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.
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.
As a slightly younger educator, I came into the classroom with excitement and high hopes for teaching about the Holocaust. I had attended a reputable university that prided itself on turning out engaging and informed teachers who had undergone rigorous coursework and tight scrutiny during student teaching placements. One of my crowning achievements was crafting a complete Holocaust unit that I was eager to implement with students in my own classroom, an opportunity I had two years into my teaching career when I was allowed to create an “Introduction to Holocaust History” elective.
At this point in my career, I had not had any formal training on teaching the Holocaust. I had the privilege of learning from an excellent Holocaust historian and had just enrolled in a Holocaust and Genocide Studies MA program at a nearby university. I felt confident and well-equipped to work with my students, a sentiment that I now shake my head at after over a decade and a half of professional development in this field. I couldn’t wait to implement the cornerstone activity in my unit – a simulation fostered by my skilled university education professor that crowded students into a corner of my classroom while reading a short piece that had them imagining they were in a boxcar.
I look back now on that memory and that situation with a mix of shame and revelation. I subjected my students to this experience the first two years I taught the course, and it was not until I met my future mentor, Elaine Culbertson, that I realized just how misguided this practice was. At that time, Elaine was the facilitator of a conference I attended, and she pointed out that simulations, using the boxcar example, were never appropriate in the context of Holocaust education. She challenged their promotion by saying that thankfully, our students were having these experiences inside of climate-controlled classrooms, with school lunches in their bellies and a measure of stability in most of their lives. She explained that our students couldn’t understand this scenario, nor should we traumatize them into thinking that they could.
This was a transformative moment for me, and I am grateful that Elaine and resources like Echoes & Reflections came into my life. Through the use of these carefully curated resources and further professional development, my outlook on teaching the Holocaust significantly changed. I placed at the core a mantra Elaine shared with me – my job as an educator was “to lead my students safely in and safely out of this topic,” each and every day. I could do this by choosing responsible, age-appropriate content to share with my students and make sure that I was presenting it to them with suitable methodological approaches.
Within this context, I learned that instead of sharing images of dead bodies, my students were just as impacted by a picture of empty, piled up clothing. The latter did not give them nightmares and turn them away, instead it compelled questions and thoughts about the human beings who wore those clothes, shoes, and wedding rings. I also learned that memoirs and visual history testimony captivated my students in a way fictional films and books never could. Instead of leaving my class thinking that they “knew how it was” my students left with questions that they wanted to explore further and for some, it sparked paths into lifelong learning.
As educators, we have a significant responsibility to our students to lead them safely in and safely out of Holocaust content. To help you avoid or correct some of the same mistakes I made, I offer the following suggestions:
- Avoid having students rationalize/justify the thinking of perpetrators. Instead, ask them to explore the roots of Nazi racial ideology and how it was spread to the populations of Germany and occupied Europe. Echoes & Reflections Unit 2: Antisemitism contains structured lessons to help students reach these understandings by posing inquiry-driven questions and asking students to examine primary sources such as speeches and propaganda illustrations.
- Remember to keep the social and emotional well-being of your students at the forefront of your planning and rationale when choosing resources. Consider having students examine photographs from the Auschwitz Album instead of showing them post-death photos. The victims did not give their permission to be photographed in either scenario, but in the former, they are clothed and shown as human beings versus as a mass of anonymous, frightening corpses in the latter.
- Be sure to consider the age level of your students. While students may outwardly project maturity at young ages, research by educators such as Simone Schweber, author of Making Sense of the Holocaust: Lessons from Classroom Practice, show that introducing the more difficult aspects of the Holocaust at too young an age can actually repel students from feeling comfortable studying it in the future. When working with students in younger age groups, such as the middle school level, consider focusing more on the prewar life of Jews in Europe or on topics such as how Jews lived in the ghettos versus focusing on the horror of the Final Solution. Echoes & Reflections recently introduced new resources on prewar Jewish life in Unit 1: Studying the Holocaust. Our Unit 4: The Ghettos has some powerful pieces of poetry and other imagery that is also more appropriate for middle school learners.
- Select activities that ask students to critically approach the history and build empathy through the use of resources such as testimony instead of suggesting that students “simulate” events from this horrific era. Don’t ask students what they would do but ask them how testimonies like that of the late Roman Kent share what was done and the difficult choices that came along with these decisions.
- As my mentor Elaine, an Echoes & Reflections trainer, taught me years ago keep the mantra that Echoes espouses, “lead your students safely in and safely out” of this history, at the forefront of your efforts.
Ultimately, know that you are not alone in teaching this challenging history. If you have taken a misstep like I did early in my career, it’s never too late to do it better the next time around. Today, I am proud to share my mistakes as the Curriculum & Instruction Specialist for Echoes & Reflections and to let you know that this program is always here to support you in that effort.
About the Author: Jennifer Goss currently serves as the Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Echoes & Reflections. A 19-year veteran Social Studies teacher, Jennifer holds dual MAs in Holocaust & Genocide Studies and American History.
As this school year comes to a close—another surrounded by the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased violence and hate against the AAPI community, rising antisemitism, and other acts of racial injustice—members of our community share recommended books about the Holocaust, featuring stories of rescue, resistance, hope, and humanity in the face of tragedy, that may be a source of inspirational reading material over the summer months.
The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews
By Peter Duffy
Reviewed by Lynne R. Ravas
The Echoes & Reflections resource Students’ Toughest Questions helps educators prepare informed and thoughtful responses to challenging topics addressed in the classroom. The question, “Why didn’t the Jews fight back?” is one I heard repeatedly from my students, their parents and guardians, colleagues, and other interested people. Understanding life in a shtetl in Eastern Europe in the 1930s can be difficult for adults and students who have little exposure to lifestyles and religious traditions. Television, movies, and books about the Holocaust and Jewish life do not always address in depth the religious and moral beliefs of the victims. The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1,200 Jews by Peter Duffy presents the decisions and reasonings when a group of Jewish people did choose to fight back. Furthermore, their main priority was keeping all the Jews who sought safety with them alive. The philosophy, as expressed by Tuvia Bielski, was: “Don’t rush to fight and die. So few of us are left, we need to save lives. It is more important to save Jews than to kill Germans”. Duffy helps the reader understand these choiceless choices the Jewish people faced as well as the decisions they ultimately made. The reader is exposed to the harsh realities of how to fight back and save fellow Jews while weighing the religious beliefs as well as the moral beliefs of individuals and groups. As an educator, understanding what decisions were made under those particular circumstances will help students better comprehend the realities of fighting back and the power of spiritual resistance.
For more information on the Bielski Brothers, educators can also view this article from Yad Vashem.
About the reviewer: 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 Pittsburgh area.
Stories about Dita Kraus, the “Librarian of Auschwitz”
Reviewed by Kim Klett
I must confess; I typically avoid any recent book that has the name “Auschwitz” in it. Look at what American publishers did to Primo Levi’s incredible If This is a Man, changing the title to Survival in Auschwitz, as if readers wouldn’t understand the original title. Lately, I have seen too many poorly written, poorly researched novels on Auschwitz, and my guess is that publishers believe the name Auschwitz will sell copies, since there is an interest in Holocaust and WWII-related books. Recently, though, I had several readers tell me how much they liked Antonio Iturbe’s The Librarian of Auschwitz. I was surprised to find it in the young adult section at my favorite local bookstore, but immediately liked the fact that it names the librarian of the title, Dita Kraus, on the front cover. A few pages in, I was hooked. Iturbe did his research, telling a much broader version of what I had heard about Birkenau’s “family camp,” which consisted mostly of Czechoslovakian Jews, among them Dita Kraus, a 14-year-old girl there with her parents. The “library” consisted of eight books, all taken from suitcases on the ramp, and each lovingly taken care of and hidden away, except when it was safe to share them. Readers witness the selections that take place in this special camp, the interactions with the notorious Mengele, and daily life for some of the children there. The narration is beautiful, reminding me a little bit of The Book Thief; it definitely keeps the pages turning. Iturbe also includes a postscript, explaining how he got the information and what happened to the people whose lives unfold in the book. This is where I started searching for more books on the topic, and also highly recommend Dita Kraus’ beautiful memoir, A Delayed Life: The True Story of the Librarian of Auschwitz. While the memoir does not say a lot about her time in the “family camp”, it is rich with details of her life in Prague before the war, as well as her post-war life. I appreciate this because so many Holocaust memoirs focus mainly on the time in the camps, and while that is important, it is also crucial to see survivors’ full lives. Another book I checked out is one written by Dita’s husband, Ota Kraus, a novel called The Children’s Block. It is an interesting complement to the novel and to Dita’s memoir, but not one I would use in my classroom. I will be using both The Librarian of Auschwitz and excerpts from Dita Kraus’s memoir next year and I cannot wait to share them with my students.
Explore Yad Vashem’s online exhibition, The Auschwitz Album, the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to the mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau, to learn more about the Jewish experience in these camps.
About the reviewer: Kim Klett has taught English at Dobson High School in Mesa, Arizona, since 1991, and developed a year-long Holocaust Literature course there. She is a senior trainer for Echoes & Reflections, the deputy executive director for the Educators' Institute for Human Rights (EIHR), and a Museum Teacher Fellow with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Girl in the Green Sweater
By Krystyna Chiger & Daniel Paisner
Reviewed by Scott Hirschfeld
While searching for resources to support a lesson on extraordinary actions taken by ordinary – even flawed – people during the Holocaust, I stumbled across Leopold Socha, the Polish sewer worker and unlikely savior of a group of ten Jewish people. Socha’s story is part of a broader tale of survival recounted by Krystyna Chiger (later known as Kristin Keren) in her gripping memoir, The Girl in the Green Sweater.
Krystyna Chiger was born in 1935 in Lwów, Poland. At age 8, she had already lived two lives. The first half resembled, in her words, a "character from a storybook fable.” The daughter and granddaughter of successful textile merchants, Krystyna enjoyed a life of privilege in the midst of a bustling metropolis with a large Jewish population. This all changed when Krystyna was four years old and the Soviets occupied eastern Poland, followed by the Nazis two years later. By 1943, the Chiger family had lost their livelihood, their home, and their independence, and were forced into the ghetto in the north of Lwów.
As the Nazis prepared to invade the ghetto for a final “action” in May 1943, Krystyna's father, Ignacy, led the family to a secret hiding place he had prepared with an alliance of other men in the sewers beneath their ghetto dwelling. A group of 70 desperate escapees quickly dwindled to 20 and then 10 despairing souls, enduring against all odds in a rat-infested, fetid cavern for fourteen months. The Jews survived with the devoted assistance of three Polish sewer workers. The leader of the group, Leopold Socha, was a reformed criminal who sought redemption for past transgressions through kindness to others.
The Girl in the Green Sweater is noteworthy not just for its astonishing story of escape and survival, but for the humanity and moral complexity that Chiger brings to the unlikely assemblage of people. All of their stories are told with compassion and layered with the impossible ethical dilemmas forced upon a beleaguered people. Chiger’s most empathetic reflections are dedicated to her beloved Socha, who she says, “saw us as human beings instead of as a group of desperate Jews willing to give him some money for protection.”
Most of the ten Jewish escapees rescued by Socha survived the war and went on to rebuild their lives. As of this writing, Krystyna Chiger is the last surviving member of that group. The Girl in the Green Sweater may not be appropriate in its entirety for all student audiences due to the disturbing details of survival, but it is well worth sharing select passages that convey the humanity, hope, and courage of the Jewish survivors and their rescuers. And students can view the book’s namesake – the green sweater knit by Krystyna’s beloved grandmother and which kept her warm through the years of her ordeal – at the Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where it was part of a hidden children’s exhibition.
To learn more about Krystyna Chiger view her IWitness testimony, found in Echoes & Reflections teaching unit: Rescuers and Non-Jewish Resistance.
About the reviewer: Scott Hirschfeld has worked as an elementary and middle school teacher in the New York City schools and has led social justice education programs for several leading non-profit organizations, including ADL. Scott is currently a freelance diversity and anti-bias educator based in New Jersey and is part of the team working to update the Echoes & Reflections lesson plans and teaching units.
“…If you ever survive this war tell everyone how we went. Tell everyone how you said good-bye to me and remember one thing. Wherever you may be always wear a nice clean shirt and be clean. If someone throws a rock at you then throw them back bread.”
These are the words that Holocaust survivor Maurice Markheim will never forget. They comprise the indelible message that is etched into his memory as the last conversation he had with his mother.
When we viewed this piece, we were struck by these poignant and heartfelt words of love and kindness as well as the way in which Evan Hong, an eighth grader at Mariners Christian School in Costa Mesa, California, memorialized them by creating a wire silhouette as an art project her school submitted for Chapman University’s 21st Annual Holocaust Art and Writing Contest.
Last year, thousands of middle and high school students from across the United States and seven other countries, watched survivor video testimonies and responded to the contest prompt through prose, poetry, art, or film. This year’s contest, now in its 22nd year, challenges students to reflect upon and interpret the theme, “Sharing Strength: Sustaining Humanity.”
To prepare students to participate in the contest, many teachers turn to Echoes & Reflections, a valued partner in the contest, for professional development and to help them provide historical context to the testimonies that students watch. This year, Chapman University will team up with Echoes & Reflections to offer a contest-specific professional development program to highlight key resources that align with the contest, as well as effective strategies to further student engagement with the testimonies they view.
In our respective roles as the Associate Director and Education Consultant for the Rodgers Center at Chapman University, we have seen the contest grow tremendously over the years. What we think continues to be particularly appealing and, perhaps why many teachers participate year after year, is the contest’s way of combining study of the Holocaust with the hands-on participation in the arts, offering students a platform and a voice to process and express their thoughts and reactions and to make their own, individual meaning.
In fact, this contest might offer even greater benefits to those participating. Authors Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen, write in their Brookings Institute blog, New Evidence of the Benefits of Arts Education, that participation in the arts challenge us with different points of view, compel students to empathize with “others,” and give us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition.1
For example, Noa Nerwich, a middle school student from King David Linksfield School in South Africa, drafted the following poem based on the testimony of Holocaust survivor Ruth Halbreich. It examines how a simple, everyday object, a “Maroon Hankie,” became a meaningful, everlasting and valued connection to her father.
Cleanly pressed and folded it was placed into my hand
A last token of a soon to be memory
I received a maroon hankie
I didn’t know the value of objects, until had one
I didn’t know the value of people, until I had none.
But my one object carried all the worth in the world
A maroon hankie
I don’t know what happened to him
All I know is the walls were rising
And there were bombs, more people dying
And Warsaw was in flames: Red, licking flames
Like the colour of my maroon hankie
We watched the window, havoc unleashed on our home
Yet we were the opportune, we were on the right side of the window pane
The side where we still wore silky dresses made by the sisters.
The same silk of my maroon hankie.
I was lucky
Not because I was saved
But because I learned the true meaning of love
His love was sewn into my heart
The same way I held the hankie so tight at night
That its fibers have sewn into the fibers of my skin
Because of my father’s honour I survived
Because of his love for us he died
He sacrificed it all so we could breathe the air of freedom
To the man who gave to me
The thing that has carried all of my tears
A maroon hankie
His maroon hankie
This year as we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camps we were reminded that today’s students are the last generation to hear directly from the survivors. As we look to the future, one of the lasting artifacts we have are the survivors’ precious video testimonies, a permanent record that captures their stories, warnings, and memories. The testimonies also stand as the fulfillment of a promise that the eyewitnesses made to each other during the Holocaust, in which they vowed if they survived to tell the story, to let the world know what happened and to do their utmost to assure that these events would never be forgotten. Students who participate in the contest have now become their “messengers of memory,” the ones entrusted with perpetuating this vow for generations to come and, as a recent survey has shown, their exposure to Holocaust survivor testimony can support them in building a better future.
This year’s contest information is now available and educators are invited to participate.
For more information: Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest
Contact: Jessica MyLymuk at firstname.lastname@example.org, (714) 532-6003
Note: Last year, Chapman University had to cancel its 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest awards ceremony, which was scheduled on March 13, 2020, due to the Coronavirus. A virtual program is posted on the contest website and can be watched here.
About the authors:
Jessica MyLymuk is the Associate Director at the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University and oversees the planning and implementation for the Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest.
Sherry Bard is an Education Consultant for the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and a Senior Training Specialist for the Echoes & Reflections program.
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.
This piece was originally published in The English Pub (April 2020 Newsletter, pg 22-23).
In March, in the middle of the virus onset, conferences I had planned to attend began cancelling. Papers I’d workshopped with friends were put on hold, and opportunities to reconnect with colleagues and reinvigorate my inspiration to teach evaporated. It was about that time that I remembered the Echoes & Reflections organization I’d learned about at an NCTE convention. I’m always shy about undertaking new adventures alone, so I talked it over with a friend who teaches mathematics and together we embarked on an April training course in Teaching the Holocaust: Empowering Students.
I know quite a bit about the British Civil War and Victorian cultural shifts, but I know embarrassingly zip about 20th century history, so I had a lot to learn. I’d never puzzled over the meaning of the term “antisemitism” before. I didn’t realize that Jews weren’t allowed to be teachers. I wasn’t aware that a vast archive of firsthand records and artifacts is available to those who incorporate Holocaust studies in their classroom curriculum.
In this course designed primarily for middle and high school teachers, I was able to identify the connections I need to make in my university classes—to Shakespeare plays, to William Blake’s Romantic poetry, and to John Ruskin’s declarations that architecture tells the story of a culture if we read it with care and attention.
I learned about “bystanders” and “liberators” and the importance of defining such terms for students who are investigating Holocaust history for what may be their first encounter. I made note of the Glossary of terms Echoes & Reflections provides. I dove into the vast video archive and watched Paul Parks tell his story about meeting a woman who remembered him and his kindness from when she was a little girl in Dachau concentration camp and he was a soldier in uniform come to save her. His words, quoting hers, “I know you by your eyes” still echo in my soul as testimony of the importance of showing compassion to every child we encounter.
I learned about the Kindertransport that saved Jewish children by tearing families apart. I found a ready link to the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child. I examined the Pedagogical Principles for Effective Holocaust Instruction and considered their insistence that teachers Use Primary Source Materials, Encourage Inquiry-Based Learning and Critical Thinking, and Foster Empathy. These sound pedagogical approaches adapt readily to all that ELA teachers in Arkansas attempt in our classrooms, so the effectiveness of this direction rings true.
I took part in these webcasts: “`Who Will Write Our History?’: A Special Conversation with Director Roberta Grossman,” “Mindful Exploration: Resilience in Times of Change,” and “Echoes of Night: Personal Reflections from Elie Wiesel’s Student.” I connected with IWitness, part of the USC Shoah Foundation, and learned to create assignments there enabling students to access a wealth of video testimonials recording the accounts of witnesses.
There was no way to plumb the vast extent of free resources available to teachers in the three weeks I had, particularly as one of them was spent dodging tornadoes and without electricity and the other two were spent navigating my students’ transition to online learning and modifying and implementing my formula for assessing their performance. Final grades, after all, were due before the work for my course was complete. Nevertheless, I got a glimpse of the possibilities, and I have the summer before me.
I made note of the upcoming webcast Sherry Bard will offer on July 1st, “Creating Context for Teaching Night” and have bookmarked the link to other upcoming webcasts sponsored by Echoes & Reflections. Whether we directly teach Holocaust studies in our curriculum or not, developing a sensitivity to the topic and a sympathetic means of introducing it to students is essential to helping them understand the importance of an empathetic response to the world they live in.
The information I gleaned from my participation in the course has implications in my own classrooms as I teach research skills, composition, world literature, Shakespeare, and other courses. It will help me discuss the importance of developing communication skills and the responsibilities that come with education. It will help me explore with my students the importance of recognizing and defending the humanity of every child. It will enable me to share with them the power of voice that a treasury of records and primary documents provides, and it will highlight the wonder of memory.
ELA classrooms in Arkansas, or their virtual cousins, can feel a world away from the gritty realities of concentration camps in World War II Eastern Europe, but we have local the relics of Japanese internment camps in Jerome to remind us and reason enough to thank God the outcomes of those moments in Arkansas history differed from those of the Jews during the Holocaust.
About the author: Dr. Kay Walter is a Professor of English at University of Arkansas at Monticello. She can be contacted at email@example.com
The following is a reflection from Leah Warshawski, producer and co-director of the award-winning film about Holocaust Survivor Sonia Warshawski, Big Sonia. Leah will be joining an Echoes & Reflections Connecting Communities webinar in July to introduce the film to educators for their use in the classroom.
At this time when we are struggling through a global pandemic impacting our lives in the most profound and difficult ways, people are looking for models of resilience, unity, empathy, and hope. Sonia Warshawski, a 94-year old Holocaust survivor and my grandmother, is that kind of model.
In my film, Big Sonia, I sought to capture all of these emotions as Sonia shares her experiences with students, inmates, and her community - all from a small tailor shop in the bottom of a dead Kansas City mall. While the film is a poignant story of generational trauma and healing, it also offers a funny portrait of the power of love to triumph over bigotry and the power of truth-telling.
As I believe all teachers hope to achieve when they teach young people about the Holocaust or other atrocities in history, we wanted this film to inspire positive change in the world. That is why we ask viewers to spread the #SoniaEffect – to share what happens after people see the film and are fueled to action. Big Sonia has inspired people in ways we never imagined. Deeply moved by the film’s message, the Mayor of Kansas City declared an annual “Big Sonia Day” on December 21 to remind everyone of the power of kindness.
Making and distributing films is not for the faint of heart, but what keeps me motivated is the profound reactions from students. One example was from 14-year-old Luke, who shared,
“My favorite part was seeing how she brought vulnerability to the students. It is hard to be vulnerable as teenagers. She showed them that they should stand up for each other and value differences in their self and their classmates.”
Big Sonia has become our way to open important and difficult conversations, and the project has become our beacon of hope when the world around us doesn’t seem to make sense. With antisemitism and hatred on the rise in so many communities and across the globe, there has never been a more important time for this film, its themes, Holocaust education, and for Sonia herself.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonia was forced to close her tailor shop and stay at home. Her attitude towards her enforced confinement is a model for all of us when she says in a recent voicemail,
“I am still a free bird. I am not in the camps. I am not in the gas chamber. So, I am not scared…we will make it.”
Sonia’s powerful words bring comfort and perspective during this time of social distancing and give us the opportunity to re-examine connection, prioritize relationships, and ask: who do you want to spend time with and how do you want to spend your days? Sonia reminds us that we’re all connected just by being human and that we should always choose love over hate, no matter our circumstances.
Learn more about Big Sonia and how the film can support Holocaust education:
- Educators are invited to join Leah on July 16 at 4 PM EST for a webinar. Registered educators will receive a link to watch the 45-minute educational version of the film in advance and will receive a 50% discount to purchase the film and educational resources after participation.
- After watching the film, students can engage in this Big Sonia IWitness activity from USC Shoah Foundation to reflect on the power of personal testimonies.
- Kansas City area educators can register for a Big Sonia virtual program on June 10th hosted by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education here.
About the author: Leah Warshawski is an Impact Producer / Director with over 20 years of experience in the film/video industry. Learn more about her work here: www.inflatablefilm.com
This blog originally appeared in The Times of Israel
Ever since returning from the United States more than a week ago, straight to quarantine in Jerusalem, I have been debating with myself whether to write an op-ed about an uplifting experience I had in Greeneville, Tennessee during my trip. In “normal times,” I would not have thought twice about doing so, but with practically every person on earth focused on the coronavirus, I had strong doubts whether anyone would have the patience to read my account. Even worse, many of the readers might think that I had “lost it” completely and was now in “la-la land,” cut off from our dismal reality.
In any event, after almost eight days of total isolation, during which I finally mastered the art of online shopping, and internalized the fact that in Jerusalem one has to order groceries about five days before they actually arrive at your doorstep, I decided to take the leap and sit down and recount what happened almost three weeks ago in a small town in Tennessee. I hope that at a minimum, this story will cheer up a few of our readers, and remind them that there is a world out there, that we all will hopefully return to, in the near future.
I first became aware of the town, when I received an invitation to speak at an annual “Holocaust Conference of Eastern Tennessee,” which was scheduled to be held in Greenville in early March 2020. The invitation came from Noelle Smith, the young assistant principal of Greeneville High School. She is an incredibly enthusiastic member of the growing cadre of teachers who utilize “Echoes & Reflections,” an online program sponsored by Yad Vashem, ADL and the USC Shoah Foundation to encourage and help train teachers how to teach the Shoa to elementary and high school students. The program also offers the teachers an opportunity to attend a special two-week seminar at Yad Vashem, or to visit the death camps in Poland, as well as webinars on special timely topics.
Noelle had participated in the course at Yad Vashem at which I gave a lecture on the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, as well as a special webinar on the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, in the wake of the recent Netflix series. Thus, when she heard that I was coming to the States to launch the English version of the book Ruta Vanagaite and I wrote on Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes (Our People; Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust, Rowman and Littlefield, 2020), she inquired whether I would be willing to speak at the upcoming annual Holocaust education conference she and Tennessee Holocaust teaching fellow Lori Wilhoit were organizing in Greeneville, with the help of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, headed by Knoxville attorney Lawrence Leibowitz, and with the assistance of its Education Director Devora Fish.
Normally, I would not jump at an opportunity to speak to children under 18, let alone elementary school students, because of the complexity of the issues I usually discuss in explaining the challenges I face as a Nazi-hunter. And when Noelle told me about the expected size of the audience (two groups of 1,000 students each, ranging from age 10 to 18), I was very hesitant, but her enthusiasm, along with the encouragement of my friend Sheryl Ochayon, who coordinates the Echoes & Reflections program at Yad Vashem, convinced me that it would be important to speak at the conference.
Getting to and from Greenville was a bit of a shlep, but my experience at the conference more than made up for it. The venue was the First Baptist Church, which had the largest auditorium in town, and as promised, each of my two lectures were before an audience of 1,000 students and about 60 teachers and interested adults from the area. The program included greetings from Lawrence Leibowitz, who has played an important role in promoting Holocaust education throughout the state, as well as a wonderful speech by Carla Kesterson, the 2020 recipient of the Belz-Lipman Annual Teaching Award for excellence in Holocaust education, who explained in a very convincing manner to her young audience why it is vital to learn about the Shoah.
Given the relatively young age of the children, I devoted most of my lecture to stories about individuals, primarily about legendary Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Jasenovac concentration camp commander Dinko Sakic, the totally unrepentant Croatian mass murderer who escaped after World War II to Argentina, and whom I helped bring to justice in his native land. To my great surprise, the audience was a model of decorum, and there were no disturbances whatsoever. On the contrary, I had a very attentive and appreciative audience, as evidenced by the large number of questions posed by the students, especially the younger ones, after the lecture, some of which were a bit surprising.
Thus along with the usual queries such as: How many Nazis have you caught? [Several dozen] Did you always want to be a Nazi-hunter? [No, my fantasy was to be the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA] How did you become a Nazi-hunter and did you accept the job right away? [Read my autobiography.] How much money was offered for information leading to the arrest of a Nazi war criminal? [In the case of Mauthausen sadistic doctor Aribert Heim 310,000 euros; in other cases up to 25,000 euros] Who was the most famous Nazi you caught? [Dinko Sakic], I fielded questions such as: Is Nazi-hunting profitable? [I’m not in it for the money!] and Who are the most famous people you met? [the most recent was Serbian President Vucic]. And to top it off, literally, there was the young student who, after his question was answered, yelled out: “I like your hat,” i.e. my kippa.
If there was a discordant note in the entire day, it took place in private. One of the oldest students approached me after my second lecture to ask me whether I believed in Jesus Christ. When I replied in the negative, he was so disappointed that he didn’t wait for my explanation that Jews are still waiting for the Messiah. While that encounter was somewhat unpleasant, the next day’s headlines in the local media provided an amazing postscript to the conference. The US Justice Department announced that they had obtained a deportation order against a 94-year-old German concentration camp guard living in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Needless to say, Noelle made sure to inform all the teachers who participated in the conference of the wonderful news, which strongly reinforced my message to the students about the importance of justice, even many years after the crimes had been committed.
During these trying times, the thought of 2,000 non-Jewish children and 115 teachers being educated about the Shoah by such enthusiastic educators so dedicated to the task, is a very comforting thought. A ray of light in hard times and an important reminder that “Ha-olam LO kulu negdeinu!”
One day, hopefully very soon, the coronavirus crisis will pass, our fears will recede, and life will return to some semblance of normalcy. And then we can return to our contemporary concerns about many other important issues, including anti-Semitism , Holocaust memory, and we can also more fully appreciate what is taking place in Greeneville, Tennessee.
Best wishes to all our readers for good health and if necessary, speedy recovery!!
Dr. Efraim Zuroff
About the author: Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center's Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.
In a climate of increased antisemitism and other hate-related incidents, working to encourage empathy and empathic leadership certainly seems to me to be profoundly important in today’s world.
When I was five years old, my mother presented me with a pair of ice skates that she had worn as a child. She could hardly get the words out to tell me about this special gift and I can still envision her tearful face that day long ago. These were not ordinary ice skates. They were brown and old and didn’t look at all like the pretty white ice skates that my friend’s parents had bought them at the local store. This was no typical presentation of a childhood artifact to an offspring. These skates had been worn by my mother when she was growing up as a happy Jewish child in Vienna, Austria, before the Nazis took over in March of 1938. These skates were a physical testament to her life before her parents (my grandparents) were murdered in The Holocaust. My mother had taken these skates with her when at the tender age of thirteen, she was forced to leave her parents a few days after Kristallnacht. These skates had then been hidden under the ground for the three horrific war years that my mother had spent in hiding without her family and as a teenager in Holland. These skates were the embodiment of her survival and of her profound losses: of her childhood, home, country, family, and even her sense of self.
I knew that I didn’t have relatives, and that something horrible had happened to my mother. But this actual physical manifestation of her trauma shown to me when I was young left a profound impact on my life. It shaped who I am and started my own journey toward developing empathy toward others’ suffering. More importantly, directly hearing and seeing the terrible impact of trauma created a desire in me to want to work to develop empathy in others and try to create a better world. Throughout this work, I consciously utilized what I understood about my personal connections to my family’s Holocaust stories, to reach students and help them to care about others.
Research shows that when students learn to become more empathic, they improve their communication skills, lessen the likelihood of anti-social behavior, demonstrate higher academic achievement, and develop more positive relationships. Research also shows that these skills can assist students to achieve more success in an increasingly complex world.
How Holocaust Education Can Support Educators
Testimony from Holocaust survivors and witnesses as well as artifacts, like my mother’s ice skates, are useful tools for developing empathy among students. The Echoes & Reflections Holocaust education program offers us reflective ways to develop these important skills, specifically through their collection of visual history testimony provided by USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness and the featuring of artifacts and primary sources in their lesson plans. Hearing from Holocaust survivors and witnesses is one of the strongest predictors of citizenship values, as reported by the Journal of Moral Education. When a student watches and hears visual history testimony, they become connected to that person in a way that wouldn’t be possible through another medium. With support from Echoes & Reflections resources, educators can work with students to help them do a deep dive into analyzing testimony and be better able to tap into their imaginations and develop their ability to understand another person’s experiences. Visual history testimony can be used to teach listening skills, how to read body language, and how to have an increased understanding of personal emotions.
To facilitate this process, educators can ask their students to focus on particular aspects of a person’s testimony and ask students to answer pointed questions such as:
- “How does this testimony make me feel?”
- “What specifically do I notice about the person’s tone of voice and body language throughout the testimony?”
- “Does the person’s body language change when they are speaking about different incidents and if so, what does this change tell us about the person’s experiences?”
- “What does this remind me of in my own life?”
- “What might I do differently in my own life after seeing this testimony?”
Employing these questions, educators can facilitate classroom discussion, encourage journaling, and foster ongoing reflection projects. Educators can also use these ideas in exploring many other Echoes & Reflections resources such as photographs, literature, poetry, artwork, and other primary sources to better foster empathy.
For me, the ice skates that my mother gave me that day long ago became the embodiment of the reason for the need for empathy. Holocaust education can cultivate that skill in our students so that future generations will foster empathic leaders and improve the world.
About the author: Evelyn Loeb LCSW-R is a retired school social worker and clinician. In addition to serving as a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, she facilitates programs for the "A World of Difference Institute" and "Words to Action"( Confronting Antisemitism) for ADL.
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.
I am fortunate to be able to teach a semester-long senior level Holocaust Studies elective. I teach in a small rural school; thus, most if not every student who elects to take my course had me as their Civics or U.S. History teacher. On day one of the class, I am upfront with what students can expect, or, not expect. They should not expect Holocaust Studies to be the same as my previous two courses. There are no simulations, games, or any of the other multitude of means I typically use to engage students. Students are not going to “pretend” to be in Auschwitz. They aren’t going to build “models” of a concentration camp or wear the Star of David on their clothes to “simulate” what it was like being a Jew in the ghetto. I set the tone for what students should expect: they should expect deep and meaningful learning about a period of history that may upset them and will likely leave them with more questions than I can answer.
My Holocaust Studies course is a relatively new addition to our school’s History Department, and while it is vastly different from my other courses, it continues to evolve. Upon receiving permission to institute the Holocaust course I was advised of the vast teaching resources offered by Echoes & Reflections. Creating a curriculum map was simple: Echoes had already laid out a scope and sequence via their lessons. They had handouts, videos, survivor testimonies, lists of questions to ask, and much, much more. However, despite my good intentions, as a novice Holocaust instructor, I tended to initially focus on the horrors.
In 2018 I was fortunate to be selected as one of 20 United States educators for the Echoes & Reflections inaugural Journey through Poland with Yad Vashem, visiting Holocaust-related sites, during the summer of that year. During our visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow I heard something I will never forget as an educator. The Director of the museum advised us that many educators focus on the “car accident” of the Holocaust; in other words - they start with the gas chambers. If we stumble upon an accident scene, what draws our attention are the mangled vehicles, the injuries, and the possible deaths; the Holocaust is no different. What draws attention is often the carnage in and of itself. He iterated that car accidents have a history; something led to the accident. There are stories involved. Again, the Holocaust is the same. The story does not begin in the forest outside Vilna, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or Treblinka, or in the gas vans of Chelmno - the story is complex and involves human beings with a rich history and culture. It involves perpetrators who made choices, that led to one of the, if not the largest genocide in recorded human history. It involves millions of stories - not all of which can be told in a semester-long course.
After my trip to Poland and visits to sites such as the former Warsaw and Lodz Ghettos, sites of mass graves of Jews murdered by the SS, Chelmno, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, I was invigorated to vastly improve my Holocaust course. I felt a sense of responsibility to ensure I was honoring the victims and survivors alike and took several steps to alter my course. An initial change was to the first unit of study which now focuses entirely on pre-war Jewish life, an aspect completely missing from my previous classes. Further, I amassed a library of non-fiction books written by or telling the stories of survivors. I did this through grants and a Donors Choose campaign. Students are tasked with choosing a book to read and sharing the story with their classmates. While Elie Wiesel’s Night is a masterpiece, there are countless other stories written by survivors, giving different perspectives on the multitude of aspects of the Holocaust. I also include an activity that I was blessed to do for my Poland trip. Each student chooses a victim of the Holocaust, does research, and tells their story to the class, in a sense, providing the victims with a eulogy. I was able to do this for Jewish football player Eddie Hammel as we stood next to Crematorium II in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Holocaust education remains extremely vital. While it is definitely a means to memorialize the victims and thwart Holocaust denial and distortion, it is much more. It is a study of choices, of human resolve and responsibility to others, and a case study of hatred and its consequences. Unfortunately, antisemitism remains prevalent in our society, manifesting itself last fall at the Tree of Life Synagogue Attack in Pittsburgh, the largest mass shooting on a Jewish community in the U.S. Further, racist and discriminatory choices are still being made in today’s world that denigrate and segregate others, and at times, lead to acts of violence.
Thankfully, many states realize the importance of Holocaust education. Twelve states require it to be taught in their public schools, while a dozen other states have bills pending in their legislatures. However, it should not take a state mandate to realize its significance. I implore you, as a teacher, to truly reflect on teaching the subject. Are you focusing just on the “car accident?” Are you asking students to take the perspective of a survivor or victim? Are you simulating anything at all? Are you doing your due diligence and taking the responsibility to ensure Holocaust education is handled in a respectful, proper manner? Teaching about the Holocaust can be challenging for educators, but thankfully, there are programs and resources that exist to support teachers in tackling this important and complex topic.
About the author: Dr. Joe Harmon is a Civics, U.S. History, and Holocaust Studies teacher at Redbank Valley High School in New Bethlehem, PA where he has taught for the last 15 years. He is currently on the Educator Advisory Committee for Echoes & Reflections and is the 2018 Pittsburgh Holocaust Center's Educator of the Year.
Is it possible to teach respect for racial and religious differences?
This is a question I hear a lot from teachers who are committed to social justice but frustrated by mounting evidence of blunt and sometimes deadly prejudice. ADL recently confirmed that since 2016 antisemitism has dramatically increased in the U.S. and abroad. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SLPC) reports, “a surge of incidents involving racial slurs and symbols, bigotry and the harassment of minority children in the nation’s schools.”
It’s a fair question, and a rational one. Does classroom instruction on racial and religious tolerance make any difference at a time when intolerance is on the rise?
It does, and scholars have documented that studying the Holocaust and racial equality cultivates respect for diversity and fortifies democratic ideals. Teaching about the Holocaust is one of the most powerful ways to help young people understand the dangers of unchecked biases, and how, even in modern, democratic societies, these biases can escalate to catastrophic proportions.
In fact, the nation’s first program of anti-bias education was developed during World War II to “inoculate” American youth against Nazism. As one teacher insisted in 1941, “The most vital program of our country today and one, therefore, especially important to our schools is the promotion of the doctrine of tolerance as a means of knitting our nation into one closely integrated unit.” Scholars including the anthropologists Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead developed K-12 curricula—including comic books and animated films—designed to teach students that Judaism was a religion, not a race, and that there was no such thing as racial superiority.
Figure 1 An image from The Races of Mankind, by anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, in 1944. Anthropologists during World War II believed that teaching the scientific definition of race would undermine Nazi racial doctrines and fortify American democracy.
Times of crisis, like World War II, force educators and politicians to recognize that unchecked bias is a direct threat to American democracy. That is why antiracist education became so popular during World War II, as I document in my book, Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954.
It’s also why anti-bias education is such a hot topic today. Anti-bias education is designed to address prejudices including racial, religious, ethnic, gender, sexuality, social class, and immigration status. Teaching young people to identify and resist biased attitudes usually includes a study of historical events where small prejudices grew into acts of discrimination, which, in some cases, escalated into state-sponsored violence and genocide. The Pyramid of Hate found in Echoes & Reflections offers students a graphic representation of this danger.
As the Director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Project at Montclair State University (MSU), I have seen interest in our anti-bias programs surge since 2016. Our Holocaust education workshops fill up with a diverse group of people including not only K-12 teachers, but also school administrators and college students. Other human rights programs such as Native American environmental justice and support for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGTBQ) students are also popular. Educators are ready to teach lessons emphasizing respect for diversity and equality—what they need is more support.
This is where higher education has a vital role to play. American colleges and universities can support stronger and more robust anti-bias education in our K-12 schools. The question is, how?
First, universities can host professional development workshops such as Echoes & Reflections for K-12 educators and student teachers, including alumni. These workshops offer hands-on training in how to teach about the Holocaust—a topic that many K-12 teachers are nervous or unprepared to talk about. Participants gain access to online teaching materials including primary historical documents, photographs, interactive maps, and survivor testimony and are provided with models of how to incorporate these texts into effective lessons. Special thematic workshops on topics like antisemitism or immigration help teachers make direct connections between the Holocaust and current events. At MSU, we find that blended workshops with K-12 educators and student teachers create especially dynamic spaces. What is more, when a prominent university hosts a social justice education workshop for local teachers, it signifies to the broader public scholarly support for anti-bias education.
Second, scholars and university administrators can advocate for legislation requiring anti-bias education in public schools. New Jersey is a leader in this area. In 1994 state legislators mandated education on the Holocaust and genocide. Earlier this spring, New Jersey passed a law requiring instruction on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender social, political, and economic contributions. These laws provide critical support for anti-bias education in public schools, especially in communities where such lessons may be seen as controversial. In New Jersey, teachers can point to state law and continue the hard work of teaching children to understand and respect one another’s differences. The New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education coordinates anti-bias education through a network of centers located the state’s public and private colleges and universities. Despite New Jersey’s success as a leader in anti-bias education, few other states have similar structures in place. If more states required and supported anti-bias education, it would expand training, resources, and support for K-12 teachers.
Figure 2 A Human Rights Education Intern at Montclair State University teaches about the Syrian refugee crisis to local middle school students.
Third, universities can mobilize our greatest resource to promote anti-bias education—our amazing students. MSU hosts a Human Rights Education Internship, where undergraduate students can apply to train as professional human rights educators. Interns select a specific human rights issue and spend a semester learning about human rights law, researching their selected topic, developing an effective lesson on it for a secondary school audience, and then teaching it in a local school. This spring we hosted a “Human Rights University for a Day” at Montclair High School, where interns taught lessons on Holocaust denial, the gender wage gap, juvenile incarceration, school segregation, religious tolerance, the Central American refugee crisis, the healthcare crisis in Venezuela, child labor, and colorism. The internship serves two purposes—first, it allows undergraduate students to train as human rights educators, skills they will carry with them into their future professions. Second, the internship sends undergraduate students as human rights education ambassadors into local public schools, where they not only teach about important subjects that are not necessarily part of the regular curriculum, but where they also model what it looks like to be an engaged, socially conscious college student. Put plainly, human rights education interns inspire youth to go to college! The results are inspiring for both our interns and the high school students they meet, and help our university forge new relationships with our local community.
Is it possible to teach respect for racial and religious differences in K-12 schools? The answer is yes, but our teachers need more help and American colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to provide it.
About the Author: Dr. Zoë Burkholder is an Associate Professor of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University, where she serves as Director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Project (On Facebook: @MSUHumanRights). She is the author of Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race, 1900-1954 (Oxford University Press, 2011). She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in Education Week
The Holocaust is ancient history for many students
On May 2, Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Yom HaShoah), we remember the millions of Jewish and other victims killed during the murderous Nazi reign in Germany. Sadly, we only need to consider the shooting at a synagogue this past Saturday in Poway, Calif., to understand the importance of using classroom time to educate and reflect on this horrific period in history.
Not even two months ago, a photo showing students making a Nazi salute over a swastika made of Solo cups at a weekend party garnered extensive news coverage. This image came on the heels of another viral photo of a group of laughing young men who appeared to make the Nazi salute prior to a school dance. Swirling around these events have been Jewish cemetery desecrations, hate-filled graffiti, and even swastikas drawn in blood. Amid it all, we still grieve for the Jewish congregants shot dead at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall—and now Poway.
I am sure many have felt as I do: What is happening? What can I do about it? On an intellectual level, I know this is not new—hatred, violence, and targeting of the "other" have always been with us. The acts of violence may ebb, but these feelings are always there.
On a professional level, having spent the better part of 25 years working in anti-bias and Holocaust education, I feel some sense of personal failure. I know these incidents of antisemitism and other forms of hatred do not reflect the values and beliefs of the majority of people, but I can't help but question if the work I have done has mattered.
I recall my former colleague who would say that the work to counter hatred, antisemitism, and racism could sometimes feel like having a tiny pink Baskin-Robbins sample spoon, trying to chip away at a mountain of mistrust, fear, anger, ignorance, resentment, and downright apathy. She didn't use this analogy to discourage, but to inspire: If we all worked together, even with the smallest of tools, we could get there.
I've always framed my work, as many educators do, in three phases of impact: What do we need to know about an issue or topic, why should we care, and how can we act to make a positive difference? Or, in more poetic words, how do we inform the head, move the heart, and motivate the hands?
For those teaching the Holocaust, these three concepts could not be more vital and interdependent. What do we want students to know about this history? If you want to understand the why and how this genocide could have happened, you need a foundation of the what. The Echoes & Reflections Partners toiled for a year to distill the core historical content that now forms our 10 classroom units. Our goal was—and is—to guide teachers to build this essential knowledge with their students and to ask those critical questions of why and how at every step.
But knowing isn't enough; students have to care. The Holocaust is practically ancient history for many young people, and, for the majority of people in the United States, it is not their history. It's remote, it happened somewhere else, and it's over. This is where we must teach about the Holocaust as a human story. We should bring this knowledge to life through the integration of visual history testimonies and primary sources. We want young people to see, listen, and come to know that these were real people who had desires, dreams, hopes, and lives that were just waiting to be lived.
I could never guarantee that students who watched a testimony of a survivor describing his arrival at Auschwitz or read a poem by a girl left alone in the Lodz ghetto would reject the Solo Cup swastika game. But maybe, just maybe, they would make a different decision in that moment.
Which brings us to action. How do we create and inspire a sense of personal agency so that in the face of hatred or antisemitism—or when anyone is excluded or "othered"—we don't just walk away or swipe the screen?
When I began my work in this field, this step used to be primarily about an in-person response: Will you speak up if someone is being taunted? Will you call out an antisemitic comment or joke?
Today, for most adolescents, these moral choice moments are experienced online and at lightning speed. Does this make it easier or harder to speak (or type) out? Does it fuel a level of insensitivity to these issues that carries over to real-life choices and decisions? Does an intervention online have more or less power to impact the person who is being offensive?
These are the questions I have been wrestling with these past few months. On Yom HaShoah, this sacred day of remembrance for all those who perished during the Holocaust, I hope to start to find some answers. I will work to learn more about the experiences and perspectives of the adolescents in our country and what is driving some of them to engage in or ignore hurtful behavior—and how can we inspire more to stand up.
And I encourage everyone, not just educators, to do the same. At a time when it feels so hard to have these tough conversations, isn't it that much more important that we try? If we want our children to care, we must first care enough to listen to them.
About the author: Lindsay J. Friedman is the Managing Director of Echoes & Reflections. Previously, she served as the national director of the ADL's A World of Difference Institute.
As we enter Genocide Awareness month in April, we offer our community an inside perspective on how to approach the important, yet challenging subject of the Holocaust in the classroom. Seasoned Echoes & Reflections teacher Lori Fulton, English 11 & Technical Reading and Writing instructor at Mattawan High School in Mattawan, MI, lends her perspective and approach to inspire students with these lessons from history to prevent future acts of hate.
Why do you feel it is necessary to teach about the Holocaust?
Teaching students about the Holocaust should be the responsibility of instructors in all secondary schools. As a high school English teacher, I am amazed at how little my students know about this subject. Sure, they know a little about Hitler and gas chambers, but they have no idea how the Versailles Treaty connects to the Nazis, most of my juniors assume all the death camps were in Germany, and none are aware of the 10 Stages leading to genocide.
More importantly, the Holocaust requires studying to prevent genocide from happening again. We are raising a generation of students who will one day rule the world. They are subjected to the constant noise of social media, which unfortunately at times, is accompanied by hate speech. They all have a sort of cyber-courage that makes them vulnerable to saying things online they would never say to anyone in person. As a result, there is almost a sense of acceptance of anything online. With that potentially comes the notion of denying the Holocaust, something that must be addressed as wrong and dangerous.
We live in a world where words breed hate, not just on the internet but from the mouths of our politicians. We see vandals desecrating Jewish cemeteries and tagging buildings with swastikas, as well as Americans in parades wearing Nazi-like uniforms; we hear of news of a person going into a synagogue and killing innocent worshippers. Our students see and hear all of this and need to know that hate didn't end or begin with the events of World War II.
Why should I teach the Holocaust? If I don't, who will? Who will provide students with the resources, the knowledge, and the ability to help them make up their own minds about that horrific time in world history? It is my duty and my desire to help students realize genocide can happen again and, as the next generation of Americans, they must do everything in their power to stop it.
What are some recommended strategies for teaching such a sensitive theme? How do you approach this important yet complex topic with your students?
We must approach the subject of the Holocaust with students in a sensitive manner to help them understand, remember, and hopefully eliminate future genocides. This means sharing the stories of those who faced life-and-death situations simply because of who they were. We cannot replicate their experiences through simulations, but we can learn from the experiences of others.
I start by introducing the idea of antisemitism. From there, we study pre-war Jewry, the Treaty of Versailles, then how Hitler rose to power, steps leading to genocide, the Final Solution, resistance, liberation, and what happened to European Jews following WWII.
Furthermore, personal stories are essential ingredients in the teaching of the Holocaust. The testimonies on the Echoes & Reflection's website and USC Shoah Foundations’ IWitness powerfully say what I cannot say.
Holocaust Films, as well as literature, are also great tools to reel in my students. Most of them are visual learners, so having new resources available to meet their learning styles is important to teach this complex subject.
I have traditionally shown Schindler’s List when teaching about the Holocaust. I cannot think of a better movie for my juniors to really set the stage for deeper learning and truly connecting to the story of Schindler and the Jews he saved. We discuss many questions that arise from the film: Who else is considered “Righteous Among the Nations” in the eyes of Yad Vashem--and what does that mean? What would have happened if Schindler's ultimate objective to save Jews was discovered? What happened to the survivors after liberation? Would I have the courage to save someone if it meant my possible death?
Finally, I take my juniors to the Holocaust Memorial Center and Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan. For some of them, they have never been much farther than the next town over. A docent takes us through the museum to study the artifacts, as well as (again) the stories of individuals. This comes to the penultimate point of the unit where a survivor speaks to my students about his or her experience. This is life-changing for my students. Many are in tears by the end of the survivor's story.
If students are emotionally drawn into this experience, I feel I've done my job. They have seen a bigger picture of the Holocaust and genocide than they have ever seen before. History has come alive for them, but more importantly, they have come full circle in their learning experience. Most of my students will say the unit is the one they will never forget and graduates who return to visit express similar sentiments.
What specific resources would you especially like to highlight that support you in teaching about the Holocaust?
After spending several weeks last summer in Jerusalem as part of Echoes & Reflections Advanced Learning Seminar at Yad Vashem, I have gained deeper insight into resources that can support classroom instruction on the Holocaust. These include:
- Echoes & Reflections’ new timeline helps show the events leading up to when the Nazis came to power, as well as what happened as a result of it.
- Echoes & Reflections’ companion resource for Schindler's List, which includes survivor testimony, new handouts on historical context, and a series of discussion questions and writing prompts add to the unit and unpacking the film.
- The ADL Global 100 of Anti-Semitism. Students are shocked by the percentages of people with antisemitic attitudes in countries around the world. They simply cannot fathom the numbers. It also brings to light that hate still exists around the world.
Nothing, however, is more important than the testimonies of survivors as far as I'm concerned. Their recollections bring a perspective nothing else can-- not books, not films, not internet sources. The pathos of survivors’ experiences motivates my students to keep learning. Overall, the resources available from Echoes & Reflections and their Partners help enhance my unit on the Holocaust and genocide, making it relevant and inspiring to my high school juniors.
My mother used to enjoy telling everyone that when I came home from my first day of school, I told her I was going to be a teacher. That was 1959. I never changed my mind. I never wanted to be anything else. My journey began by teaching anyone who would humor me—siblings, cousins, kids in the neighborhood—anyone who let me practice my craft with a piece of chalk and a sidewalk, and in time, a real chalkboard. Funny that now, at the end of my career, those memories should come flooding back. It would make more sense to think back to 1975 when I did finally achieve my childhood dream and become a teacher, but clearly that was just one of the many milestones in my career; the journey began long before that and never ended.
That’s the way it is with most teachers; it is in our DNA. We plan, rehearse, and perform several shows a day, thriving on the energy of our audience, hopefully seeing questions form in invisible bubbles above our students’ heads as they ponder what they are hearing and seeing, always looking for an opportunity to go just a bit deeper, and convince those who would often prefer to be somewhere else, doing almost anything else, that this—whatever this is—is exciting and important. We adapt our material to meet a range of skill levels and look for any opportunity to infuse creativity and revise our lessons based on what is on students’ minds and what is happening around them. For me, nothing was more energizing and exciting than introducing young teens to the power of literature. To watch students explore the human condition through characters and conflicts and to respond in terms of their own experiences and growing understanding of the world around them with all of its complexity, mystery, and uncertainty was magical. I credit my junior high English teacher with lighting that fire under me as we read and discussed Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.
My story is not unique. Every teacher I’ve ever met has a story of how they came to the profession, how they accepted the responsibility and embraced the challenge to prepare the next generation to take their place in society, capable and confident. Teachers instinctively understand that for what amounts to but a few moments in time, we are a tremendous influence on young minds. What we do with those moments matters.
For the past 14 years, I have had the great fortune of serving as the ADL Project Director for Echoes & Reflections. In that role, I have had the honor of meeting and working with teachers across the country, hearing about the ways that they are helping students think about difficult topics and themes associated with the Holocaust. With every passing year, teachers have shared with me that the senseless acts of violence that have traumatized our communities—most recently the tragic loss of life at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha Synagogue—have made their jobs increasingly more difficult. They ask themselves how they can help their students make sense of events that they themselves are struggling to comprehend. But, they find a way. They understand and embrace the urgency. They put aside their confusion and sadness, and spring into action like all “first responders” do. They know intuitively that they must provide a safe environment where students can ask questions and engage in difficult conversations. They know how important it is that soon-to-be adults know how to separate fact from fiction and build their understanding of events based on sound evidence. They also know that they must encourage and model an optimistic attitude—one that sends a strong message that communities can heal and thrive despite overwhelming grief when good people act in positive ways. Teachers know that those first moments after tragic events matter, perhaps most of all.
These are difficult times. We have seen a rise in antisemitism and other forms of hate. We have watched as facts have been cast aside and loyalty to one group or another has become the lens with which we see the world. We have seen social media take the place of in-person relationships and institutions strain to inspire confidence in light of widespread cynicism and disillusionment. But, we must also remember that there have always been difficult times and there will always be challenges. The students we are teaching today need our guidance and attention as much as yesterday’s students did, as much as tomorrow’s will. We must remind ourselves that every year there are new students; we do not keep teaching the same ones over and over, and, in the end we have only a moment or two to add something to their story, something that we hope will last and have meaning.
It has been my honor and privilege to be an educator. I begin my retirement with a great sense of pride but also with unflinching confidence that our students will continue to learn and thrive because of the many dedicated teachers who make magic in classrooms across the country every day. It couldn’t be any other way…it’s in our DNA.
About the Author: Deborah A. Batiste has been the Echoes & Reflections Project Director at ADL for 14 years since the program's founding in 2005. In addition to being one of the key content developers, she has conducted professional development programs to effectively use Echoes & Reflections in the classroom in 40 states and the District of Columbia, reaching thousands of educators and community leaders. In 2019 she will begin her journey into retirement.
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.
As the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht approaches, I am drawn to the words of Holocaust survivor Kurt Messerchmidt: “Silence is what did the harm.” I can’t help but consider the relevance of this statement and Kurt's experiences during the Holocaust to the lives of my students. The anniversary of Kristallnacht, as well as my recent experiences in Holocaust education, provide a powerful teaching opportunity to examine the importance of recognizing personal narratives as well as the consequences of staying silent in the face of injustice.
This summer, through Echoes & Reflections—a partnership of ADL, USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem—I had the opportunity to travel to Poland with an incredible group of dedicated educators from across the United States and our guide, Sheryl Ochayon, the Program Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem. To say that it was an impactful experience doesn’t begin to encapsulate the enormity of what we learned and what we were able to bring back to our classrooms.
I am an educator at The Newcomer Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois and work with immigrant and refugee students that are newly arrived to the United States. My Newcomer students, many of whom have suffered trauma in their countries of origin, connect on a deep level with the study of the Holocaust. The fear and constant threat of violence, hiding to survive, the sense of displacement, and the loss of “home” are some of the things my students have already experienced in their short lives.
The trip to Poland—standing on seemingly forgotten historic grounds where violent pogroms occurred, walking through the deafening silence of concentration camps, and touring museums full of exhibits of what used to be Jewish life—provided me with a fresh perspective on an otherwise familiar topic. It was a reminder to find the individual stories in the lives of the more than six million victims of the Holocaust, and to remember that every single person, one-by-one, added up to six million. It was a reminder to teach my students that the six million are not a singular collective story of loss and by recognizing individual lives, cut short by cruelty and hate, is how we restore their humanity and work to ensure that future acts of hate cease to occur.
Every Newcomer student is a single story. Each student carries his or her own hurt, loss, and suffering. At times, unintentionally, and under the weight of the monumental task of preparing my students for new lives in the United States, I’ve exercised a version of “silence” by failing to recognize their pain. Without knowing it, I stopped hearing their voices.
I hope to always acknowledge my students and their plights as individual stories of resilience and hope. This is what I brought back with me from Poland. A fresh way of being an advocate for my students and a reminder to find the one in the six million. As educators, it is as important today as it ever was, to take every student into account and to help them find their voice. In the end, it is the silence that continues to do the most harm.
About the author: Mario Perez is the Coordinator and Social Science/Human Geography Teacher at the Newcomer Center in Arlington Heights, IL, a lifelong Chicagoan, and proud educator for over 18 years working with immigrants and refugees as they start their new lives in the United States.
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