphic characters call attention to the absurdity of dividing people up into different animal groups, and take Hitler’s rhetoric to turn the notion of the subhuman back on itself by letting the mice “stand on their hind legs and insist on their humanity.” Using animal characters allowed Spiegelman to say otherwise unsayable things and show events too disturbing to show.
For all of these reasons, Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and is read today in many high schools as well as in college courses. It brings new insights to the study of the Holocaust. And for all of these reasons, the ban in Tennessee has boomeranged – the school board may believe it is protecting the county's students from eight curse words and an objectionable picture, but the students will be deprived of these insights and of a great work of literature.
To learn how to teach with Maus, join Echoes & Reflections webinar “Bringing Maus to the Classroom” on 2/23 at 3 PM ET. Register here.
About the author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Director of Echoes & Reflections for Yad Vashem.
 Rachel Auerbach, "The Librarians", PaknTreger, Summer 2017, https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/language-literature-culture/pakn-treger/2017-pakn-treger-translation-issue/librarians.
 The list of books at issue included such classics as The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud; Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; and Black Boy, by Richard Wright, called by the Board of Ed, "anti-American…and just plain filthy."
 The opinion’s scope was narrow because the case did not involve textbooks or required reading, but the Court sang the praises of books, libraries and broadening students’ worlds through reading.
 For an interesting summary of censorship of books and ideas through the centuries, see Claire Mullally and Andrew Gargano, “Banned Books”, Freedom Forum Institute, 2017, https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-speech-2/libraries-first-amendment-overview/banned-books/.
In the United States and across the globe, there is an all-out assault on Jews arising from the political left, political right, and seemingly everywhere in between. From virulent and overt violence to the dog whistles of antisemitic tropes, one can see antisemitism alive and growing in almost every facet of life. In a survey conducted by ADL, over 1 billion out of 4 billion people surveyed across the world harbor antisemitic attitudes. That is over 25%. As the Program Manager for Echoes & Reflections, my career is focused on helping secondary educators effectively and responsibly teach about the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism. This work has been inspired by my previous role in the classroom and the reaction to antisemitism I saw in my own students.
As a non-Jew teaching in Catholic high schools, I am almost positive that I never had a Jewish student. By my sixth year teaching in 2019, the project Eva’s Stories premiered in January on Instagram. Filmed utilizing the platform’s unique features, it was a modern way to tell the story of one person’s experience of the Holocaust. Although I mostly taught Catholic theology, I often engaged my students with contemporary issues, what was happening in the news, and what I was learning in my graduate program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Before I started the day’s lesson, we watched the first few stories posted on the Instagram account and discussed briefly what the students thought about telling such an important story using the platform.
With our conversation finished, I went over to my computer to change the big screen to project my PowerPoint for that day’s lesson. A student spoke up and asked what the echo symbol in the comment section was ((())). I answered, informing the student that it was a tool used by antisemites to denote who was Jewish on the internet and thus open them up to harassment and vitriol. I remember saying it matter-of-factly. Even though this student didn’t know what the echo symbol was, I assumed they knew that Jews were constantly bombarded with antisemitic abuse on the internet. I was mistaken. The student was horrified by my simple explanation. She was completely unaware of the cesspool of violent Jew-hate that floods the internet. Although probably not the safest response in hindsight, I began scrolling through the comments as account after account spewed antisemitic tropes, degrading rhetoric, and pure hatred to an Instagram post that had been created to teach a factual and what should be a non-controversial topic.
We often think of antisemitism as a core belief of antisemites similar to how we view Adolf Hitler and the Nazis: consumed with a violent hatred of Jews and a desire to rid the Earth of them by murdering every last one. Yes, there are plenty of antisemites that believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, indulge in the wildest conspiracy theories, and base their entire worldview on the evil Jew. They are ignorant, hateful, dangerous, and frankly, a small minority in the world of antisemitism. They may be the most dangerous of committing acts of terror and murdering Jews today, but they are on the fringes of society and do not pose the same level of threat as the systems, institutions, and public antisemitism that has infiltrated human society for generations.
My students were not antisemites by this definition and most likely will never join a Neo-Nazi movement or engage in the violent actions of these radical extremists. I think we could say that about the majority of people in the United States and certainly the vast majority of students who have been fortunate enough to have caring parents and guardians, good teachers, and placed value in their education. That is not to say, however, that my students were not antisemitic. They were raised and educated in a system that perpetuates antisemitism, that utilizes dog whistles to rally the most extreme in our society to persuade us to believe that their fringe beliefs are mainstream, and who have been bombarded with antisemitic tropes in their social media. For some of them, like the young woman who asked about the echo symbol in my class, they are unaware that antisemitism exists today and yet know the negative stereotypes that have been used for centuries and may even accept them as true when it fits their agenda.
Have you ever asked an older person, whether it be a grandparent or someone else, a question, and the answer you get makes you cringe? I can remember my grandmother telling me about the “nice Chinaman” who helped her at the gas station. When I discuss antisemitism with teachers and students, I often use the example of my uncle claiming at the breakfast table while reading the newspaper, “Well of course it says that since the Jews control the media.” These were not people I would describe as ignorant, hateful, or antisemites and yet it is clear that the system in which they were raised imbued in them a latent racism and antisemitism. This is how antisemitism continues to exist even after the horrors of the Holocaust and why it is so easy for it to escalate and erupt once again: it is always there in our society. It always exists in our systems, in our institutions, in our government, in our education, and in almost every other facet of our lives. Latent antisemitism remains a fact in human society.
Antisemitism burns uncontrollably when fueled by ignorance and fear, but that is not where it is first learned, taught, and manifests itself in each individual. Antisemitism morphs, changes, adapts and is perverted to fit the current landscape but its existence within the systems that are part of human society remains. It will take exhaustive education, understanding, empathy, compassion, and courage to combat the systems and create a just society that includes Jews. In their formative years, most young people do not encounter Jews on a regular basis, if at all. They are even less likely to learn about Jewish life, culture, diversity, and all the wonderful aspects of Judaism. They have no connection to Jews or real knowledge of what it means to be a Jew. They have no evidence to disprove the seemingly endless conspiracy theories and vitriol aimed at Jews from nearly every direction. They are fed lies from their earliest development about Jews, especially when they do not know any.
Young non-Jews need education (as do plenty of adults). They need experiences learning about Jews and Jewish life. They need to discover the traditions, the history, and the people. They need to be invited into various aspects of Jewish life, from religious services to Passover Seder. They also need to understand the nature of antisemitism as illogical, baseless, and yet ever-present, with the potential to escalate at any time. With the knowledge of the beauty of Jews and Judaism with the ever-constant threat that Jews face, they will be empowered to advocate for and protect their new Jewish friends. Understanding this can help young people combat blatant lies and slander with the truth, empower young Jews to be proud of their heritage and share their beliefs and culture with others to cultivate empathy and understanding, and be inspired to reach out and bring non-Jews into the fight against antisemitism.
For those victims who have had to endure and continue to endure antisemitism, it is a personal and emotionally harrowing experience. As a non-Jew, I can sympathize with Jews, but I cannot truly empathize with that horrible experience as it is one that I will most likely never have to endure. But a clueless non-Jew who doesn’t know antisemitism still exists or just how prevalent it is? That is an experience that I truly understand, through my own upbringing and in the eyes of my former students. We may never be able to educate and change the minds and hearts of violent extremists who are determined to wreak havoc and endanger Jewish lives, but the vast majority of antisemites just need to be educated and empowered to act against antisemitism. It may be an illogical and baseless hatred, but it exists and grows in a scientific and systematic way, especially recently as the ADL has tracked over 2,000 antisemitic incidents in the United States for each of the last two years. We must work to dismantle the systems in place that perpetuate antisemitism while engaging with young people to understand its nature, why it is disgusting and wrong, and what can be done to combat it.
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Program 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.
This article was originally published in The Lookstein Center of Bar-Ilan University’s Jewish Educational Leadership Fall 2021 issue, Jewish Education Amidst Rising Antisemitism. This journal issue, with articles from Jewish communal leaders and experts, explores the educational implications for Jewish students of rising antisemitism. Read the full article here and access the full journal for free here.
This blog originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.
When a school administrator in Southlake implied there exists an “opposing” perspective on the Holocaust that teachers are obligated to present, it set off a firestorm and broached some fundamental questions about the nature and necessity of Holocaust education in America.
The controversy sets the stage for important reflection on inclusivity and multiple perspectives in today’s classrooms. While there are not multiple perspectives about whether the Holocaust happened, as the school district later acknowledged with an apology, there are varying points of entry for understanding what happened, why it happened, and what the ongoing impact is. The more angles and perspectives we add to our educational and societal approach, and the more modes of engagement we have, the better equipped we are to learn the lessons of the past.
As an educator and historian, I must state unequivocally that there is no opposing view as it pertains to the facts of the Holocaust, the systematic murder of 6 million Jews. This is indisputable and is supported by a mountain of primary and secondary source evidence. The “opposing” view of the fact of the Holocaust is Holocaust denial. From a historical perspective, this is not presenting multiple sides of an argument, it is countering fact with conspiracy theories and lies. We cannot lose sight of that. Responsible Holocaust education helps prevent us from losing sight of that.
We have evidence that Holocaust education is essential in helping young people understand the past as well as develop an ability to engage with and respect multiple perspectives. A recent study by Echoes & Reflections found that Holocaust education in high school increased historical knowledge and cultivated more empathetic, tolerant and engaged students. The study also found that learning from Holocaust survivor testimony is strongly associated with numerous positive outcomes in early adulthood, including superior critical thinking skills and a greater sense of social responsibility. Our archive at USC Shoah Foundation house 51,000 accounts from Holocaust survivors. These individual perspectives help us learn and grow. The foundation’s entire Visual History Archive includes accounts of Jewish Holocaust survivors as well as liberators, political prisoners, LGBTQ, Sinti and Roma survivors and other witnesses. Together, these testimonies illuminate the lived experiences of the Holocaust. We all learn more when afforded the opportunity to hear from powerful voices that can connect diverse populations and transcend generations. Our brains are hard-wired to learn from storytelling, something that independent research affirms time and time again.
Adopting a multi-perspective view of history also means including voices that we may not always feel comfortable listening to. Our friend and colleague, the late Luke Holland, had a vision of documenting the voices of former Nazi perpetrators and bystanders for the recent documentary, Final Account. Cognizant of this powerful, age-old teaching tool, USC Shoah Foundation partnered with Participant and Focus Features to include these perspectives in teaching materials designed to help students understand the power and persistence of pernicious thinking, even decades after the fact.
Simultaneously, as recently reported by The New York Times, many Holocaust museums and organizations are updating their content and including voices from other genocides and social justice movements to reinforce the messages of “never again” that have echoed since World War II. The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida, in Orlando, recently opened an exhibit exploring the indelible link between white supremacy and antisemitism, through the perspective of acclaimed blues musician Daryl Davis. This year, Holocaust Museum Houston’s first juried exhibition in its new building was “Withstand: Latinx Art in Times of Conflict,” exploring “themes of social justice and human rights through 100 artworks by Houston Latinx artists.” This inclusive vision of teaching about the past brings Holocaust education into dialogue with contemporary issues that still plague society.
These educational institutions, and many others, understand that the study and memorialization of the Holocaust are enriched when we add diverse points of entry for people to understand both the historical reality of the genocide and consider the contemporary impact on their thinking and actions. We can and should use all responsible avenues of open inquiry, creative approaches, and engagement with even the most challenging material as we grapple with the horrors of the past.
There is no “opposing” view of the Holocaust, but there is value in drawing on multiple perspectives in understanding the experience and impact of it. The perspectives of eyewitnesses can provide students with the tools needed to recognize the continuing relevance and importance of one of the world’s greatest crimes and equip them to build a better future.
About the author: Dr. Kori Street is the incoming interim executive director and senior director of programs and operations of USC Shoah Foundation.
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.
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.
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 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.
 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.
As a black female Holocaust educator, I have heard my fair share of the following:
“But you’re black, why do you care?”
“But you’re not Jewish”
“What is YOUR connection to the Holocaust?”
While my blackness within Holocaust Education has often been questioned, it has become clear that this type of thinking goes both ways. Many educators have often found themselves struggling to create connections in the classroom with students of color. When teaching about oppressive histories such as the Holocaust to students who have their own oppressive history, many students of color may be left wondering, “what does this have to do with me?” In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the end of May and the social movement that has followed, this undoubtedly may be a reality for many educators.
Around age ten, I watched Schindler’s List. I was intrigued and equally perplexed by the magnitude and scale of what I was witnessing in many of the scenes. My curiosity grew and I began watching documentaries and catching every movie that dealt with this horror called the Holocaust.
Many years later as an adult, I moved to Washington DC and made frequent trips to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). My fascination deepened and I was transported to a different space emotionally, as I had the opportunity to speak to survivors and hear their personal stories.
My trips were so frequent, that on the day that a white supremacist/antisemite walked into the USHMM with a rifle and opened fire, many reached out to make sure I was okay. Thankfully I was not there that day, but sadly an on-duty security guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns was killed on June 10th, 2009.
What started as a casual interest began to shift into something more significant, as this incident was my first exposure to Holocaust denial and virulent hate against Jews.
Fast forward to 2013, and upon the death of Trayvon Martin and the inception of the Black Lives Matter Movement, it became evident that on the subjects of injustice, prejudice and racism there was a dialogue and sense of understanding and empathy in this country for many groups that was severely lacking. And now in 2020, as our nation continues to reckon with the harsh realities of systemic racism and racial injustice, to speak out and bear witness is a burning necessity. As an educator, my hope is that teaching about the Holocaust can help bridge the gaps between past and present, and create connectivity for the volatile times we are in.
Along my journey of becoming an educator, I had the privilege of attending a teacher’s workshop with Echoes & Reflections in 2019, which further helped to ground my teaching philosophy. Echoes & Reflections personalized approach focuses on individual survivors’ stories, which I have been able to implement in my work as a docent at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Destined Project” is born
About five years ago, I came across a book called Destined to Witness, which is the autobiography of Hans J. Massaquoi, an Afro-German who lived and survived in Nazi Germany. This blew me away as I didn’t even know there was a black experience within the context of Nazi Germany.
Hans’ story is devastating in many ways, but nowhere near as horrifying as the plight faced by many Jews during the Holocaust. With that being understood, reading his autobiography felt personal to me as a black woman. I understood the Holocaust on a whole new level because I could now see my blackness within the context of the Jewish Holocaust.
A few colleagues of mine also read the book and have been inspired to begin a project called “Destined Project”. Our objective is to create a class curriculum for high school students that centers primarily on the life of Hans Massaquoi, and the racial abuse he faced in Nazi Germany. He essentially went from one form of oppression to another after he immigrated to a segregated America just before the Civil Rights Movement. This would all be taught after students learn about the Holocaust.
What will make our work different will be a sharp focus on Hans’s identity and psychological journey. The goal is to foster connection and empathy, by encouraging students to think critically about Hans’ phases of life and how they relate to their own identity and life journeys. Using Hans’ unique point of view as an Afro-German, will create new spheres of kinship to the subject manner for all students, especially those of color.
“Part of the reason students of color might reject learning about oppressive histories unrelated to themselves is because they think that it is, in fact, unrelated when it's not. We are often taught history outside of the psychology of human beings. We learn what happened, why it happened, but often we don't always connect those elements to patterns of human behavior.”
- Shiree Nicholas Christopher, Co-Producer/writer, Destined Project
In doing our research we’ve found in many spaces, speaking about the black experience during the Holocaust has been written off as insignificant due to low numbers and limited testimonies. But, students of color need to know that they are being seen, and if their history is treated as an afterthought, can they be expected to empathize with the history of another? Furthermore, I do not claim that all students of color reject learning about the Holocaust; many who have learned the history can connect to it just fine. Our aim is to bridge the gap for students who feel this history has nothing to do with them.
“We often say that we teach students about the Holocaust so that it never happens again, and quite rightly so. But what will ‘next time’ look like? Teaching students to recognize and challenge antisemitism remains of the utmost importance, yet through engaging our students with diverse stories, we are preparing them to recognize and challenge all forms of prejudice and discrimination, however and wherever it is found.”
- Sarah Flowerdew, History Teacher, Destined Project
Who tells your story?
I am not the child or grandchild of a survivor, but I am passing the torch by bearing witness to the power of the human spirit. I hope that “Destined Project” and my continued dedication to Holocaust education can serve as a medium to expand our understanding of the Holocaust so that we all “Never Forget.”
About the author: Courtney Ferguson is an actress as well as a voice, speech, and dialect coach based in Atlanta and New York City. She is currently a docent at The William Bremen Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
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:
- Focus on salient themes that students can connect to using real examples from history, case studies, and the power of human connection using primary sources, especially testimony, which has been shown to have a profound impact on students’ development.
- 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:
- Responsible Practices in the Virtual Classroom: Dangers of Simulation Activities and Connections to Bullying (10/5)
- Making it Work: Tools for Effective Holocaust Education Online (10/14)
- The Use of Films Via Digital Learning (10/19)
- Teaching with Testimony: The Power of Testimony in the Virtual Classroom (10/21)
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.
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.
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.
...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.
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:
- Interactive Timeline of the Holocaust and accompanying activities.
- Video Toolboxes – short videos with guiding questions that provide historical context on various Holocaust topics.
- We Share the Same Sky Podcast and Teaching Guide.
- USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness resources that are specially curated for distance learning and teaching.
- Stronger Than Hate Challenge – also from USC, students create a poem, story, video or artwork that uses the power of testimony to counter hate; with up to $10,000 in prizing.
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.
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.
On the occasion of Anne Frank's 90th birthday, Anne Frank House Executive Director, Ronald Leopold, reflects on the relationship between the Holocaust and today: whether democratic societies, which were rebuilt with so much care in the shadow of the Holocaust, are in danger and how despite this fear, Anne Frank’s words can guide our youth to a brighter future. This piece was specially adapted for Echoes & Reflections from his keynote speech for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center on June 5th, 2019.
On the occasion of Anne Frank’s 90th birthday, we recall that the remembrance of the Holocaust is connected to the present and the future.
Anne’s fifteenth birthday would also be her last, because not much later, fate intervenes. On August 4th, 1944, a raid takes place in the building at 263 Prinsengracht, in which all eight people in hiding and the two male helpers are arrested. The people in hiding are deported via the Westerbork transit camp in the East of the Netherlands to Auschwitz and from there to various other concentration camps. Of the eight, only Anne's father Otto Frank ultimately survives the war. The others perish under inhumane circumstances. Anne and her sister Margot succumb to typhus in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in mid-February 1945, two months before the camp is liberated.
But the meaning of the Anne Frank House goes further than the tragedy in which it is rooted. The House also forms a mirror in which we can see ourselves, not to admire our beauty like in a fairytale: Not “mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?", but to be confronted with who we are, what we as human beings are capable of, what the values are that make us human. The fate of Anne and Margot Frank was the work of human hands. It was not the result of a natural disaster, not the work of creatures from another planet, not even the work of one particular type of person. Visitors to the Anne Frank House are invited to reflect on this, and challenged to ask themselves questions, often uncomfortable questions concerning our moral compass. Questions about the choices we make and the consequences they have for ourselves and for others, about the need to protect ourselves against ourselves.
Otto Frank remarked, shortly before the Anne Frank House opened in 1960, that “we should stop teaching history lessons and should start teaching lessons from history.” I don’t assert that we should stop teaching history lessons, but his intrinsic message was clear: history lessons are of little use if they don’t also serve as a mirror for our own actions.
What is the relevance of the Holocaust in the 21st century for generations whose grandparents and great-grandparents were born after WWII? Aren’t the circumstances and events of the past too distant from us? Can they still have a guiding significance in 2019? Or do we soon lose ourselves in slogans, in banal comparisons, in platitudes that sound good but can no longer serve as a moral compass.
History gives us food for thought, not so much because it repeats itself, but because it offers a view of what lies behind human thinking and actions. What motivated people to think and act the way they did? What considerations did they weigh, how do they explain their own time and how do we perceive it in retrospect?
Anyone who has thought about WWII and the Shoah inevitably comes up with the question of how things could have gone so far; at what moment might history have taken a different turn. Historians have already written libraries full about this and undoubtedly there will be much more written. But in 2019 that question also raises an urgent contemporary dilemma related to democratic vigilance: what do we see and hear around us, how do we “read” our own time, how do we interpret the risks? Is our open, democratic society and the rule of law, which we rebuilt with so much care in the shadow of the Holocaust, in danger? Has the world lost its way and are we en route to new tragedies?
Surely it will not happen to us again in a relatively short span of time that we miss the moment to turn the tide of history? That we let the “window to act” pass us by, while the warning lights of the past flash brighter and brighter? Are we going to make the same mistake twice?
“I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support,” Anne Frank wrote in the first sentence of her diary, still unaware of how important this support would prove to be in the more than two years that followed. We can only speculate about her thoughts during the last months of her young life in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Was she able to hold on to her dreams and ideals in a situation of increasing hopelessness? Did she still believe that “. . . people are truly good at heart”, as she had written in her diary a short time before the arrest? Did she gaze at the sky, like she had earlier through the attic window of the hiding place, and think everything is going to turn out alright?
The dreams expressed by Anne Frank implore us to think about who we are and who we want to be, about the world in which we now live and the one we want to live in, about the things that make us human. Her life story serves as a warning and as a source of inspiration, as a guide to achieving a better world, a better future. It is important to realize that Anne Frank's short life began in 1929 in a free and democratic Germany and ended a mere fifteen years later in a world of total barbarism. This malevolence did not begin with the outbreak of WWII, but in the years 1932-1933 with the rapid demise of German democracy and the Nazi takeover of power.
I don't believe we are facing that same inconceivable question at this moment. But I do believe there is every reason to more vigorously defend our open, democratic society and the rule of law. The question I ask is whether we maintain enough of a connection with this contemporary, everyday context. Wouldn’t it be better if we took that context as the starting point for a Shoah-related educational experience instead of a history lesson? Speaking in management terms, shouldn’t we have remembering the Shoah “pulling” from the present instead of “pushing” from the past?
Youth help us fulfil our missions and accordingly build the world of their dreams. They offer us new perspectives, which are accompanied by new connotations. Let us therefore consider how we can actively engage young people, listen to them and welcome them with open arms. It is my experience that there are many very talented and committed young people, sometimes incredibly young, from whom we can learn a lot.
Since the first publication of the Diary of Anne Frank in 1947, it has been read by millions of young people around the world. In the words she penned, they hear the voice of someone their own age, a peer. Her dreams are their dreams.
I want to take you back to April 11, 1944. It’s a lovely spring day in Amsterdam, with a clear blue sky, almost 70 degrees outside, a mild breeze is blowing. A long, bitter cold winter is finally giving way to the first warmth of the year. The trees are budding; it will not be long now before they’re in full bloom. It is a day full of yearning, yearning for everything that has been missing for so long: the warm rays of the sun on your skin, fresh air, the smell of nature awakening. Anne Frank is at her desk in the musty annex writing one of the longest and most moving entries in her diary.
A break-in downstairs in the building makes her once again realize that she’s in hiding, makes her think about being Jewish and what that means to her. She’s scared but determined to be brave and strong. She’s ready for death but wants to live, wants to make her mark on the world. She reflects on who she is and who she wants to be: a Jew; Dutch; a woman with inner strength, a goal, opinions, religion and love.
“If only I can be myself, I'll be satisfied.”
With these simple words Anne Frank reveals something very personal to us. On that beautiful spring day, she doesn’t share an identity claim with us, but the desire for space and the freedom to discover and develop herself. Her diary is the consequence of that search. She has been locked up in a small space with seven others for more than two years, continually discovering herself but always realizing that she is part of a group of people who are dependent on one another. She wants to make her voice heard, she has strong opinions, but is also vulnerable and prepared to change her point-of-view, even if this is easier said than done. Each time she asks herself questions and presents herself with dilemmas. And she realizes if she must get along with the seven other inhabitants of the Secret Annex, that she sometimes has to comply with their wishes.
The very last sentence of her diary speaks volumes: “. . . [I] keep on trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be, if . . . if only there were no other people in the world.” But other people live there as well. “If only I can be myself” Just like in the diary, not as an identity claim, but as an individual desire and a democratic endeavor to ensure that everyone has the opportunity and freedom to discover and develop themselves, while keeping in mind that other people live in the world. Whoever reads Anne Frank’s diary cannot help but think about the dilemmas this presents, about what kind of attitudes and abilities are required of us. This isn’t going to give us the best of all possible worlds, but hopefully it will spare us the Hell that Anne Frank, Margot Frank, and millions of others were forced to endure. They were not only prohibited from being their true selves, but from being at all.
About the Author: Ronald Leopold has been the executive director of the Anne Frank House since 2011. Leopold held various posts at the Dutch General Pension Fund for Public Employees and was involved in the implementation of the legislation regarding war victims. Leopold lives in Amsterdam with his wife and daughter.
As a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Florida, who survived the tragedy on February 14, 2018, I have spent the past year grappling with this question. By definition, a survivor is a person who continues to function or prosper, in spite of opposition, hardships or setbacks. I have always been in awe of Holocaust Survivors. I tried, but for much of my life I could not fathom what they had been through. Every Holocaust Survivor has a unique experience, but all have suffered loss and terror beyond imagination. They are my true heroes and I think about them daily – the ones I’ve met in person, and through books and movies. Their will to live, attitude of perseverance, hope for future generations, and willingness to share their personal heart-wrenching stories, so we can learn from them and keep their lessons alive, is inspiring.
And yet, following the shooting, I felt guilty listening to others who called my fellow MSD teachers, my students and me “survivors.” The survivors I’ve always associated with that word had nothing left after the war - no family, no possessions, no therapy, no service dogs, no support. Many were often told to “shake it off, move on, try to forget it, make a NEW life!” But, like them, we did survive a tragedy that needs to be told.
The value of sharing Holocaust Survivors’ stories and our own is very much motivated by my experience teaching a Holocaust course that was started at our school 5 years ago, to help students understand that the study of genocide is imperative to upholding world democracy. It is a yearlong course, divided into a History of the Holocaust semester and Literature of the Holocaust semester. There was no precedent for this class at our school, so the language arts teacher and I reached out for recommended resources from Echoes & Reflections. We based our curriculum on the comprehensive material in their original Teacher’s Guide and on their website, which provides educators and students access to Holocaust Survivor video history testimony to teach the lessons of the Holocaust. Motivated by these lessons, over the past 5 years MSD High School has had numerous speakers, such as Holocaust Survivors, liberators, and WWII veterans come talk with our students about the impact of this important historical event. We make an annual spring luncheon for area Survivors where the students are hosts, servers, entertainers, and most importantly – listeners. We also hosted a Kristallnacht commemoration event in 2017 with a Holocaust Survivor Band and invited the entire community. In essence, we are continuously trying to expose the students and our community to the lessons of the Holocaust through a personal lens in the hopes that others understand that hate is NEVER okay, being a bystander is NOT okay, and that we must all learn to be upstanders. In many respects, these lessons are no different in the aftermath of the shooting at MSD.
I was teaching a Holocaust Studies course at MSD on February 14, 2018 in room 1214 on the first floor of the 1200 building, when a former MSD student began to shoot up our school. I have been teaching at MSD for 18 years and 10 of those years were spent in room 1214 – a Happy Learning Place for me and my students. The walls were adorned with posters of photos of Holocaust victims and there was a large yellow banner in the back of the room that stated: “We Will Never Forget”. That banner was given to me by a Holocaust Survivor. Although this room was dedicated to honoring the atrocities of the past, it was also a room full of promise and hope.
That day, we began the 90-minute class with student presentations on how to combat hate and hate group tactics that may be present on their soon-to-be college campuses. We then moved on to an IWitness activity from the USC Shoah Foundation about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and we watched testimony from German Jewish Athletes who were banned from participating. During the activity we started a discussion on important players during those Olympics and I asked if they knew Adi Dassler. Nicholas Dworet, a senior who just earned a swimming scholarship at the University of Indianapolis, knew it was the German shoemaker who started Adidas! We were all so impressed and he was smiling ear to ear, just as we heard loud shots in the hallway outside our classroom door.
The students immediately flew from their desks to find cover, in a classroom that had no Safe Space. Within seconds, the shooter was blasting his AR 15 into the glass window that runs vertically down the center of the door. The sound was deafening as the bullets flew through the glass randomly aiming at anything that moved. It was complete chaos. Students screamed while they watched their classmates, their friends, get hit with a barrage of bullets. The shooter wounded four of my students and murdered two beautiful souls, Nicholas Dworet, the star athlete, and Helena Ramsay, a beautiful young lady who stated at the beginning of the year that hate would someday be eradicated. They will never fulfill their dreams for the future, as those dreams died in the very class where they were learning how to combat hate. The lessons of the Holocaust came into room 1214.
Following the tragedy, the #NeverAgain movement was not a coincidence. The students over the years who took the Holocaust Studies course knew this slogan, studied this slogan and realized after this shooting, that it was up to them to make changes. Most of the March For Our Lives students learned the term “upstanders” in Room 1214. In part, this learning experience sparked a youth movement that is unstoppable, and my students have set an example for youth around the world. What they do matters! Following the tragedy, not taking action was NOT an option. Speaking out and speaking up on causes such as gun control, school safety, voter registration, and mental health reform has become a key focus in our community and many others have taken their leads from the students in Parkland.
So, like the Holocaust Survivors that we treasure, we too, have a story to tell and it becomes everyone’s responsibility to pass it on. As you walk out the door of my new classroom – a portable among many temporarily placed on the outdoor basketball courts, you can’t miss a very large Echoes & Reflections poster with a quote from the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel: “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.”
We now live by these words: "If we don’t do it, who will? The world is watching."
About the Author: Ivy Schamis is a Social Studies teacher from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
I do not remember my Mom ever sitting me down and telling me the whole story of how she came to America from Austria, rather the details seemed to unfold over my lifetime, but the primary points were there from as far back as I can remember. She was six, her brother was four… Kristallnacht had happened, and her parents felt the only way they could secure the safety of their children was to send them to America with a family friend who would shelter them across the ocean.
The year was 1939 and once in NYC they moved into an orphanage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Meanwhile, my grandmother stayed in Vienna to care for her elderly parents and my grandfather boarded the MS St. Louis – often called the “Voyage of the Damned” – planning to settle in Cuba and then send for his family to join him. Unfortunately, upon arrival into Cuba’s harbor, my grandfather learned (along with all the other St. Louis passengers) that the documents he had paid so dearly for would not gain him entry into Cuba, which admitted only about 30 of the 937 passengers (those who were not Jews or had special visas). The passengers not admitted sat in Cuba’s harbor for 40 days while the world debated their fate, ultimately returning the ship to Europe where many perished at the hands of the Nazis. But my grandfather survived the war in a UK POW Camp, ultimately joining his children in the USA (via Canada with less than $2 in his pocket), while it would be ten years before my grandmother was reunited with all of them. And then, she would die within a year of her arrival here.
A few details came early – my mother does not remember being scared during the journey to the USA but clearly remembers feeling very cared for at the orphanage. Although the orphanage cut the hair of the children there very short in an effort to make it easier to care for them, understanding all that my Mom had lost already, they left her long golden curls intact. She worried about her brother more, shifting even at that young age from sibling to caretaker. They wrote letters to a cousin in neutral Switzerland who in turn wrote to their Mom in Vienna, relaying messages back and forth.
My grandmother kept diaries the entire time (they formed the basis for a book my uncle published in Austria with help from my mom and a professional historian/writer a few years ago) and in reading their translations, the war, the Holocaust, and all that happened in her world made the facts of history very real and personal for me. I felt her pain – shared her sorrows – so wished I had known her.
So much of my mom’s story shaped who I am and what I have done with my life. The lessons I took away from it – the family friend whose name I do not know but who brought my mom and her brother to the USA, taught me that one person can truly make a difference – one person made it possible for their lives to be saved. The fate of the MS St. Louis passengers showed me what happens when the world turns its back – when no one cares. The kindness shown to my mom at the orphanage taught me how important even small acts can be. And, as I became a mom myself, I have come to understand the extent to which we as parents will put the well-being of our children above the pain our decisions to help them might cause us.
These lessons stay with me. When I walk the refugee camps – from Darfur to Jordan to Kenya to most recently, Bangladesh, I see my mom’s face on every child I encounter. I hear my grandfather’s voice when talking with those who feel the world has forgotten them. I shudder as I see history repeating itself and hear parents and families share the pain of separation and the horrors that brought them to this point.
But, equally, I try to remember how much even one small act can mean and to push myself to take on that challenge. I relish every smile I can help bring out and every song I sing with kids in languages that leave us all unsure of what it is we are actually singing. I push myself to play soccer in the camp’s 100+ degree heat because it is a way of connecting and of forgetting where the soccer game happens to be. I offer my hand when a lack of a common language prevents any other form of communication and try to make eye contact whenever it is culturally appropriate. And as I do so, I am reminded to be thankful for all that I have, for every experience I have been blessed to be part of, and for the many good people with whom I have been privileged to share my life.
And, I understand that just as my mother was an innocent caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust, so too are the many kids I encounter at every stop that I make I understand how important it is to not focus on the numbers but to remember that each number represents people – real people. I long for the day that the world sees ALL children for what they are – CHILDREN… not refugees, migrants, aliens, or defined by the borders they happen to be born between or the color of their skin or the faith they practice or the heritage that makes them who they are – just CHILDREN first and foremost. Children do not get to pick where they will be born, whom they will be born to, or under what circumstances. If they did, they surely would not choose poverty, conflict zones, or abusive situations. After all, they are children. And, we are the grown-ups.
Teachers especially are the grown-ups who work every day to empower students with the knowledge, empathy, and awareness they need to be the next generation of global citizens. So whether it is by bringing in classroom resources like UNICEF Kid Power that build students’ skills and connections as global citizens, teaching with lessons from Echoes & Reflections, or connecting with community organizations locally, I encourage all teachers to continue to lead the way by helping students believe that they have the power to make a difference in this world. Let us learn from the past and take whatever action – large or small – that is within our individual power and create a world in which we put CHILDREN FIRST.
About the author: Caryl M. Stern is the President and CEO of UNICEF USA. A dynamic change-maker, Stern has dedicated her career to helping others through education, compassion, advocacy and rolling up her sleeves.
This past summer I traveled to Poland as part of Echoes & Reflections Advanced Program with Yad Vashem with a group of educators, where we were surrounded by hate from the ghetto in Warsaw to the ghetto fields in Lodz. We stood at Birkenau together to bear witness to the greatest atrocity in the human world, fueled by hate — and by a particular strain of hate: antisemitism. As I landed back in the United States my heart was overwhelmed with the idea that hate can cause so much harm. While I understood this, to witness it gave me a whole new perspective.
Today, it has become clear that you do not have to travel far to find hate. My heart was riddled with overwhelming sadness and defeat as I entered my classroom the day after the shooting in Pittsburgh, PA. My heart once again sat in disbelief and shock as I thought about how to talk to my students about hatred and how it had reared its ugly head in a beautiful city with a thriving Jewish community. Now antisemitism was not thousands of miles away in Europe and did not occur decades prior. It was here, now, in Pennsylvania, our own backyard. I wondered how my students would respond. Would they want to talk about gun control or the president? How would I steer the conversation back to where it needs to go? How would I answer questions that my students will pose? They will ask “why the Jews?” and while I know the textbook answer, I will have to say to them “I don’t know.”
As I look back on my trip to Poland, it is not hate that I am reminded of, but love. While it would be easy to say antisemitism and hate were the common themes, I challenged myself to see that love is the common thread that is woven throughout. Stories of people doing right in the face of terrible wrong, both active and passive resistance, and the undying will to survive. The question becomes “What do I do with that?” As an educator, how do I take the horrible suffering of a generation born decades before me and give it meaning? Then I remember the faces. The beautiful faces that were snuffed from this world too soon — mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, husbands and wives. I tell their stories and as a classroom and community, we learn their stories. I allow my students to feel through them the will to overcome hate.
I believe we can combat hate with truth, education, and unwavering love. Be a voice for the voiceless and let your love shine brighter than the hate in the world. When teaching the Holocaust I make every effort to focus on the rescuers and those engaged in resistance. Who are they? What were they doing to help? I ask my students “How could you help?”
Our small community is banding together and collecting donations to send to the synagogue in Pittsburgh. The message is clear: when hate shows itself, we must make our voices of love and humanity louder. Never again! Hate is sometimes just around the corner, but if we come together as a community, a state, a nation, a world, we can combat antisemitism and all forms of hate - one story at a time.
About the author: Deborah Hamilton is a middle school social studies learning facilitator at Northern Potter School District located in Ulysses, PA. Deborah encourages her students to stand against social injustice and to be a voice for the voiceless.
In the aftermath of last year’s events in Charlottesville, VA, Jennifer Goss, an Echoes & Reflections facilitator and classroom teacher from Staunton, VA, reflects on how “hate in our backyard” impacted her classroom and community. A year later she reflects on how her students’ study of the Holocaust has contributed to their healing process and gives them the skills to engage in respectful dialogue on complex issues.
Charlottesville. It has been one year since the city just a short trip over the mountain from mine became a word uttered in nearly every American household. A beautiful, quaint city, larger than my home of Staunton, but still just as lovely, was forever changed by the events of August 11-12, 2017. In the time that has elapsed since moments of hate touched Central Virginia, not a week has passed when it has not somehow come up in conversation. Whether it’s the description of where in Virginia that I live or the airport that I have flown out of to the location where I am speaking to an individual, the response is always similar, “Charlottesville...yes, I know exactly where that is.”
I’d like to say that in this year, I’ve discovered the answers to solve issues related to hatred and discrimination. I wish I felt like our nation and our world has made great strides. I’d like to be able to comment that incidents of hate have drastically diminished (Note: according to ADL reported incidents increased by 57% in 2017). Of course, those of you who have taken the time to read a column such as this know that sadly, this is still not our reality.
What I have discovered in this past year, however, is that there is power in community and conversation. The ripples of Charlottesville have made uncomfortable conversations rise to the surface and in doing so; have brought in new voices and opinions that may not have been ready or felt safe to speak out in the past. Not all of these voices are ones of agreement but there is power in that as well—learning to have effective discourse on issues that divide us is a critical issue in building stronger communities.
One of the places I have been privileged to witness this is within my own classroom and school. As a small Southern town, the issues of Southern history and heritage are part of our community just as they are part of the community of Charlottesville and many others throughout the South. Not all of my students approach this history from the same cultural and historical background but day after day, I repeatedly witnessed respectful and effective discourse on topics that had previously lay dormant. In our region, many schools and segments of our public infrastructure such as roadways bear the names of Confederate leaders. Some students believe that these names should be retained for the sake of marking the importance of local history while others wish to see the names altered because of their direct links to issues such as slavery and oppression. Many of my students were able to vote in our local elections this past spring and some made choices based on this very issue.
Despite differing opinions, most students are able to discuss their beliefs in a respectful and appropriate manner. I have been personally fortunate to witness this repeatedly in my classroom and believe that some of these very skills were facilitated by discussion of tough topics such as the Holocaust within the confines of our classroom walls. In the wake of the incidents in Charlottesville, I utilized the USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness mini-lesson Promoting Effective Conversation Skills, and I plan to make this a staple in my classroom, regardless of the subject I am teaching. The testimony of Holocaust survivor Henry Oertelt and the strategies employed in this mini-lesson helped my students consider ways to disagree but still respect one another. To me, the importance of skills like these goes beyond the content and I am grateful for tools such as this to help me in this process.
It is my hope that as these students go out into the larger nation and world, they will carry their effective conversational tools with them. These students can show the world that you can disagree and still shake hands and walk away from a conversation a bit more educated on what and why the other side holds their beliefs and opinions. These students can also educate others on the lessons they learned from studying the Holocaust—that every human being matters and how the path of hatred doesn’t always have to have the same conclusion. They will take the lessons of Holocaust survivors like Henry Oertelt, Kurt Messerschmidt, and Itka Zygmuntowicz and show the world that there is hope for a brighter future even in the complicated and seemingly uncompromising world that we are all trying to navigate today. It is our task as educators not to shrink away from complicated topics and histories but instead, to provide our students with the tools to navigate them respectfully.
About the author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012.
The advent of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games gives educators the opportunity to discuss this event’s influence in advancing mutual respect and understanding across the world. It is also an opportunity to examine how events like the Olympics are not immune to bias and injustice toward groups and individuals. This prejudice was especially evident at the Berlin, Germany 1936 Summer Olympics when Nazi ideology was taking hold in Germany.
Leading up to the Games, many countries, including the United States, considered boycotting the Olympics in protest of Nazi persecution of German-Jewish athletes like Margaret Lambert. However, many African-American leaders in the United States opposed the boycott, believing that the achievements of African-American athletes in Germany would challenge and delegitimize both the discriminatory policies in Germany and in the United States. The boycott did not occur, and in what many considered a controversial move, African-Americans Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe replaced two American-Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, on the US 4x100-meter relay team.
Although the reason behind this last minute decision was never confirmed, Glickman has stated that his coaches feared the optics of two Jewish athletes standing on the winning podium under the Nazi flag.
While the 1936 Games were originally an opportunity for Germany to convince the world of their false notion of Aryan supremacy, in a moment of victory, African-American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens defied the Nazi’s racist propaganda by winning four gold medals and breaking two Olympic records.
One would have hoped that Owens’s achievements at the 1936 Games would have had a profound influence on combating antisemitism and racism; however, history has shown that his performance had no immediate influence on the fate of those affected by such ideology. Following the 1936 Olympics, Nazi influence continued to grow, and the US would not officially abolish Jim Crow laws until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
A sign of the times in which Owens lived; President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not meet with the athlete to congratulate him, which was customary for returning Olympic champions. It was not until 1976 that sitting US president Gerald Ford formally recognized Jesse Owens by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Later in his life, Jesse Owens’s reflected on his homecoming:
"After I came home from the 1936 Olympics with my four medals, it became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, want to shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But none was going to offer me a job."
The story of the 1936 Olympics provides an entry point for students to grapple with complex questions. Despite Jesse Owens’s achievements, in the aftermath of the Games, why was he not given the same respect as other Olympic athletes? What prevented people from calling out the injustice and hypocrisy of Jim Crow, and why was no action taken by the world to prevent the Holocaust?
Such questions are not meant to undermine the determination of the few who were advocating for the freedoms of African Americans and Jews before, during, and following the Games. Yet, it is clear that the numbers were too few and progress too slow. This unfortunate delay in societal change makes it imperative to bring attention to the inaction that took place following the Games, in the classroom. We must give students the opportunity to explore the setbacks of this history so they can think critically about the world around them today, and make choices that will increase the pace in which freedom and equality are universally accessed.
For an in-depth look at how racism played a role at the 1936 Olympics explore this IWitness activity from our Partners at USC Shoah Foundation The Institute for Visual History and Education.
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