Set among the bucolic farm fields and rural communities of southern Wisconsin, Clinton, where I live and teach, is the quintessential American small town. The center of the community's social life is the Clinton Junior-Senior High School, which prides itself on traditions, such as the homecoming parade, chili and cinnamon roll fundraiser, and drive-your-tractor-to-school day.
Holocaust education is an equally valued part of children’s middle and high school experience in this community, from reading survivor memoirs and novels to the annual 8th-grade trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. By the time students enroll in my junior-senior “Genocide and Human Rights” elective course, most of them have studied the Holocaust numerous times in their social studies, English language arts, and German classes.
Studying the Holocaust can serve as a bridge for teachers and students to incorporate other instances of genocide and mass violence in the classroom, including the genocide of Indigenous peoples. While Holocaust education has become an integral part of the curriculum in Clinton, students have little knowledge or even awareness of the local histories of Indigenous genocide. Students often struggle to name the Ho-Chunk as the Indigenous nation whose ancestral land the town and school are located. Not unique to students in Clinton, in big cities and small towns across the United States, there is little awareness of Indigenous communities and the violence perpetrated against them.
I have found that in my “Genocide and Human Rights” course, students’ prior experiences learning about the Holocaust provide inroads for teaching about the genocide of Indigenous peoples. The pedagogical recommendations from Echoes & Reflections and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are the bedrock of discussion on teaching hard history and are certainly applicable and advisable for teaching about other cases of genocide and mass violence. Recommendations, such as “contextualize the history” and “teach the human story,” are equally important in lessons on Indigenous genocide and the Holocaust, helping students understand the larger context that surrounds episodes of genocide and mass violence and the experiences of individuals. Furthermore, these principles have been guideposts to help me develop the following guidelines to support teaching about the genocide of Indigenous peoples.
Teach about Local Histories
In a neatly manicured park on the edge of Clinton stands the rough-hewn Skavlem-Williams Log Cabin, which, according to the accompanying historical marker, is a “visible reminder of the sacrifices made by early pioneers as they settled this area.”
Notably absent from the signage is any mention of the Indigenous inhabitants of this land. Like many communities across the United States, Clinton has a long history of excluding Indigenous peoples from local narratives that celebrate only Euro-American settlement and achievements. The practice of memorializing the “first” Euro-American settlers through monuments while simultaneously writing the perceived “last” Indigenous peoples out of existence is what Jean O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) referred to as “firsting and lasting.” In local histories, such practices further the myth of the “vanishing Indian,” or the notion that the Indigenous peoples vanished due to genocidal violence and assimilation by the end of the nineteenth century.
Examining this local signage inevitably leads my students to ask: who were the Indigenous peoples who lived on this land before the first Euro-American settlers arrived, what were their lives like, and, ultimately, what happened to them? These questions form the basis for our unit on Indigenous genocide. Fostering a classroom learning community that encourages students to ask such essential questions is the first step towards an inquiry-based approach to Holocaust and genocide education.
While students are generally aware of the so-called “Trail of Tears,” and some even may refer to this forced removal of tribes from the American southeast in the early 1830s as genocide, they know almost nothing about the local histories of dispossession and violence, such as the treaties that were signed with Indigenous communities or the Black Hawk War of 1832, which made Euro-American settlement possible in southern Wisconsin.
Teach about the Continuing Legacies of Genocide
Though one might point to specific events or instances of violence in nineteenth-century state or national history, the genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America has had far-reaching consequences stretching into the present. To elucidate the legacies of genocide for my students, I use Aaron Huey’s powerful TED Talk, “America’s Native Prisoners of War,” in which he uses contemporary photographs of the Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the poorest places in the United States, to show the legacies of centuries of dispossession, forced removal, and genocidal violence. Though it is important to show the realities of the legacies of violence for contemporary Indigenous peoples, communities have always resisted and survived, maintaining their cultural traditions, despite physical and cultural genocide. My students and I use a collection of video essays, “The Ways: Great Lakes Native Language and Culture,” to examine, for example, language revitalization efforts and the Manoomin (wild rice) harvest.
Partner with Local Indigenous Communities
If the opportunity presents itself, partnering with local Indigenous communities offers students an extremely powerful learning opportunity. Ho-Chunk oral tradition states, “we have always been here.” This unequivocal statement is a powerful salvo to challenge the exclusion and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples that students have experienced in classrooms and curricula. Importantly, I partner with local Indigenous communities to provide opportunities for them to share their collective histories and individual stories. In this way, genocide becomes one part of the larger story of Indigenous peoples, which neither begins nor ends with colonization in the nineteenth century. Just as the Holocaust must be contextualized in the broader history of European and Nazi antisemitism, Indigenous genocide must be taught within the larger context of colonialism. Additionally, partnering with local Indigenous communities helps eschew the foods-and-festivals approach to teaching about “foreign” cultures for in-depth discussions of treaty rights, language revitalization, and tribal efforts to buy back ceded/stolen land. For many students, these are difficult discussions bridging histories of genocide and contemporary realities based on legacies of mass violence.
Recognize the Difficult Nature of Teaching and Learning About Indigenous Genocide
Teaching and learning about national and, especially, local histories of genocide perpetrated against Indigenous peoples is often difficult for non-Indigenous teachers and students. Such narratives challenge foundational stories about local communities and the United States, often evoking feelings of guilt and shame among white students. When left unprocessed, feelings of shame and guilt can result in minimization, distortion, and denial of Indigenous genocide in classrooms. Though teaching about difficult histories of violence in the United States may evoke feelings of guilt and shame, this should never be the goal of such lessons; rather, teaching and learning about difficult histories should provide opportunities to learn about historically marginalized groups, examine contemporary realities within society, and imagine and envision a more equitable future. As with Holocaust education, educators should focus on promoting empathy and understanding when teaching about Indigenous peoples and guide students "safely in and safely out" when teaching about Indigenous genocide.
Do Not Engage in Classroom Discussions that Minimize, Distort, and Deny Indigenous Genocide
Debates about the appropriateness of applying the term genocide to the experiences of Indigenous peoples, statements such as “Indigenous peoples were just as violent (if not more violent) to other Indigenous groups as the Europeans were towards them,” or sentiments, such as “the destruction of Indigenous peoples was simply the inevitable result of two cultures colliding,” serve to minimize, distort, and deny genocide. Like Holocaust denial and distortion, debating and rejecting claims of Indigenous genocide furthers misinformation and prejudice while disregarding the realities of colonization in North America.
My students immediately recognize that such attitudes can have far-reaching consequences for society. While students are quick to see that contemporary Germany offers one model for recognizing and atoning for difficult histories, I remind them that, within the American context, we must imagine and enact our own paths towards social justice. Indeed, we end our unit on Indigenous genocide by exploring several models of reparative justice from Canada to South Africa.
About the author: George Dalbo is a high school social studies teacher in rural south-central Wisconsin and a Ph.D. Candidate in Social Studies Education at the University of Minnesota. His teaching and research interests center on Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education in middle and high school social studies classrooms and curricula. He works with Echoes & Reflections to facilitate training and develop curricula on the Holocaust.
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.
Recent innovations in Holocaust education empower teachers to create memorable—even life-changing—pedagogies that were not conceivable a decade ago. Cutting-edge technologies offer powerful pathways to achieve key learning aims and outcomes, while grabbing the attention of students who crave new experiences in their learning. However, like all Holocaust education resources, these technologies require a conscientious touch and careful framing to maximize their learning potential and ensure students are prepared.
USC Shoah Foundation and Echoes & Reflections believe that pedagogical goals must come first—and that advances in technology should only be applied in service of considered educational outcomes. In genocide education—especially when working with personal stories entrusted to us by survivors—it is paramount that technology and innovation are only wielded to amplify a survivor’s message, and that they never distort or decontextualize the storytelling.
Keeping the above context in mind, below are several innovative resources available to Echoes & Reflections educators:
Newly available in IWitness, Dimensions in Testimony allows students and educators to ask questions that prompt real-time responses from a pre-recorded video of Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter—engaging in a virtual conversation from their own computers, and redefining what inquiry-based education can be. Through Dimensions in Testimony, it is possible to speak with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides from anywhere—and that possibility will remain in perpetuity.
Each student’s responses will be wholly unique because each student chooses and asks their own questions. As such, Dimensions in Testimony offers students an unprecedented degree of control over their learning—resulting in deep, empathetic engagement with subject matter.
The Willesden READS Program engages students through the story of Lisa Jura, who was rescued from the Holocaust in Vienna by the Kindertransport. This program has a rich history of in-person engagements: author, performer and virtuoso concert pianist Mona Golabek has shared her mother’s story on stage for over one million students around the world. But facing the COVID-19 pandemic, Mona partnered with Echoes & Reflections, USC Shoah Foundation and Discovery Education to transform the program into a livestreamed, remote event, thereby bringing Willesden READS to students and teachers in select cities across the United States in spite of the global health crisis.
Even before this new adaptation, the Willesden READS Program had always been a creative force on the cutting edge of Holocaust education. Fusing multiple media—the book, The Children of Willesden Lane, alongside the live performance and a series of learning engagements beyond.
The Echoes & Reflections interactive timeline—designed foremost for student use—chronicles key dates in the history of the Holocaust, spanning from 1933-1945. With the Timeline of the Holocaust, students explore history through the collective expertise and primary source archives of ADL, USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem, who have constructed an approachable, tactile learning tool that centers on primary sources and individual experiences to ensure that the human impact of the Holocaust is never forgotten.
The Timeline of the Holocaust is designed to be flexible and meet the needs of educators across their curriculum. It can be a resource for students and educators to consult, or it can be the foundation of a multi-day research project.
Produced by USC Shoah Foundation and listed as one of HuffPost’s best podcasts of 2019, We Share The Same Sky brings the past into the present through a granddaughter’s decade-long journey to retrace her grandmother’s story of survival. We Share The Same Sky tells the two stories of these women—the grandmother, Hana, a refugee who remained one step ahead of the Nazis at every turn, and the granddaughter, host Rachael Cerrotti, on a search to retrace her grandmother’s story.
Experienced Holocaust educators at Echoes & Reflections and USC Shoah Foundation have built a series of bold educational resources to support this pioneering podcast which intimately confronts the Holocaust’s intergenerational impacts and explains what its legacy can tell us about our world today.
USC Shoah Foundation’s first mobile application, IWalk (available in the App Store and Google Play), offers visitors and students curated tours that connect specific locations of memory with testimonies from survivors and witnesses of genocide, violence and mass atrocity. IWalks are carefully curated by USC Shoah Foundation’s team of educators and scholars who help contextualize and humanize the history at sites of memory through testimony, photographs, and maps.
Educators in the United States currently have access to a series of IWalks in Philadelphia, which create potent multimedia learning experiences for students, educators and community members who visit the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza.
So much more is on the horizon at Echoes & Reflections and USC Shoah Foundation, and we cannot wait to share. We have already arrived at the future of Holocaust education, and it’s ready for use in your classroom—today.
About the author: Greg Irwin is Head of Content Management on the Education team at USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education. He is the Institute’s partner lead for Echoes & Reflections, and manages both the Echoes & Reflections and IWitness websites, as well as the IWalk mobile application.
When it comes to the Holocaust, is it appropriate to make comparisons to current events? While not a new phenomenon, many individuals invoke imagery and language traditionally associated with the Holocaust to describe or address contemporary events and personalities and educators often wrestle with the question of how comparisons can or should be made in the context of their teaching.
We had the honor of discussing this very issue with Professor Yehuda Bauer, world-renowned historian and Holocaust scholar, and Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem. What follows is an abridged version of our conversation:
Q: Teachers today often have difficulty knowing whether they can make comparisons between the Holocaust and current events. What advice can you give them?
A: One has to remember that all historical comparisons have to be based on two things: 1) the parallels between two events, and 2) the differences. When you do not mention the differences between two events then the fact that there are some similarities is meaningless. Comparison is the toolkit of every historian and we do it all the time. However, we must make it very clear that we not only compare the parallels but also the differences. Teachers must explain the comparisons and the historical context very carefully.
You have similar comparisons all the time: everything bad is compared to the Holocaust or to the Nazis. That in itself is not such a bad thing. It is a good thing to realize that Nazism is bad. However, teachers have to clearly explain to their students that comparisons have to be very carefully examined with knowledge and with understanding. Do not deny the fact that historical comparisons are important and possible, but they have to be weighed very carefully to make students aware that they must look at events and comparisons in a historically balanced way.
The fact that the Holocaust is such a central issue in so many places is because it is still the unprecedented genocide. It can happen again – not in exactly the same way because nothing is repeated in exactly the same way but, after the Holocaust, there were genocides where the perpetrators consciously learned from the Nazis, like in Rwanda.
When you study the Holocaust, you can take certain dilemmas from it and transpose them very, very carefully and show parallels.
Q: Recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger made a video after the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol where he made comparisons to his experiences growing up in Austria and the build-up to Kristallnacht with what happened on January 6, 2021. What are your thoughts on this analogy?
A: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s statement was, without doubt, made with the best of intentions. However, comparing the events at the Capitol building to Kristallnacht is absolutely false.
Certain parallels can be made with the past and, with careful consideration, the lesson to be learned in this case is the defense of democratic values, which was missing in Germany. Abandonment of democratic values should be prevented in democratic countries like the United States. We have to fight for these democratic values. The parallel in this situation - the dangerous parallel – is the global rise of nationalism, segregation, and dictatorships and the anti-liberal, authoritarian regimes that are taking over in more and more places in different ways.
When comparing the past to the present, be very careful.
Q: The connections being made by teachers are not necessarily always related to other genocides but sometimes relate to modern-day political events. For example, some people compared the treatment and incarceration of asylum seekers and refugees at the southern US border last year to concentration camps in Germany in the 1930s. Is this a valid comparison?
A: Again, a comparison like this must be made very carefully. In other words, there are certain elements that are parallel, sure, but also significant differences. When the Trump administration not only prevented, or tried to prevent, the immigration of Latin Americans into the United States and separated children from their parents, there is no exact comparison between that and what happened in Germany in the 1930s because the Germans never faced any question of immigration into Germany. The question was whether they would allow any emigration from Germany - not only for Jews but also for all opponents of the Nazi regime.
In addition, the comparison of US policy at the border to “concentration camps”, which caused a big furor, was made without considering what the purpose of the German concentration camps was, historically. [Ed.: These camps exploited prisoners through harsh forced labor, and two of the concentration camps also functioned as death camps at which Jews were murdered].
Q: Let’s address the issue of relevance. Many students have no personal connection to the Holocaust, either because they are not Jewish or, geographically speaking, because the Holocaust happened in Europe, which seems far away. We know that the Holocaust was a watershed event in human history, not just Jewish history. How do we bring more meaning and relevance to our lessons? Is it helpful to use contemporary issues to teach the Holocaust?
A: The answer is yes, very clearly. What educators need to do is to emphasize that the whole world was involved in World War II, which was a war against the Nazi regime, whose ideological centerpiece was the persecution of the Jews. The Nazis said it themselves. In Hitler’s view, World War II was a war against the Jews and documents exist to prove this. However, Nazism endangered the whole world amongst other things in its hatred of Jews. Therefore, the Holocaust is relevant to everyone and we have to teach it.
 Kristallnacht, or the November pogrom, was a violent, State-sponsored attack against the Jews of the Third Reich (Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland) beginning on the night of November 9, 1938. More than 1,400 synagogues were torched; approximately 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and at least 91 Jews were murdered. https://timelineoftheholocaust.org/?evtyear=1938&evtmonth=11&evtday=9
About the authors: Sheryl Ochayon is the Director of Echoes & Reflections for Yad Vashem and Sarah Levy is the Program Coordinator for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.
The Holocaust is not solely a European event but a human catastrophe that altered all of history including the history of the U.S. Too often we relegate the Holocaust to a foreign event or limit the involvement of the U.S. as victors and liberators only. As we hope to instill knowledge and help our students develop into global citizens, we must approach U.S. history as intertwined with the history of the Holocaust. Although there certainly is not enough time in your curriculum to fully investigate the Holocaust in a U.S. History class, there are several opportunities to inject its lessons while also presenting a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the U.S. during this time period and the role it played in defeating Nazism. Here are a few overarching concepts with supporting teaching tools to deepen your students’ knowledge of U.S. history, the Holocaust and, more broadly, human history:
1. Teach that Antisemitism was and is not a European Phenomenon but a Human Plague, with Deep Roots in U.S. History that Continues to Pervade Today's Society.
America’s history of racial terror is not news. From the stain of slavery to various anti-immigrant movements throughout its history, antisemitism has also been present. Connect white supremacist thinking, racial pseudoscience, and the growing eugenics movement of the late 19th century with rising antisemitism in Europe. Reference the pro-Nazi German American Bund that was formed in the U.S. in the early 20th century and use events and imagery that depict the growing antisemitism that happened in the U.S., like the Night at the Garden in 1939, which is referenced in this handout in our Gringlas Unit on Contemporary Antisemitism. Utilize resources like History Unfolded and Americans and the Holocaust from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to analyze what the average American knew about what was happening in Europe and how they felt about the events.
Highlight that while antisemitism and racism were being defeated in Europe, these hateful ideologies continued to exist in the U.S. Study the Double V Campaign and elevate the stories of Black soldiers serving in segregated units, some of which became liberators like Paul Parks. Challenge your students to analyze the ethics of American war tactics, including the firebombing of cities like Dresden and their decision not to bomb Auschwitz.
Expand your students’ understanding of who a perpetrator or a bystander is to include nations. Analyze why the U.S. restricted immigration, including the rejection of the Wagner-Rogers Bill in Congress and the M.S. St. Louis when it was stranded at sea off the coast of Florida. Examine the “paper walls” that made immigration so difficult and what the State Department did to make it nearly impossible for Jews to escape Nazi Germany. Balance these failures to rescue Jews with what the U.S. did to help Jews, like the creation of the War Refugee Board in 1944.
2. Utilize Timelines and Historic Events to Contextualize U.S. History with the Holocaust
Activate students’ prior knowledge of U.S. history, including their own family history, to help contextualize the events of the Holocaust. We want our students to become global citizens and recognize how events in the U.S. impact the rest of the world and vice versa. Consistently make these connections to broaden your students’ perspectives on the global nature of history. For example, the Great Depression of the 1930s was a global economic downturn, not just an American one, and it had wide-reaching repercussions. By December 7, 1941, the “Final Solution” had already begun with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union six months earlier on June 22, 1941. By the time the U.S. invaded mainland Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944, five million Jews had already been murdered. These references can help students better understand the role of the U.S. during the Holocaust, and to consider how the country's actions today might also have a larger global impact.
3. Use a More Global Approach when Studying Postwar Events
Remember to understand history as a continuum of events. Situate the Holocaust in the broader context of European History, U.S. History, and World War II by teaching about postwar actions: from the role of the U.S. in the Nuremberg Trials to its handling of displaced persons under the stress of the impending Cold War. Looking domestically, the return of soldiers and the influx of immigrants fleeing a destroyed Europe had a major impact on the U.S. in the 1940s, ‘50s, and beyond. Our webinar, Exploring Migration Before and After the Holocaust, is a great place to start examining this topic.
This is not a comprehensive list nor is it possible to weave all these points into your U.S. History class. However, they can help you search for connecting themes and opportunities to expand your students’ perspectives, engage their minds to ask questions and think critically, and help develop them into global citizens.
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Operations and Outreach Manager for Echoes & Reflections. He holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is a current Ph.D. student beginning his dissertation on female concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan.
Good questions are essential to sound pedagogy and solid teaching. As teachers, we spend countless hours creating questions for exams and structured discussions. We even construct questions spontaneously during dialogue with students, hoping to generate critical thinking and deeper cognition. At Echoes & Reflections, our pedagogy guides us to encourage inquiry-based learning; the best way to do this is to inspire students to create their own questions and drive their own learning. Here are five tips to do just that:
1. Make Question Asking the Norm
One of the tenets of our pedagogy is to ensure a supportive learning environment. We often discuss this in terms of “Safely In and Safely Out” when studying the horrors of the Holocaust. However, there is so much more to creating a safe, trustworthy, and fun environment in the classroom. Do more to encourage questions than just for clarity. Challenge students to think deeper and more critically: just because you are the teacher does not mean that information presented cannot be critiqued, challenged, and discussed. Welcome these questions as an opportunity to facilitate learning through discourse.
2. Model Good Questions
Creating a culture that encourages questions includes consistently providing examples of good questions. Students typically do not focus on the quality of questions; they focus on answers. Incorporate good questions into your lessons. If at first, they don’t come from the students, they must come from you. This is especially necessary at the beginning of the year. Good questions build on prior knowledge, expand perspectives, and challenge students to think in more depth. For example, in our Nazi Germany unit, we ask: “What was the significance of the destruction of cultural institutions, such as synagogues? What message did this communicate to Jewish people? To German society more generally?” Many of our other units include essential questions to guide you in helping students to ask good questions on Holocaust topics.
3. Have Students Construct their own Questions and Provide Feedback
The ability to ask good questions is a skill that needs to be practiced, fine-tuned, and requires feedback. Students should be consistently tasked with creating their own questions. This is a great addition to a homework assignment that can serve as solid prep work for a class discussion. Teach students how to develop good questions by giving them concrete and critical feedback to hone this valuable skill set.
4. Ask Clarifying Questions and Dig Deeper into Student Responses
We want students to do more than remember or understand a concept; we want them to think critically, defend their position, and analyze the information being presented. Do not be satisfied with a simple answer to a question but probe deeper, ask clarifying questions, and provide other students the ability to chime in, voice their thoughts, and learn together. This is demonstrated in our Document Analysis handout which challenges students to explain their answers, infer from what they’ve learned, and drives further student inquiry. It provides a helpful blueprint into how to incorporate these techniques into your classroom discussions.
5. Embrace the Silence
Silence can be uncomfortable, especially for our students who are constantly inundated with media, noise, and distractions. If we want students to think critically and deeply, we need to give them time to do just that. Embrace the uncomfortable silence: your students are thinking and that is exactly the reason we asked a question in the first place.
For more insight on how to support asking good questions, join Echoes & Reflections webinar on 4/6 where we will address questions submitted by students to serve as a springboard to open up important classroom conversations that are vital to Holocaust education.
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Operations and Outreach Manager for Echoes & Reflections. He holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is a current Ph.D. student beginning his dissertation on female concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan.
As teachers, we craft our lessons to highlight fundamental facts in a way that will emotionally resonate with our students long after they have left our class. There is something gratifying about watching students realize you have threaded this needle intentionally, emphasizing a theme like resistance during the Holocaust, for example.
What do we hope students learn from a study of the Holocaust? Why should we teach this important human event? How we answer these questions guide our curriculum development, craft our lessons, and are fundamental to the impact of Holocaust education.
The Holocaust is not a metaphor to be used to make connections but a historical fact that must be understood in its own unique circumstances and context as a truly unprecedented event.
Studying the Holocaust is not just about the facts and figures, however, but also about the lessons, ethics, and values that are obtained from its exploration. A recent survey from Echoes & Reflections found that college students who had Holocaust education in high school were more likely to be empathetic, more open-minded, and scored higher in critical thinking, civic efficacy, and social responsibility—if they watched survivor testimony as part of their experience. This shouldn’t, and didn’t, come as a surprise to those who dedicate their lives to effective Holocaust education.
We often perceive historical learning as defined by either students’ ability to remember facts, dates, and figures, or their transformation into responsible citizenry. We often view these two rationales as competing factions, but they are most effective when taught concurrently. By focusing on social-emotional learning (SEL), students grow in their emotional maturity and intellectual capacity. Conceptually, we know students learn better when they are confident, are in a supportive learning environment, and are encouraged to interact with their peers. By focusing on these vital aspects of learning, Holocaust education can be at its best by emphasizing our shared humanity, learning the facts, and activating the lessons of the past.
In the classroom, we should refocus our approach to Holocaust education to one that centers on SEL, and we can do this by teaching the human story to highlight the individual narratives of those who experienced this dark period in history.
We believe there is great value in including SEL as part of Holocaust education, and it is now a central component of our updated teaching Units. Below are some ways teachers can incorporate SEL into their Holocaust instruction with resources from these Units:
1. By studying the lives of Jewish teenagers before the war, students can better understand the diversity of Jewish life, connect in a more personal way to a real person, and better understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, not just in terms of numbers but in the actual human impact of this catastrophic event. Anni Hazkelson loved to read and had dreams of being a journalist; Hannah Senesh enjoyed piano lessons; Victor “Young” Perez became a famous boxer. In their diaries, students encounter multidimensional people, just like themselves, rather than solely a victim.
2. When viewing testimony, challenge students to read the emotions of the speaker, from body language to voice intonations. Utilize some of our new tools, like this Testimony Reflections handout, to help students recognize and understand the emotions felt by the speaker and in themselves. This clip from Margaret Lambert becomes even more powerful when analyzing the pain in her voice and in her body language as she describes being shunned by her friends and kicked out of her sports club. In breaking down the emotional cues of the speaker, students gain historical knowledge as they grow in empathy, understanding, and compassion.
3. Lastly, do not ignore the social component of learning and the value of student-led discussions and shared work created among peers. Try this Learn and Confirm chart to create a shared product that will help develop the necessary tools of learning new knowledge using supportive evidence and spark the intellectual curiosity of your students to discover the answers to what they don’t know yet.
Studying the Holocaust should create more questions than answers, a recognition of the value of human life, and a drive to impact the world in a positive way. By leaning into SEL, we can cover the material giving our students a clear base of knowledge about the Holocaust while developing the human qualities of empathy, open-mindedness, and action that we hope to instill in them.
To learn more about how to incorporate SEL into your Holocaust instruction please register for these upcoming webinars:
- New IWitness Activities to Support SEL: Mindful Explorations - February 18th at 4 PM EST
- An Exploration of Echoes & Reflections Revised Units: A Study of the Holocaust and SEL - February 24th at 4 PM EST
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Operations and Outreach Manager for Echoes & Reflections. He holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is a current Ph.D. student beginning his dissertation on female concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan.
The Kristallnacht Pogrom marked a devastating turning point during the Holocaust: a shift from antisemitic propaganda and policy to government-sanctioned violence against Jewish communities in Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of Czechoslovakia that had been recently occupied by German troops. The anniversary of this event on November 9 and 10 presents an opportunity for educators to explore this history with students—to teach about the dangers of antisemitism and the role and responsibility of an individual in interrupting the escalation of hate. Furthermore, the lessons of the Kristallnacht Pogrom, only further highlight the importance of our collective duty to uphold the pillars of democracy. At a time when our nation is facing increasingly high levels of antisemitism, the lessons from the “Night of Broken Glass” can resonate deeply with students and compel them to examine the critical need to stand up to antisemitism and all forms of hate. Here are some strategies and resources to guide you in teaching this topic:
Explore Personal Narratives
Those who experienced the horrors of the Kristallnacht Pogrom provide powerful insights into the impact of the choices and decisions made in the face of the growing hatred and violence that surrounded them. As a teenager, Holocaust survivor Kurt Messerschmidt witnessed mobs attacking Jews in the street, in their homes, and at their places of worship, while many of his German neighbors and friends stood idly by. His testimony offers an important and inspirational message for students:
“SOME OF THE PEOPLE DISAPPROVED, BUT THEIR DISAPPROVAL WAS ONLY SILENCE.”
Have students reflect on this powerful statement and learn more about Kurt Messerchmidt:
- Watch Kurt’s video testimony clip to examine the ramifications of remaining silent in the face of hate.
- Engage students with USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness activity about Kurt to learn more about his experience during the Holocaust.
- Download our Inspiring the Human Story poster series and accompanying activities, featuring Kurt and other important figures from the Holocaust.
Additionally, the testimony of survivor Esther Clifford, also impacted by the devastation of the Kristallnacht Pogrom, can help students understand the human story behind this event and consider the consequences of not standing up to injustice.
Use Primary Sources
A key component of our Echoes & Reflections pedagogy is to enrich students’ understanding of the Holocaust by providing an abundance of print and digital resources from a variety of perspectives. An examination of historical documentation can aid students to further contextualize and gain a deeper understanding of the Kristallnacht Pogrom:
- Access our lesson plan, Kristallnacht: “Night of Broken Glass”, and Unit on Nazi Germany for tools and approaches for incorporating primary sources into your instruction.
- Read our blog written by an Echoes & Reflections teacher who offers suggestions for using primary sources to connect students to the lessons of the Kristallnacht Pogrom.
- Take a virtual field trip with students to Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center to explore primary sources from the Kristallnacht Pogrom featured in their online exhibition.
Teach with a Timeline:
Timelines can serve as a visual tool for studying periods of history and help students realize not only how events happened, but how to construct meaning and illuminate the human experience throughout a past era. This resource can also encourage students to see connections between events occurring in a single period and bring history to life by mapping dates onto a cohesive narrative. On our interactive Timeline of the Holocaust with accompanying activities, teachers can introduce the Kristallnacht Pogrom, as well as the dates prior to and immediately following this pivotal incident, which can allow students to grasp that the Holocaust was a progression of decisions, actions, and inactions, any of which might have happened differently if alternative choices were made.
Teaching about the Kristallnacht Pogrom is a crucial component of Holocaust education as it can reinforce students’ understanding of what ultimately led to the extermination of Europe’s six million Jews by the Nazis, underscoring the notion that the Holocaust was not inevitable.
Whether you have returned to the classroom, are embracing a hybrid model, or are entirely virtual, we can all agree that teaching this school year comes with more distance. As a former classroom teacher who now works with educators, I have heard and understand the many concerns teachers have about how to teach the Holocaust in these environments. Like you, Echoes & Reflections has been learning throughout the pandemic from students, teachers, and other educational experts on best practices for this new way of life. You can find some of these suggestions in a previous blog.
Although much has changed, there are many aspects of teaching the Holocaust that remain the same. Good pedagogy is essential although how we implement it may need some updates. Our rationale for teaching the Holocaust ought to be consistent with several of our principles of pedagogy: to foster empathy, to encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking, and to make the Holocaust relevant to our students.
Primarily, it’s important to:
- Focus on salient themes that students can connect to using real examples from history, case studies, and the power of human connection using primary sources, especially testimony, which has been shown to have a profound impact on students’ development.
- Highlight powerful themes that are relevant to today and inspire action in students: resilience, resistance, and rescue, just to name a few. Emphasize agency, individual choice, and how lessons of the Holocaust invoke the need for positive action in the world today.
How do we do this in a classroom with more distance between ourselves and our students?
1. Ensure a supportive learning environment, what we call “Safely in and Safely out.” Topics such as the Holocaust elicit strong emotions, require deep reflectivity, and extensive debriefing. Providing opportunities for students to express their emotions comes naturally in the classroom but with more distance, teachers must be deliberate in facilitating these vital conversations. Utilize the time you have together, in-person or online, to connect with your students in conversation and to address questions. Structure social-emotional check-ins and activities often and encourage student reflection on the events of the Holocaust. Remember, emotion can be a powerful source of knowledge.
2. Focus on the entirety of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). We often focus on the “E” of emotion when we talk about SEL, but the “S” is just as important. In the classroom, it is natural to group students together or have them have a quick conversation with a partner. In a more distanced environment, we must structure these social learning opportunities more concretely. Asynchronous learning can be a great opportunity to foster these conversations in discussion boards, to task students with creating a shared product, or to engage in project-based learning. Grant students the freedom and flexibility to research, connect, and share new knowledge with you and their classmates in multiple modalities. Enable students to engage with this material in a meaningful and personal way to “leave something of themselves,” such as an artifact they can share with the class. We know that successful teachers imbue their lessons with elements of themselves; create opportunities for students to do the same.
3. Work to connect our students with us, with each other, and with humanity in general. Again, we look to our pedagogy to guide our instruction when we proclaim: “Teach the Human Story”. This principle is the fulcrum of Echoes & Reflections pedagogy, and in a more distanced environment only carries more weight. The human story should be a focus in developing and delivering lessons to students who must connect themselves to these narratives on an individual basis.
4. Rely on primary sources to highlight the events of the Holocaust. Highlight multimedia projects, videos, and other multi-modal sources such as artwork, poetry, diary entries, photographs, and especially testimony. Push students to interact with these sources in depth to read between the lines and foster empathy. For example, when viewing testimony, such as Kurt Messerschmidt’s recollection of Kristallnacht, challenge students to read his emotional reactions through body language, tone inflection, and facial expressions.
There is great concern that students are behind due to the upheaval caused by COVID-19. Although there is a desire to overload on content to “catch up,” we mustn’t allow this to cloud our judgment or change our rationale for teaching the Holocaust. Our role as Holocaust educators is to inspire our students to learn more, seek understanding, and grow as individuals to become more human. Knowledge can be acquired but empathy, compassion, and activism must be cultivated. That should be our focus as we enter a school year unlike any other. Teach the human story, teach it to the humans who so desperately need your support, and cultivate in them a desire to positively impact the world which so desperately needs their support.
To learn more, participate in the webinars in our new series on supporting Holocaust education in the virtual classroom:
- Responsible Practices in the Virtual Classroom: Dangers of Simulation Activities and Connections to Bullying (10/5)
- Making it Work: Tools for Effective Holocaust Education Online (10/14)
- The Use of Films Via Digital Learning (10/19)
- Teaching with Testimony: The Power of Testimony in the Virtual Classroom (10/21)
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
For me, like nearly every other teacher in the United States, March 11th was a fairly regular day. That week, my students had competed in their regional National History Day competition and my juniors had gone on a field trip to nearby Monticello. Although it was a Wednesday, I had scheduled time off for the next two days and told my students to have a great rest of their week at Staunton High School and that I would see them on Monday. Little did I know, it would be the last time I would see them for the 2019-2020 school year - at least in person.
The next morning, I received notification early on that an appointment I had in Northern Virginia had been canceled due to accelerating COVID-19 cases in that area. As Thursday turned into Friday, as a Department Chair, I found myself in frequent contact with my Principal regarding possible release to spring break one week in advance. Still, nothing was certain, and it wouldn’t be until 2:40 PM on Friday, March 13th.
Staunton’s initial plan was to add an additional week onto spring break; however, on the first day of our “official” spring break, we received word that Governor Ralph Northam would be canceling traditional schooling for the remainder of the year. I knew that this would be a challenge for my colleagues and myself and quickly switched into planning mode. Additionally, as a regional consultant for Echoes & Reflections, I also began to think about how I could assist the school districts in my region to meet the challenge of delivering effective Holocaust instruction in this unfamiliar setting.
In my time teaching virtually, I have experienced a lot of highs and lows. My colleagues and I all missed interacting with our students in-person, and we spent many hours mourning for their lost opportunities. We also worried about those young people who live in less than ideal home-situations, and for whom school was a refuge. We deeply cared about finding ways to help our students and colleagues navigate life in quarantine. Yet, these experiences have forced me to grow as an educator and more importantly, as a human being, and to recognize “silver linings” in the midst of an overwhelming situation.
Overall, despite the craziness of the time, I have seen many students eager and ready to “take the reins” to keep learning and to pursue their intellectual and emotional curiosity in new and exciting ways. This includes hearing from an African-American student who encountered liberator Leon Bass’ USC Shoah Foundation IWitness testimony, and who shared that this was the first time she has seen “someone like herself” represented in this era of history. His impact went well beyond his experience in the Holocaust and translated into a voice of inspiration for this young person and several of her peers. Curious to learn more about African-American liberators, she asked for other testimonies to review. In many ways, the bravery and strength showcased by my students during this turbulent time was inspiring and gave me continued hope that despite the countless losses, humanity would ultimately survive in spirit and fortitude.
Another powerful moment for me was the opportunity to help a first-year colleague tasked to teach about the Holocaust for the first time via a virtual setting. He has a strong background for someone in his first semester of teaching and knew that he needed to take careful steps but was not exactly sure how to navigate the situation. Echoes & Reflections provided the perfect pedagogy and resources through which to guide him in structuring a meaningful educational experience for his sophomores, and he ultimately ended up sharing it with other colleagues because he knew it was working well. Even though I was physically distant from my colleagues, I was grateful that I still had the power to support others to succeed.
This time is also about seizing new opportunities to learn and build community with my educator colleagues. The quarantine has allowed us to rethink professional development and explore “in-person” virtual opportunities at a deeper level. My participation in the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teacher’s Program partnership allowed me and nearly 50 other educators to reunite without the cost of travel expenses and extended time away from families and work. We spent an incredible three hours learning together about Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust and further discovering how we can connect our students with this content in a virtual setting.
As we end the 2019-2020 school year, in many ways we also say goodbye to a distant world. Education will likely look different as we move forward and we will need to keep innovating, be willing to leave our own comfort zones, and take some risks. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that these unknowns, guided by our collective strength and dedication to this field, will unequivocally lead to success and allow us to positively impact our students’ futures.
About the Author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012.
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.
During these unprecedented times, we remain committed to supporting you to teach about the lessons of the Holocaust. As many of you move to a virtual environment, we recognize that this creates added challenges to teaching about this complex topic effectively.
As you navigate this new education landscape, please find our recommendations for revised approaches to Echoes & Reflections lesson instruction that will best support students' social-emotional well-being and bring them “safely in and safely out” of their learning. Furthermore, we offer some general strategies for Holocaust instruction in an online format:
- Take a "pulse check" of your students: use the "chat" function or a verbal check-in to ask students to share how they're feeling at the top of the lesson
- Focus on the expansiveness of the "human story": what lessons about strength and resilience can we apply to today?
- Provide spaces for reflection like journaling, personal connections, and break-out conversations
- Fully utilize the features of your distance learning tools: chat boxes, word clouds, quizzes, and breakout rooms can put students at the center of the conversation.
While all Echoes & Reflections content is digital and accessible to you and your students, we want to highlight a few student-facing resources that can be readily brought to your students:
- Interactive Timeline of the Holocaust and accompanying activities.
- Video Toolboxes – short videos with guiding questions that provide historical context on various Holocaust topics.
- We Share the Same Sky Podcast and Teaching Guide.
- USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness resources that are specially curated for distance learning and teaching.
- Stronger Than Hate Challenge – also from USC, students create a poem, story, video or artwork that uses the power of testimony to counter hate; with up to $10,000 in prizing.
As a reminder, we hope you’ll join us on an upcoming session of our newly formed Professional Learning Community to connect with colleagues and share best practices over the next month. This includes a series of 30-minute virtual meetings that support educators who plan to teach about a specific Holocaust topic online, such as Antisemitism and Nazi Germany, The Ghettos, The "Final Solution", Jewish and Non-Jewish Resistance,and Survivors and Liberators. Registration information for these meetings and our regularly scheduled online offerings can be found on our program calendar. Please note, if you are unable to attend any of the meetings or webinars, all will be available to view on-demand.
Idaho social studies educator Ben Harris suggests, “The Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial doesn't seem to be a place of commemoration or sadness – what one might experience in a battlefield or concentration camp. Instead, it invites students to consider a variety of perspectives about human rights and ask questions.”
A study by the Pew Research Center released in January 2020 found that visiting a Holocaust museum or memorial is strongly linked with Holocaust knowledge. A visit to a museum or memorial takes Holocaust education out of the classroom, while encouraging learning approaches and outcomes that are central to Echoes & Reflections pedagogy: inquiry-based learning and critical thinking, fostering empathy, and making the history relevant for students. These visits help students develop a personal connection to the Holocaust.
“Dear Kitty … No one is spared. The sick, the elderly, children, babies and pregnant women – all are marched to their death. I get frightened myself when I think of close friends who are now at the mercy of the cruelest monsters ever to stalk the earth. And all because they’re Jews.” - Anne M. Frank, November 19, 1942
Etched in the stone of the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise, Anne’s diary entry illustrates how a group of people who are marginalized or demeaned based on religion, race, ability, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity become viewed by a majority as “the other” and therefore less than or inferior. It’s a stark reminder of what can happen when we fail to interrupt the Spiral of Injustice, a model we created for discussing the Holocaust, the attack or harassment of an Idaho student when he or she is viewed as “the other,” or the marginalization of any group within the fabric of our community.
The Wassmuth Center was founded in 1996 for the purpose of constructing a memorial to human rights. That vision became a reality when the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial opened to the public in 2002. Inspired by Anne Frank and funded through the generosity of individual and corporate donors, the Memorial is not simply a static space to reflect on her short life or even on the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead, it was designed to actively engage visitors to think, to talk with one another, and to respond to the human rights issues we face in our community, our country and our world.
Both the triumphs and tragedies of the human story are on display but, in every quote and every idea, visitors see the profound power of a single voice or bold action to overcome great odds and alter the course of history.
The educational park includes: a life-sized bronze statue of Anne Frank as she peers out an open window into an adjoining amphitheater, 80 quotes etched into the stone throughout the Memorial, the full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on permanent display, the Rose Beal Legacy Garden honoring a local Holocaust survivor, a sapling from the Anne Frank Chestnut Tree in Amsterdam, the Marilyn Shuler Classroom for Human Rights, recognizing a founder of the Memorial and the state’s first director of the Human Rights Commission, and state-of-the-art electronic technology showcasing the “History of Human Rights in Idaho.”
Ryan Coonerty, in the National Geographic publication Etched in Stone: Enduring Words from our Nation’s Monuments, commented, “Anne Frank could scarcely have conceived of Boise, Idaho. Therefore, it seems improbable that the author of a diary that has become among the world’s most widely read books has become a symbolic fixture of this community almost 60 years after her death.”
The Memorial receives an average of 120,000 visitors annually, with over 10,000 K-12 and university undergraduate students participating in free docent-led tours.
How does a visit to the Memorial inspire and impact teaching and learning about the Holocaust?
A visit to the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial is far more than a fieldtrip and can provide a strong foundation for when educators return to the classroom and continue to teach the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides. It is the recognition, as stated by Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing.”
Consider and ask. When visiting a memorial or museum, the site can introduce a different perspective and an opportunity to ask probing questions.
We see that happen on tours when either a classroom educator or Memorial docent asks each participant to select his/her favorite quote in the Memorial. The process of selection includes both introspection and reflection; do I see myself in the quote and what does it mean to me? As students begin to share their selections, the conversation becomes a moment of personal journeys.
High school English teacher Sharon Hansen adds, “While the quotes are available in a booklet or in a digital version, we choose to visit the site, where we feel the presence of Anne Frank looking out over us as we write-- she forever frozen in her hiding place, while those of us who are alive and free have an opportunity to write about injustice in order to move toward justice.”
Power of place. At the entrance to the Memorial, visitors read a welcome written by one the Memorial’s three founding mothers Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor. “May the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial stand as a tribute to Anne Frank’s memory, as a warning to any who would dare trespass upon the freedoms of others, and as an inspiration to all whose lives are devoted to love, respect, understanding, peace, and good will among the totality and diversity of the human family. May this memorial inspire each of us to contemplate the moral implications of our civic responsibilities.”
Visitors experience the place – it is a physical, emotional, and some might add, a spiritual experience that evokes connections.
Hansen shares, “For my Creative Writing students, a visit to the Memorial is a call to action. Their writing takes on new purpose, one determined by the place, and one I cannot duplicate in the classroom. The Anne Frank Memorial is a place of inspiration, calling forth the words of my students to amplify the Memorial’s message.”
Behind the statue of Anne Frank, the actual size of the family rooms in the secret annex is cut into the concrete; one point of access into the rooms is up a nine-step staircase tucked behind a marble bookcase, and the surrounding walls mirror the Amsterdam skyline.
Memorial visitors are able to step into her diary. And we point to a quote by the American journalist Judith Miller that sits adjacent to the Memorial’s entrance. “We must remind ourselves that the Holocaust was not six million. It was one, plus one, plus one …” Anne Frank was one, her sister Margot was one, their mother Edith was one …
Never Again, Never Forget. We recite it, we mean it – but genocide continues to happen. Notably, George Santayana’s words are also inscribed in the Memorial. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In addition to the Holocaust, we talk about the Armenian, Cambodian, Ukrainian, Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides. Students are apt to point out that “never again” rings hollow. Another quote, placed on a rock by the family of a Holocaust survivor, insists, “Never again is now.”
Recognized as a member in the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, the Memorial joins a network of historic sites, museums and memory initiatives that connects past struggles to today’s movements for human rights. The Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial commits to turning memory into action.
Hansen notes, “The Boise River flows along the Memorial, perhaps echoing the words of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ By being present at the Memorial, students are surrounded by the words of Haim Ginott, Sojourner Truth, and Nelson Mandela, and the language becomes a springboard for students’ own yearning toward a free and just future.”
And “in spite of everything” Anne still believed that “people are truly good at heart.”
About the author: Dan Prinzing, Executive Director of the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights in Boise, Idaho, has a BA in History Secondary Education, an MA in Curriculum and Instruction, an MA in History and Government, and a Ph.D. in Educational Administration. Prior to the current position, he was the Idaho State Department of Education’s coordinator of civic and international education, the former SDE coordinator of social studies and curricular materials, and a language arts and history teacher in the Boise School District.
To learn more about the Anne Frank please explore our additional resources on her life and legacy:
- Student Handout-Anne Frank’s Legacy
On January 27th, the anniversary of the allied liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day in honor of the victims of Nazi persecution. This annual observance provides an opportunity for teachers to focus on the pivotal role of liberators in defeating the Nazis at the culmination of World War II, and as some of the first to bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. Here are some strategies and resources to guide you in teaching about this topic:
Teach the Human Story: Survivor and Liberator Testimony
Eyewitness testimony highlights the human story behind the Holocaust and can help students further understand the importance of preserving one’s humanity during this dark period in history. Hearing from survivors on the paradoxical joy of liberation and darkness of facing a return to life without family, as well as from American soldiers who saw firsthand the horror of Nazi atrocities, offers an excellent entry point to the study of the Holocaust. Explore below:
- Dennis Urstein: Born on February 24, 1924, in Vienna, Austria, he was incarcerated in the Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Ohrdruf, Auschwitz I, Mechelen, and Dachau concentration camps, and in Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
- Henry Mikols: Born on August 27, 1925, in Poznan, Poland. As a political prisoner, Henry was incarcerated in the Ellrich and Buchenwald concentration camps. From Buchenwald, Henry was sent on a death train to Bremen and then on to Bergen-Belsen, where he was eventually liberated.
- Ester Fiszgop: Born on January 14, 1929, in Brzesc nad Bugiem, Poland. She was forced to live in the Drohiczyn ghetto and later went into hiding in various places, including barns, forests, and attics.
- Howard Cwick: Born on August 25,1923, in New York, NY. As a member of the United States Armed Forces, he, along with his fellow soldiers, liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp.
- Anton Mason: Born on April 19, 1927, in Sighet, Romania. He was forced to live in the Sighet ghetto and was later imprisoned in the Buchenwald, Gleiwitz, Auschwitz, Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz concentration camps, as well as Auschwitz-Birkenau.
- Paul Parks: Born on May 7,1923, in Indianapolis, IN. As a member of the United States Armed Forces, he, along with his fellow soldiers, liberated the Dachau concentration camp.
In addition to oral testimony, written testimony is also a useful way to engage students in the human story of the Holocaust:
Our blog by Sheryl Ochayon, Echoes & Reflections Project Director at Yad Vashem, offers reflections on her interview with WWII liberator Alan Moskin and the importance of Holocaust remembrance.
You can also share written testimony from liberator Harry J. Herder, Jr., who was nineteen at the time he and other US soldiers liberated Buchenwald, in April 1945.
Teach through the Medium of Film
Explore our Video Toolbox, Liberators and Survivors: First Moments, on the liberation of concentration camps by the US Army at the end of WWII. This short film interweaves liberators’ and Jewish survivors’ testimonies and other primary sources, helping you present their personal stories to your students. Watch here
Engage Students with Multimedia Activities
Through our Partner USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness, we bring the human stories of the Holocaust to secondary school teachers and their students via engaging multimedia-learning activities on the topic of liberation:
- New Beginnings-Journey to America
- Information Quest: Howard Cwick
- Understanding Displaced Persons’ Camp
Suggested Questions to Engage Students
1. How do you think survivors felt after learning they were liberated? What do you imagine some of their fears were?
2. What obstacles did survivors have to overcome following liberation?
3. What do you imagine were some of the thoughts and feelings liberators had after their experiences liberating the camps?
4. What is the effect of hearing both survivors and liberators talk about liberation? What kind of information do you learn from each?
5. What kind of information does the survivor provide that would be impossible to learn any other way?
Looking for more?
Our Unit on Survivors and Liberators contains all the resources mentioned in this piece as well as additional learning tools for exploration.
Deepen students' learning of liberation by viewing significant dates in history on our interactive Timeline of the Holocaust resource:
I teach in a small community in the Midwest. Two years ago I found that many students were leaving our school without a thorough understanding of the Holocaust, one of the most unprecedented acts of inhumanity in modern world history. Located in a homogenous, semi-rural part of southwest Wisconsin, most of my students are unfamiliar with cultural and religious practices different from their own.
After attending a one-day Echoes & Reflections seminar hosted by the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, my colleague and I felt inspired and equipped to implement a Holocaust elective studies course that not only teaches the history but also challenges students to grapple with the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping that are increasingly embedded in our world today.
As an educator, it was important for me to find a sound visual representation of the progression of time during the Holocaust, in hopes that students would be able to easily grasp the overlap of these historical events. With this year’s release of Echoes & Reflections new interactive Timeline of the Holocaust, which was also their first student facing resource, I felt this would be an engaging tool to enhance my course and students’ understanding of how one decision, decree, or act of complicity could impact an entire population. As an English teacher, I appreciate the Timeline’s multimedia incorporation of photographs, primary documents, and personal testimonies to help humanize this complex period.
I first introduced the use of the Timeline through a scaffold process of guided note taking. I provided students with a digital template of the pre-war years and walked them through how to view and “read” the Timeline. I modeled what it looked like to take notes from the Timeline and we discussed the significance of the early years’ events.
Students were instantly comfortable utilizing this learning tool. They engage with not only the material, but also one another during what we refer to as “Timeline Time” as they interact with the online content and discuss the significance of the events. There is a plethora of primary sources available; we do not use a textbook. The students, who crave a tangible resource from which to study, have latched onto the Timeline as a means of creating their own sort of “textbook.”
It can be difficult for a student without a comprehensive world history background to understand all the puzzle pieces that enabled the Nazi rise to power and ultimately the implementation of the “Final Solution”. As a visual representation of years progressing, the Timeline enables students to easily grasp the overlapping of world events and how seemingly isolated events relate to larger scale history. Students interact with the photographs, poems, and audio recordings in a way that helps them build a personal, humanizing connection to the text and the individuals impacted.
The use of the Timeline prompts inquiry-based learning, where the class can question, discuss, and analyze events both in the context of the Holocaust and through the lens of broader world history implications. For example, when students learn that Dachau concentration camp was established in 1933, some ask “why didn’t the world intervene then?” It elicits early conversations about the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust and the roles other countries played throughout the war.
As the course moves from one unit to the next, students have more autonomy with the Timeline. Some work in pairs to read, discuss and analyze the events; others prefer to work alone offering their insights during larger class discussions. Exploring the Timeline and concurrent note taking encourages students to synthesize that information with what they have already learned.
This new resource provides the opportunity for students to read, listen, and connect with individual survivors and victims of the Holocaust. It encourages them to question complicity and celebrate acts of resistance. The interactive Timeline engages students with primary documents and personal artifacts at a level of understanding that no textbook can similarly accomplish.
As we wrapped up this past school year, I felt confident that my students now had a thorough understanding of the Holocaust and were equipped to carry these lessons beyond the walls of the classroom.
About the author: Natalie White teaches Holocaust Studies, 9th grade English, and Creative Writing at Prairie du Chien High School in southwestern Wisconsin. She is currently a member of the Echoes & Reflections Educator Advisory Committee.
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
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.
What do we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do? It’s a question with which I continuously grapple. It is impossible to deny that much of this history showcases the most devastating and bleakest views of humanity. Yet, despite this heart-breaking reality, as educators, we understand the critical importance of teaching our students the consequences of allowing antisemitism and other forms of bias and hate to pervade a society. From this realization, another equally vital question emerges: How do we best teach this history?
The horrors of the Holocaust are undeniable, and though they must be taught, it is imperative that students are able to understand the material in a way that inspires them to engage positively with their communities to ensure that the past does not repeat. Art can act as an excellent gateway for students to effectively connect to the lessons of this history. Art raises questions seldom addressed when dealing with a historical subject. Art elevates viewpoints to a whole different level, which traditional historical approaches alone cannot inspire. While there are many types of art mediums from the Holocaust, poetry in particular is an excellent way to engage students. Poetry highlights an individual’s voice. This allows the reader to more fully empathize with the author’s experience and inspires both personal reflection and a greater understanding of the subject matter. Essentially, Holocaust poems are the whispers and cries from a dark past that we must bring to light.
A poem I often recommend educators introduce into the classroom is Five, by Hanuš Hachenberg, a Jewish boy from Prague who wrote these words in 1943 when he was 13 years old.
This morning at seven so bright and so early
Five novels lay there, sewn up in a sack
Sewn up in a sack, like all of our lives
They lay there so silent, so silent, all five.
Five books that flung back the curtain of silence
Calling for freedom and not for the world
They’re somebody’s novels, somebody who loves them...
They call out now, they cried, they shed tears and they pleaded
That they hadn’t been finished, the pitiful five.
They declared to the world that the state trades in bodies,
And slowly they vanished and went out of sight
They kept their eyes open, they looked for the world
But nothing they found, they were silent, all five.
Hanuš wrote this poem and others, for Vedem (“We Lead”) - a clandestine magazine produced by Jewish teenage boys imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There, amidst their crushing reality of ever-present death and disease, horrific overcrowding and hunger, living in constant fear of transports “to the east”, Hanuš and the boys of his dormitory performed an incredible act of resistance: they created. They secretly wrote stories, poems, jokes, and essays. They illustrated comics and drew fantasy drawings. They wrote bitterly about the inhumane prison they were forced to endure while trying to make sense of the hatred that had engulfed their lives. Mourning their lost childhoods, they still dared to hope that the world they knew would one day be restored. They cautiously dreamed of a brighter future. They remained determined to retain their human dignity in a world that had betrayed them, and their magazine was a means to that end.
Almost of all the young contributors to Vedem were murdered in Auschwitz and other death camps. Of the 7,590 children deported eastward from Theresienstadt, a mere 142 survived to be liberated. Of Hanuš, all that remains behind to show that a person of such sensitivity and brilliance ever existed are his beautiful Vedem poems and writings and a few black and white sketches. Not one photograph of this young man survives. We know almost nothing of his early life, except that it probably wasn’t a very happy one — following his parents’ divorce Hanuš spent 5 lonely years in an orphanage. The few people who remember Hanuš can only tell us that he was a frail, thin child with very dark and expressive eyes. Even in death he left nothing tangible behind. We will never have the solace of putting a memorial rock on his tombstone, running our fingers lovingly over the name engraved on its surface, sanctifying it with our tears. Auschwitz is his grave, and his poem Five is his epitaph.
For me, Hanuš lives on in his poetry, and its power to move us. His maturity, sensitivity, and brilliance are almost palpable in each line that he writes. Reading the poems of Hanuš, I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of loss. And anger. And yet, his poetry offers us a conduit to connect students to his inner world, to give voice to his fear and despair, his anger, his hope, and his dread of being forgotten. It is a towering testimony to his humanity and individuality. The imagery in Five leaves us to face difficult and important questions to address with students:
- How could such grotesque hatred have led to these young innocent lives being cut short, like unfinished novels? How was this possible?
- What sack are the 5 books sewn into? Is it the closed sack of the impenetrable walls of Hanuš and his friends’ prison, Theresienstadt? Or are the novels engulfed by the indifference of the world, a world that would bury them out of sight, muffling their pleas and stifling their cries?
- And the most heartbreaking question of all: If only the five books had been completed, if only they had been allowed to reach their natural conclusion, what might have been contained in their chapters and pages? What could Hanuš and his friends have given the world? Furthermore, what could a million and a half murdered children have given the world?
I think this is at the heart of what we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do. As we accept the challenge of teaching our students this painful history we can amplify it by the use of powerful mediums such as poetry; mediums that can inspire important and meaningful reflection. As educators, we want our students to be the ones to open the sealed sack, take out the forgotten books within, read their brief unfinished chapters, vow to remember the stories, and assure the voices behind them are still heard. By adding to our teaching the personal artistry of the poet, we not only honor the memory of Hanuš, his friends, and all victims of the Holocaust, but also inspire students to reflect on and create more healthy and humane futures.
About the Author: Liz Elsby is a Holocaust Educator and Museum Guide who has worked at Yad Vashem since 2006.
Looking for additional ways to teach about the Holocaust using art and poetry? Please explore the following resources from Echoes & Reflections and our Partners:
- Webinars: Creating Portraits as Testimony and Using Poetry to Teach the Holocaust
- Lesson Plans:
- IWitness Activity: Found Poetry from Holocaust Testimony
- Article: A Creative Response to the Holocaust, Genocide, and Injustice
- Video Toolboxes (Yad Vashem):
- Poetry in Holocaust Education: this toolbox video includes a discussion of “Written in the Sealed Railway Car” by Dan Pagis, found in the Echoes & Reflections unit on “The Final Solution”
- Poetry in Holocaust Education: “Testimony” by Dan Pagis: this poem is also found in the Echoes & Reflections unit on the “The Final Solution”
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