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”
My mother used to enjoy telling everyone that when I came home from my first day of school, I told her I was going to be a teacher. That was 1959. I never changed my mind. I never wanted to be anything else. My journey began by teaching anyone who would humor me—siblings, cousins, kids in the neighborhood—anyone who let me practice my craft with a piece of chalk and a sidewalk, and in time, a real chalkboard. Funny that now, at the end of my career, those memories should come flooding back. It would make more sense to think back to 1975 when I did finally achieve my childhood dream and become a teacher, but clearly that was just one of the many milestones in my career; the journey began long before that and never ended.
That’s the way it is with most teachers; it is in our DNA. We plan, rehearse, and perform several shows a day, thriving on the energy of our audience, hopefully seeing questions form in invisible bubbles above our students’ heads as they ponder what they are hearing and seeing, always looking for an opportunity to go just a bit deeper, and convince those who would often prefer to be somewhere else, doing almost anything else, that this—whatever this is—is exciting and important. We adapt our material to meet a range of skill levels and look for any opportunity to infuse creativity and revise our lessons based on what is on students’ minds and what is happening around them. For me, nothing was more energizing and exciting than introducing young teens to the power of literature. To watch students explore the human condition through characters and conflicts and to respond in terms of their own experiences and growing understanding of the world around them with all of its complexity, mystery, and uncertainty was magical. I credit my junior high English teacher with lighting that fire under me as we read and discussed Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.
My story is not unique. Every teacher I’ve ever met has a story of how they came to the profession, how they accepted the responsibility and embraced the challenge to prepare the next generation to take their place in society, capable and confident. Teachers instinctively understand that for what amounts to but a few moments in time, we are a tremendous influence on young minds. What we do with those moments matters.
For the past 14 years, I have had the great fortune of serving as the ADL Project Director for Echoes & Reflections. In that role, I have had the honor of meeting and working with teachers across the country, hearing about the ways that they are helping students think about difficult topics and themes associated with the Holocaust. With every passing year, teachers have shared with me that the senseless acts of violence that have traumatized our communities—most recently the tragic loss of life at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha Synagogue—have made their jobs increasingly more difficult. They ask themselves how they can help their students make sense of events that they themselves are struggling to comprehend. But, they find a way. They understand and embrace the urgency. They put aside their confusion and sadness, and spring into action like all “first responders” do. They know intuitively that they must provide a safe environment where students can ask questions and engage in difficult conversations. They know how important it is that soon-to-be adults know how to separate fact from fiction and build their understanding of events based on sound evidence. They also know that they must encourage and model an optimistic attitude—one that sends a strong message that communities can heal and thrive despite overwhelming grief when good people act in positive ways. Teachers know that those first moments after tragic events matter, perhaps most of all.
These are difficult times. We have seen a rise in antisemitism and other forms of hate. We have watched as facts have been cast aside and loyalty to one group or another has become the lens with which we see the world. We have seen social media take the place of in-person relationships and institutions strain to inspire confidence in light of widespread cynicism and disillusionment. But, we must also remember that there have always been difficult times and there will always be challenges. The students we are teaching today need our guidance and attention as much as yesterday’s students did, as much as tomorrow’s will. We must remind ourselves that every year there are new students; we do not keep teaching the same ones over and over, and, in the end we have only a moment or two to add something to their story, something that we hope will last and have meaning.
It has been my honor and privilege to be an educator. I begin my retirement with a great sense of pride but also with unflinching confidence that our students will continue to learn and thrive because of the many dedicated teachers who make magic in classrooms across the country every day. It couldn’t be any other way…it’s in our DNA.
About the Author: Deborah A. Batiste has been the Echoes & Reflections Project Director at ADL for 14 years since the program's founding in 2005. In addition to being one of the key content developers, she has conducted professional development programs to effectively use Echoes & Reflections in the classroom in 40 states and the District of Columbia, reaching thousands of educators and community leaders. In 2019 she will begin her journey into retirement.
In the aftermath of last year’s events in Charlottesville, VA, Jennifer Goss, an Echoes & Reflections facilitator and classroom teacher from Staunton, VA, reflects on how “hate in our backyard” impacted her classroom and community. A year later she reflects on how her students’ study of the Holocaust has contributed to their healing process and gives them the skills to engage in respectful dialogue on complex issues.
Charlottesville. It has been one year since the city just a short trip over the mountain from mine became a word uttered in nearly every American household. A beautiful, quaint city, larger than my home of Staunton, but still just as lovely, was forever changed by the events of August 11-12, 2017. In the time that has elapsed since moments of hate touched Central Virginia, not a week has passed when it has not somehow come up in conversation. Whether it’s the description of where in Virginia that I live or the airport that I have flown out of to the location where I am speaking to an individual, the response is always similar, “Charlottesville...yes, I know exactly where that is.”
I’d like to say that in this year, I’ve discovered the answers to solve issues related to hatred and discrimination. I wish I felt like our nation and our world has made great strides. I’d like to be able to comment that incidents of hate have drastically diminished (Note: according to ADL reported incidents increased by 57% in 2017). Of course, those of you who have taken the time to read a column such as this know that sadly, this is still not our reality.
What I have discovered in this past year, however, is that there is power in community and conversation. The ripples of Charlottesville have made uncomfortable conversations rise to the surface and in doing so; have brought in new voices and opinions that may not have been ready or felt safe to speak out in the past. Not all of these voices are ones of agreement but there is power in that as well—learning to have effective discourse on issues that divide us is a critical issue in building stronger communities.
One of the places I have been privileged to witness this is within my own classroom and school. As a small Southern town, the issues of Southern history and heritage are part of our community just as they are part of the community of Charlottesville and many others throughout the South. Not all of my students approach this history from the same cultural and historical background but day after day, I repeatedly witnessed respectful and effective discourse on topics that had previously lay dormant. In our region, many schools and segments of our public infrastructure such as roadways bear the names of Confederate leaders. Some students believe that these names should be retained for the sake of marking the importance of local history while others wish to see the names altered because of their direct links to issues such as slavery and oppression. Many of my students were able to vote in our local elections this past spring and some made choices based on this very issue.
Despite differing opinions, most students are able to discuss their beliefs in a respectful and appropriate manner. I have been personally fortunate to witness this repeatedly in my classroom and believe that some of these very skills were facilitated by discussion of tough topics such as the Holocaust within the confines of our classroom walls. In the wake of the incidents in Charlottesville, I utilized the USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness mini-lesson Promoting Effective Conversation Skills, and I plan to make this a staple in my classroom, regardless of the subject I am teaching. The testimony of Holocaust survivor Henry Oertelt and the strategies employed in this mini-lesson helped my students consider ways to disagree but still respect one another. To me, the importance of skills like these goes beyond the content and I am grateful for tools such as this to help me in this process.
It is my hope that as these students go out into the larger nation and world, they will carry their effective conversational tools with them. These students can show the world that you can disagree and still shake hands and walk away from a conversation a bit more educated on what and why the other side holds their beliefs and opinions. These students can also educate others on the lessons they learned from studying the Holocaust—that every human being matters and how the path of hatred doesn’t always have to have the same conclusion. They will take the lessons of Holocaust survivors like Henry Oertelt, Kurt Messerschmidt, and Itka Zygmuntowicz and show the world that there is hope for a brighter future even in the complicated and seemingly uncompromising world that we are all trying to navigate today. It is our task as educators not to shrink away from complicated topics and histories but instead, to provide our students with the tools to navigate them respectfully.
About the author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012.
I first traveled to Poland in the summer of 2005. I had never left the United States and had no idea I’d return years later as a researcher and Fulbright scholar. The country had just joined the European Union. Cranes hung from the sky like praying mantises, new tarmac was laid in the airport, highways were expanding, and people seemed cautiously optimistic, if not hopeful. Just over a decade prior, Poland had still been under martial law implemented by the communist ruling government. Now it was the World Cup, Poland was in the semi-finals, and all over the city restaurants spilled into the streets as people gathered around giant outdoor screens. In the midst of this, our student tour walked through the winding cobblestone alleys of Krakòw, learning the history of the Kazimierz neighborhood, the former Jewish quarter of the city. Krakòw was a central city for the Nazi Party, and as such had not been razed to the ground with as much malice as its sister city, Warsaw, where over 80% of the city’s buildings sustained structural damage. Warsaw has a feeling of artifice, of new plaster and paint over old wounds. Krakòw has ghosts.
As I walked, our guide, a scholar from the Jaegallonian University read us “The End and the Beginning”, by Wislawa Symborska, Nobel prize-winning Polish poet,
“Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.
Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.”
This poem hung above my desk for years, a grounding force for me in understanding and contextualizing Holocaust education and the role of conflict and memory. In it, Symborska speaks of violence and the paradox of post-conflict societies, “all the cameras have left for another war” she states. This idea of remembering and forgetting recently came up in a New York Times article, Holocaust is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds, which posits that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.
As educators, what role do we play in acting as stewards of Holocaust memory? With the many constraints of time, materials, mandated testing, even language and cultural barriers, how can we bridge gaps of understanding when we teach the Holocaust? What role does memory play in understanding the events of the Holocaust?
In “Meeting a Moral Imperative, a Rationale for Teaching the Holocaust”, scholar David Lindquist writes that the primary rationale for studying the Holocaust involves the opportunity to consider the moral implications that can be drawn from examining the event. Studying the Holocaust, he argues, forces students to consider what it means to be human and humane by examining the full continuum of individual behavior, from ultimate evil to ultimate good. He argues that a moral imperative exists for the presence of Holocaust education in contemporary classrooms. Should that moral imperative extend to understanding the ability of time and distance to obscure the past?
The moral imperative for studying the Holocaust in the US and understanding the events of history is more important now than ever. America is facing its own role in triangulating the difficult geometry of past atrocities, making the vital calculus of truth and reconciliation, demarcated with the recent opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice , in Montgomery, Alabama. Bryan Stevenson, the head of Equal Justice Initiative which is spearheading the project, told The Jerusalem Post in 2016 that his design was inspired by what the ‘memory work’ monuments throughout Europe do in commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. “Auschwitz is a place you visit. It sobers you with the horrors of the Holocaust. When you leave these places, you want to say, ‘Never again should we commit this kind of suffering and abuse.'” Stevenson aims to evoke the same feelings in Americans in the design of the first physical space dedicated to the victims of slavery, lynching, segregation and mass incarceration. The physical manifestation of suffering is educative in itself.
Echoes & Reflections structure of primary source documents becomes increasingly important in the work of bridging gaps in memory and understanding. The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts and connects them directly with people in the past whose existence was impacted or extinguished by the Holocaust. Through primary resources, victims and rescuers ‘speak’ across time, using their diaries, letters, maps, and articles, to construct a view of the past not distorted, but intensified by the passage of time.
As teachers, questions of how time, distance, and desensitization impact our understanding of history are as important as the events of the past themselves. Only in exploring how we see the Holocaust, refracted through the lens of memory, can we come to understand and establish how the arc of human history changes us, calibrates our vision of the world, and weights even our most trivial and minute decisions each day.
About the Author: Melissa Mott is the Deputy Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at ADL.
This year Echoes & Reflections created its inaugural Educator Advisory Committee (EAC). The purpose of the Committee is to gather thoughtful and diverse educators from around the United States to provide us with expert educational guidance and feedback so we can continue to offer the highest quality of Holocaust education professional development to teachers. In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, we reached out to our members to understand how as they return to the classroom they hope to inspire their students through the lens of Holocaust education.
Here are some of their responses:
“The events in Charlottesville over the weekend speak more eloquently than I ever could and explain in stark and horrifying terms why we need to teach the Holocaust to our students. I feel compelled to teach this subject now more than ever and for so many reasons: to bear witness; to teach students that their actions count; to show that the Holocaust was never inevitable. Learning about the Holocaust helps our students make the connection between what happened then and what is happening in the world around them. I never stop reading and studying what happened then and I bring that passion to the classroom and hope that it sows the seeds it needs to.”
Susan Schinleber teaches English and Public Speaking at North Shore Country Day School, a K-12 private school in Winnetka, IL.
Eden C. Stein, Ph.D.
“This year my 8th graders will return to school horrified, with questions and anger over what has recently transpired in Charlottesville. “Why do people hate the Jews?” is a question I have often heard. They will be eager to read a Holocaust memoir and to learn about the history of antisemitism along with the history of racism. Following the reading of these important books they will be inspired to do something. In my Language Arts classroom, that something will be to write letters for social change – real letters that will actually be sent to a local, state, or national legislature. My hope is to also inspire them to recognize bigotry, racism and antisemitism in the world surrounding them and speak up to eradicate it.”
Eden C. Stein is certified for Language Arts and Social Studies 4-8 and History 7-12. She teaches at Worthington Hooker School in New Haven, CT.
“As we begin a new school year I hope to inspire my students to speak out. This hope was renewed over the weekend when there was very little being said about the events in Charlottesville, VA. Elie Wiesel’s profound quote, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” seems extremely applicable to the current world climate. My goal for the school year is to encourage my students to be brave and stand up for what is right; for them to understand that silence does not help. It is my hope that they lead their lives by Wiesel’s quote.”
Susan Davenport teaches English 10, English 11, Humanities, and Speech at John S. Battle High School in Bristol, VA.
“In light of the most recent current events, Holocaust education is more important now than ever. It’s our sacred duty as teachers to inspire our students to be a voice of reason and understanding that the events of 80 years ago cannot be permitted to happen again. Holocaust education can be the inspiration for students to see the evil and work against it.”
William Mason teaches American History & Government and Holocaust Studies at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, NY.
Let us know: How do you hope to inspire your classroom in the New Year?
“It is one thing to read about hateful actions in other cities across the US, but this is different. This hits too close to home. Hate is in our backyard.”
Anyone who knows me would say that I am infrequently at a loss for words; however, the events of last weekend have caused me to struggle with a way to verbalize my feelings and process the images. On Saturday and Sunday, and several times since then, I have opened my social media accounts, determined to write an impassioned post about the events that touched our neighboring community and came up short each time. The only thing I could think to say is that these events are not what real Virginians stand for and the fact that I had just spent the concluding two days of our first week back-to-school discussing antisemitism and hatred made it unfathomable to have such a local and contemporary example. In my heart though, these words were not enough.
Charlottesville is a “big sister” city to the small city of Staunton that I have called my home for the past five years. Like Staunton, it has many traits that are more small-town than truly city. The downtown areas of both are dotted with locally-owned restaurants, boutiques and antique stores set against the backdrop of historical architecture, and the footsteps of a rich and sometimes challenging past. Like Staunton, it is a place where history is always present, sometimes taken for granted, but frequently a topic of conversation. Both cities are composed of moderately diverse populations; populations that have had their struggles, but who have, at least in recent years, dealt with them largely through peaceful discourse.
For me personally, Charlottesville holds a special place in my heart. It is the city where our daughter was born, six weeks early with a team of doctors on standby at the University of Virginia hospital. It wasn’t part of our plan, which didn’t include anything except our local hospital closer to home, but for the rest of our lives and hers, Charlottesville will always be a part of our story. It is a city I visit frequently for other reasons as well, to socialize with my friends, to utilize their airport, and to seek out its stores. Now, it will also be a location that I think of in other ways—as the home to events that will be ingrained in the minds of Americans for a long time to come.
As the weekend drew to a close, I found myself grappling with what to say and do when students arrived in my classes on Monday. In the back of my mind I was in “teacher-mode,” but like the social media post, clear answers were not forthcoming. I knew that our class discussions on Thursday and Friday had provided them with a foundation, but giving them both space and guidance to process the events was of foremost concern.
Going into Monday, I will say that I was thankful for incredible colleagues and friends who were available to bounce ideas off of as we collectively searched for ideas on how to aid our students. I was also grateful to have many resources available to help get the conversation started. Between Echoes and Reflections, USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), there were options for each of my classes for Monday and the days to come.
I began each class on Monday by allowing students simply to speak out, question and share. The one theme that resonated through and through was the discomfort of proximity—these hateful acts occurred in a place where my students eat dinner with their families, where their parents work, where older siblings attend college, and where many of them hope to find themselves post-high school. Over and over, I heard variations of what Henry, my first student of the day, shared, “It is one thing to read about hateful actions in other cities across the US, but this is different. This hits too close to home. Hate is in our backyard.”
Throughout the day, we talked about respectful discourse utilizing the framework of a mini-lesson created by USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness entitled, “Promoting Effective Conversation Skills.” This lesson proved powerful not only for its fostering a skill that is sometimes overridden by emotion, but also because it includes the testimony of Henry Oertelt, who is also a featured survivor in the Echoes and Reflection’s unit, “Contemporary Antisemitism.” His words are powerful and need to be shared:
“…it is time for people to recognize that the world is made out of many, many different people, different colors, different sizes, and all kinds of differences…. it’s about time that we recognize that. It’s about time that we learn to live with it. And one way to learn to live with it is…we start to learn about each other, and while we may not agree with the ideology, and the lifestyle of other people, it is time to know about them, to respect them, as I expect them to respect me.
And if this can come done, and I think we’re making some progress, not a lot, but I see some progress here and there. If this can come about, then I think the world can be a much better place….That’s basically, my main message is because I tell them I am the prime example of what can happen to people that are suffering under prejudicial circumstances and biases and when nobody speaks up…we have to learn to speak up when we see prejudice and hatred.”
In the days since, we have talked about white supremacy more extensively than I have in years past. I have shared with my students the USHMM “Voices of Antisemitism” podcast by former Neo-Nazi Frank Meeink to show students that there is a path forward, even from the pit of hate. Students have discussed, debated, and respectfully disagreed as we have talked, and there is no doubt in my mind that this will continue for days and weeks to come; something I view with optimism. Although it feels at times like a small step, we as educators must firmly keep in mind every single day that our students truly do have the power to change the world. They are on a path to discovering how to be responsible citizens and it is our job to guide them. During a week such as this, it may be hard to come up with the right words, but we trust in the process, and we find the way.
We live in a world that moves fast. We run from one thing to the next while texting our half-formed thoughts in 140 characters or less. We are bombarded with sound bites and news headlines. At Echoes and Reflections, however, we believe that it’s critical to invest in slowing down and making time to engage in deep learning and reflection with one another. We especially believe this when it comes to learning about the Holocaust.
We can all agree that professional development for teachers is critical, and that during the school year your time is limited, which is why we are proud to offer a range of programming that is short, focused, and introduces you to the content and pedagogical skills needed to effectively teach about the Holocaust.
Beyond our webinars and half- and full-day programs, we are also responsive to those of you who want to enhance your knowledge about the Holocaust, explore new instructional strategies for the classroom, and make connections to a network of like-minded educators. This is why we sponsored two advanced programs this summer: the Echoes and Reflections Advanced Seminar at Yad Vashem and the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Educators Conference on Echoes and Reflections held at the Anti-Defamation League.
The nearly 60 educators from across the country who participated in these two programs have worked with Echoes and Reflections in the past, are currently using the materials in their classrooms, and wanted to learn more! They dedicated their time, knowledge, and experience to join these professional learning experiences. Each of the 60 has a story to tell about participating in these programs; we have chosen to share highlights from six of them:
Building Confidence with New Teaching Tools
Luz Brito has been teaching English as a New Language (ENL) for fourteen years at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, NY. Brito attended the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Educators Conference in both 2016 and 2017. Participation in the Wolf Conference has sparked her interest in teaching about the Holocaust and she finds the Echoes and Reflections resources to be practical and engaging for her student population of English Language Learners.
After the Wolf conference, Brito shared that she now understands the importance of teaching about the Holocaust as a human story, and has decided that survivor testimony and diary entries will be incorporated into all of her Holocaust lessons.
“Meeting and hearing from Holocaust survivors is a privilege that has inspired me even more to teach about the Holocaust. Each of their testimonies has renewed my commitment as an educator to teach my students to become responsible and caring citizens. Listening to survivors’ personal accounts of the Holocaust is a unique experience,” Brito said.
A Life Changing Experience
Nicole Barth is a US History/AP Government teacher at South Forsyth High School in Cummings, GA. One year after being introduced to Echoes and Reflections and using the resources in her classroom, Nicole Barth attended the 2017 Echoes and Reflections Advanced Seminar at Yad Vashem.
Barth journeyed to Israel with the hopes of being able to explore a country she had never seen before and learn from the best in the field. However, she claims that her experience far exceeded her original expectations, “What I got out of this trip was so much better. I made lasting friends and was able to network with other educators whom I can continue to work with and use as resources.”
Listening to survivors speak at Yad Vashem was a life-changing experience for Barth. She felt that every story was both extremely meaningful and unique. Now that Barth has had the opportunity to attend the Advanced Seminar she is invigorated to return to her classroom and share the knowledge she gained with her students.
Holocaust Educators Have Heart
Emily Bengels is an theater and French teacher at Readington Middle School in Whitehouse Station, NJ. As someone who has dedicated her life to teaching and empowering youth and has experienced firsthand acts of contemporary antisemitism in her community, Bengels believes that now more than ever she must work towards fighting hate. She strives to do this by promoting compassion, love, and understanding among her students through the lessons and teachings of the Holocaust.
Prior to attending the Advanced Seminar, Bengels had used many of the Echoes and Reflections’ lessons in the classroom. Bengels applied for the Advanced Seminar to gain more knowledge about human resilience in connection with the Holocaust. She feels that Echoes and Reflections is a model program for its emphasis on individual spiritual resistance.
“My new saying is: Holocaust educators have heart,” said Bengels in reference to her lasting impressions of the Advanced Seminar.
A Meeting of the Minds
Wendy E. Lockard is the reading specialist at St. Jerome Catholic School in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Lockard has a long history with Echoes and Reflections. She first learned about the program through the Anti-Defamation League’s “Bearing Witness” program in 2011, hosted two professional development programs that year, and participated in the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Educators Conference on Echoes and Reflections in 2014.
Returning this year for the 10th Annual Wolf Conference, Lockard hoped to gain new tools for connecting her students to visual history testimony and “to be in the midst of those who believe, like me, that Holocaust education is a valuable subject, and who love and dedicate themselves to Holocaust studies in order to foster greater tolerance and equality among their students.” She was not disappointed.
Like Barth and Bengels, Lockard felt the impact of being around so many dedicated and passionate educators. She describes the conference as a “meeting of the minds,” sharing that “participants strive for authentic knowledge and current methodologies to further enhance their Holocaust and social justice programs already in place. Sessions are conducted in an atmosphere of professionalism and openness which, in turn, lends itself to forge lasting friendships.”
Creating Critical Thinkers and Action Takers
Tyrone Shaw is a World History and AP World History teacher at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, DC where he also teaches an elective course focused on Social Justice, and Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Shaw was just beginning his career in education when he first attended the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Educators Conference in 2010 as a preservice teacher at Syracuse University. Reflecting on his experience in 2010, Tyrone shared that he learned a tremendous amount about the Holocaust and best practices for teaching about this difficult topic.
He returned this year for the 10th Annual Wolf Conference with an expectation of refreshing his pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust and learning about new strategies from colleagues, but gained much more. The conference exceeded Shaw’s expectations and gave him a renewed sense of purpose when teaching about the Holocaust. He has been inspired to begin incorporating some of the new content he learned into his Holocaust lessons this year.
What motivates Shaw to teach about the Holocaust? “I want my students to understand what injustice looks like, and the signs that indicate it is happening so they can name it when they see it happening around them,” he said.
Time to Reflect
Jill Dragiff is a social studies teacher at Christ Church’s Academy in Jacksonville, FL. Dragiff has spent the past five years engaging with Echoes and Reflections through its online courses and webinars. After receiving an invitation to apply to the Echoes and Reflections Advanced Seminar at Yad Vashem and gain the opportunity to meet some of the experts behind this Holocaust education program, she immediately applied.
“The description of this program sounded like something I could only dream of being able to do… I hoped to meet other educators who were as passionate as I am about Holocaust education and to learn from their perspectives and experiences,” said Dragiff.
Like Shaw, Dragiff believes that by teaching the lessons of the Holocaust she can fight intolerance and foster increased levels of empathy among younger generations. Dragiff was further inspired by how the sessions consistently gave her the time to reflect on how students absorb the material, which she believes will make her teaching more effective and give her students’ a deeper connection to the Holocaust. “If we concentrate on teaching our students about the life of individuals, families, communities— their hopes and dreams as well as their life experiences —we will remember them as people and not numbers,” said Dragiff.
Slowing-Down, Learning More, Digging Deeper
Sixty educators decided to slow down, learn more, and dig deeper. They wanted to become more effective Holocaust educators and share their learning with students. They accomplished this and so much more. While we cannot offer Advanced Programs like these more than once a year, the response to these programs reminds us of the need to stay connected to the content and to one another however we can, and whenever an opportunity presents itself. Connect with Echoes and Reflections at an upcoming program.
Recently, I incorporated Holocaust survivor testimony into my English Language Development (ELD) classes as a way to reinforce students’ listening and speaking skills, and activate their engagement in the learning process. It was very powerful to see how focused students became as they listened to these individuals share some of their most personal experiences.
Listening and speaking are difficult skills to master, especially when one is developing English as a second language. Usually students do the bare minimum and might give me three verbal sentences to summarize a five-page story. However, when practicing this skill with survivor testimony, students seek to fully explain the circumstances. They recognize the importance of the content and want to convey what they have understood. When they cannot find their own words to explain, they refer to a specific part in the clip. That step, referencing text, happens naturally, and demonstrates how well they are able to comprehend complex concepts and information.
Nationally the English language learner (ELL) population is an estimated 4.9 million and the states with the highest ELL population are California, Illinois, Colorado, Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia. Among this student population, the graduation rate varies widely from state to state with an average of 60% (Mitchell, Corey). That number drops for students who have not re-designated as fluent English proficient within four years of entering a school in the US (Maxwell, Lesli A.).
Middle and high school aged English language learners are required to meet academic standards in all core classes just like their native English speaking peers. They must take and pass their content classes in order to advance from grade level to grade level, receive a diploma, and have access to higher education. This challenge can be overwhelming for both teacher and student, but developing a well-rounded student and English language skills must take place in tandem with content learning. It is a shared responsibility, not just the obligation of the ELD instructor.
To meet these needs, it is essential for teachers to have access to relevant, impactful, rigorous resources that can easily be adapted for various skill levels. Resources must inform, challenge, and elicit meaningful student engagement. These types of resources can be difficult to find in a ready-to-use format.
The topics and themes made available through Echoes and Reflections are of high interest to my students. This content both provides a valuable outlet for expression and engages students with materials that promote higher-level thinking, prompt questions, and elicit discussions that develop critical academic skills. Primary sources such as letters, diary entries, photographs, and clips of testimony provide material, which is accessible to the various English fluency levels.
For example, at the end of one such lesson, a student told me, “I like these stories. They are important.” When I inquired as to why he felt that way, he explained that in Colombia he had heard about the Holocaust and was interested in learning more. This, for me, was yet another affirmation of the wealth of knowledge students like him can offer, and how those perspectives can be drawn on to expand both their content skills and their English skills.
Students of diverse backgrounds and varying skills bring with them valuable perspectives that when tapped into enrich the learning of all students. As teachers, we must believe in the value of including all students in our daily lessons. Often, it is the lack of time and resources that keeps many of us from bridging this gap. The resources provided by Echoes and Reflections are one way to address this gap, while also profoundly impacting their engagement in the learning process.
Lesly Culp works closely with Echoes and Reflections as Head of Programs for Education at the USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education
Why do people all too often talk, or even teach, about the Holocaust in ways that trivialize it or get the facts wrong?
And, more importantly, how do we get it right?
A recent incident where students in upstate New York were asked to “argue for or against the ‘Final Solution’” illustrates just how wrong things can go. Similarly, there have been a series of inaccurate comments in the media recently, everything from Hollywood being compared to 1930s Germany to extermination camps referred to as “Holocaust Centers.”
How can we explain this?
On the one hand, the constant barrage of information, and perhaps more importantly, misinformation, does not help; and when alternative accurate sources of information are not readily available – or sought out – such misinformation may become a substitute for facts.
In schools, we see efforts such as that in New York and other locations where teachers, often with the best of intentions, seek ways to compel students to go outside their “comfort zones” to learn about this history. Almost every year we learn of teachers assigning students to take roles of “the Jews” during the Holocaust to help them develop empathy for the victims, largely resulting in upset, complaint, and distress for students, families, and the school community. While simulation-type activities may seem to be a compelling way to engage students, ultimately they trivialize the experience of the victims and can leave students with the impression that they actually know what it was like during the Holocaust.
What we can take from examples such as those described, is the complexity of both teaching, and really learning, about the Holocaust.
On the positive side, due to media attention, we have also seen a broader awareness in the general population that Holocaust education is critical and relevant. At Echoes and Reflections – a partnership program of the Anti-Defamation League, USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem – we have worked with almost 40,000 committed educators since 2005, providing them with authentic and credible materials and resources for the classroom.
How can this be addressed?
The truth is, the Holocaust is not easy to understand and certainly challenging to teach. Yet, teachers should not shy away from the challenge. We want them to have the confidence, knowledge, and skills to approach this teaching with commitment and courage. While there are a range of excellent educational resources and activities available to educators, which can help to provide accurate information about the Holocaust, without a sound pedagogy for teaching this complex topic, the impact will be limited and the impact will likely not last.
Recognizing this, Echoes and Reflections recently released “Pedagogical Principles for Effective Holocaust Instruction” and these principles include:
- Define terms;
- Provide background on the history of antisemitism;
- Teach the human story;
- Make the Holocaust relevant;
- Encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking; and
- Ensure a supportive learning environment.
Beyond supporting effective teaching about the Holocaust, we ALL have the opportunity to use the Holocaust’s current presence in larger community conversations and in the media as a teachable moment, and as a platform to encourage critical thinking and dialogue beyond the school walls.
What can you do?
Stay curious, and ask questions. As we are reminded of just how complex the story of the Holocaust is, we should be willing to question what we are hearing in the media or from other sources, and ask whether it makes sense. If it doesn’t, question the assumptions or misinformation, and seek out accurate and reliable sources of facts.
Keep talking. Engage family, friends, neighbors, and when appropriate, policymakers, in a dialogue about how you want the Holocaust to be remembered and discussed. Let’s continue to affirm the societal importance of educating and ensuring that the meaning and relevance of this watershed event in history is not lost.
Make connections. Ultimately, our goal is to reach young people to build the next generation of champions who will remember this history and tell the story. To do this we need to connect with families and caregivers and ensure that they not only understand the stories their children are hearing, but that their children’s schools are teaching about the Holocaust with proper context and sound instructional strategies.
How then do we start to get it right? We do all of the above, we stay engaged with the world, we keep talking and connecting, and in the words of Holocaust survivor Roman Kent, who was recently interviewed by Mic, we never let ourselves forget that “Ignorance is not an excuse.”
“It's not like I had a natural talent for athletics… It was just plain fun.” – Margaret Lambert
Born Gretel Bergmann on April 12, 1914, Lambert achieved the German high jump record in 1931 and, as a young athlete, was committed to pursuing a career in athletics. In her 1995 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Lambert shared that with the Nazi rise to power, “Everything changed. People that you knew wouldn’t talk to you anymore,” and Lambert was excluded from organized sports because she was Jewish.
“Teaching with Margaret’s testimony, and sharing her story with students, adds a unique dimension and depth to learning about the Holocaust,” shares Robert Adler, a history, special education, and English teacher at Berks County Intermediate Unit in Pennsylvania. “Here is somebody who actually lived the experience,” he says, emphasizing that her unprecedented athletic career and discussion about life under the Nazi dictatorship is a powerful introduction for students to the study of the Holocaust, and the complexity of persecution, bias, and antisemitism.
“In my classroom, we talk about Margaret’s life, how affected she was by the prejudice she faced, and the injustice of what she experienced. Margaret’s testimony brings light to the fear and trepidation people felt when the Nazis took over, people’s responses, and the way they changed their behavior. Suddenly her friends were not her friends. It is an experience that is relatable for today’s kids…”
In her testimony, Lambert explains that in an effort to continue her career she moved to the United Kingdom where, in 1934 she won the British high jump Championship with a height of 1.55 meters. However, under the pressure of an international boycott of the 1936 Olympics in protest of Germany’s treatment of Jewish athletes, the Nazi dictatorship exerted pressure on Lambert’s family and she was forced to return to Germany. In what Lambert describes as a “charade,” she was placed on the German Olympic team.
“The reason why I was put on the German Olympic team was that the Americans, the French, the English, they all wanted to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. I was the only Jewish athlete with world-class capabilities… If you can imagine what it feels like to compete in the Adolf Hitler stadium in front of only non-Jewish people who… didn’t have very nice thoughts about me. What is this Jew doing there?”
One month prior to the opening of the 1936 Olympics, Lambert tied the German high jump record of 1.6 meters when she won the Württembergian Championship. However, with the boycott movement subdued and international teams enroute to participate in the Olympic games, the Nazi regime officially struck Lambert’s accomplishment from the record books, and the German sports authorities removed her from the national team for under-performance.
Adler’s students examine the challenges Lambert faced and are able to draw connections to behavior they have witnessed in their own lives. “The Holocaust is devastating, but Lambert’s story encourages students to think critically about the way we behave toward one another and to take a hard look at what people can do, the strength of the human spirit, and to see the lessons we can learn from today.”
“We talk about how Margaret fought as best she could not to give into the pressures she experienced and I emphasize that history is ongoing and active. My students are moved by her courage and they are inspired to act on what they see happening today.”
Adler also highlights that a number of other historical themes are brought to the forefront when students learn about Lambert. “Born in 1914,” Adler explains, “Her story is one about women’s roles too. She broke the norm with her independent spirit and the way she preferred to dress in pants. She asked tough questions about why she should be relegated to a particular role. In the 1920’s and 30’s it couldn’t have been easy. She wasn’t about to let herself be typecast and that is powerful for my students.”
Margaret Lambert’s life story is one of perseverance, persistence, and strength. As a talented athlete she faced extraordinary challenges and did everything that she could to follow her dreams.
In 1937, Lambert immigrated to the United States where, determined to leave her German past behind, she Americanized her name to Margaret. That year, she won the US women's high jump and shot put championships, and in 1938, she again won the US high jump. She resigned from her career in sports after the outbreak of World War II.
Lambert married Bruno Lambert in 1937 and had two sons, Glen and Gary. She published a book about her experiences in 2004 entitled, By Leaps and Bounds and was featured in a 2004 HBO documentary Hitler’s Pawn about her athletic career in Germany. Following her career in sports she became a physical therapist and, at the age of 102, Lambert currently lives in New York.
In recent years the German track and field association has worked to make amends. In 1995, a sports complex in Berlin was named in Lambert’s honor. She and her husband were Germany’s guests of honor at the 1995 torch lighting at the Olympics in Atlanta. And, in 1999, the Laupheim stadium that Lambert had been banned from in the 1930s was officially named after her. Lambert's 1936 German national record was officially restored in 2009.
Robert Adler has worked as an Alternative Education teacher at Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, PA since 2001.
A new statewide initiative is being implemented in Pennsylvania that encourages educators to integrate Holocaust education into their curriculum. Act 70 provides, “Children with an understanding of the importance of the protection of human rights and the potential consequences of unchecked ignorance, discrimination and persecution.” Pennsylvania has determined that, “It is a matter of high priority that children in this Commonwealth be educated concerning the Holocaust, genocide, and other human rights violations.”
Randi Boyette, Associate Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia Regional Office, and Cynthia Murphy, Director of Curriculum, Technology, and Resources at Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9 (IU9), talk about Pennsylvania’s efforts to prioritize Holocaust education through Act 70.
Enacting Act 70
As a convener of the Regional Consortium of Holocaust Educators in Greater Philadelphia, and consultant on the Act 70 Implementation Committee, Boyette shares, “The Department of Education has made a strong commitment to increase Holocaust, genocide, and human rights violations education in Pennsylvania… Act 70 is the document that says, ‘We think it is important to teach about the Holocaust, this is why, and we at the Department of Education are going to help you do it.’”
Pennsylvania consulted experts from across the country in the development of Act 70. Dr. Kori Street, Director of Education at USC Shoah Foundation, joined Boyette, along with representatives from the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, and more.
Murphy works with educators in fourteen districts in Pennsylvania and is responsible for facilitating and providing professional development for teachers and administrators. In implementing Act 70 she shares that, “As educators, we have the responsibility to teach the Holocaust in a thoughtful, purposeful, and safe way for our kids. We have that opportunity, that obligation.”
Why Teach the Holocaust?
“Holocaust education is so linked to character education, civic engagement, and the kind of people students are – or can be,” Boyette shares. “That is the power of Holocaust education. It engages students intellectually while also appealing to their hearts.” Murphy echoes that this is best achieved when strong pedagogy is coupled with compelling material. “When our teachers have a good understanding, our students get a good understanding. It is our responsibility to make sure that they know what happened in the past, and that teachers use this material in a way that fosters empathy.”
Holocaust education presents the unique opportunity to contemplate hard questions about human nature, and challenges students to consider their own choices while learning about an important period in history.
Key Components of Comprehensive Holocaust Education
Act 70 outlines curriculum guidelines to teach the Holocaust effectively to students. “Echoes and Reflections, along with IWitness, are excellent examples of resources that meet the Act 70 guidelines in terms of its pedagogy. The Pennsylvania Department of Education sees Echoes and Reflections as a wonderful partner in offering teacher training programs,” Boyette shares.
Act 70 encourages the inclusion of the following subjects where appropriate in instruction:
- Discuss the breadth of the history of the Holocaust, including the Third Reich dictatorship, concentration camp system, persecution of Jews and non-Jews, Jewish and non-Jewish resistance, and Post World War II trials.
- Include the definition, history, response, and actions taken in the face of genocide, including the Holocaust and any other genocide perpetrated against humanity.
- Discussion of human rights violations, antisemitism, racism, and the abridgment of civil rights.
“I think Echoes and Reflections is going to make it easier for Pennsylvania teachers to be compliant with Act 70,” says Boyette. “It is crafted to keep the focus on the lives of the victims and not the perpetrators, and it contextualizes the history while complying with Common Core.” Resources in Lesson Components on the Echoes and Reflections website relate directly to the guidelines in Act 70.
Examining the Holocaust challenges students to consider difficult questions. “How did people stand by and watch?” Murphy asks. “Echoes and Reflections is so rich with primary sources that it makes you think and wonder about why people made the choices they made. Listening to survivor testimony and hearing their stories is really impactful to students as well as teachers. You can’t put yourself in their place but it’s a question that will challenge kids to really think. What is the level of responsibility for people who knew and how do you determine the difference between guilt and blame?”
Professional Development in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has added Holocaust education resources to their website and will be offering professional development opportunities for educators statewide.
Echoes and Reflections is hosting 18 professional development programs in Pennsylvania in October and November 2015. Teachers will learn about the requirements of Act 70 along with effective teaching strategies to help students understand what happened during the Holocaust, why it happened, and how it relates to different issues they face today.
Cynthia Murphy is the Director of Curriculum, Technology, and Resources at Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9 (IU9), in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. Randi Boyette is the Associate Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia Regional Office.
Anne Frank’s wartime diary, The Diary of a Young Girl, documents her thoughts, feelings, and experiences between 1942 and 1944 while hiding with her family during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Friends of the family, Miep Gies and her husband Jan, Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, and Bep Voskuijl, and her father Johannes Hendrik Voskuijl, helped the Franks and the others to survive for the two years they were in hiding. June 12, 2015 would have been Anne Frank’s 86th birthday.
Carol Martin and Sarah Brown are Echoes and Reflections educators with years of experience teaching about Anne Frank in their classrooms. As a central component of their curriculum, they have developed sound strategies for teaching Anne Frank, which they share below.
They emphasize the importance of providing context, understanding what it means to be a bystander, and providing a safe space to ask questions. “My students love it,” Brown says. “They get so much out of it and years later they tell me that the Anne Frank unit is what they remember most from 8th grade.” Martin adds, “I feel strongly that I have to help my students really understand what it must have been like for her. These were peoples’ lives.”
Preparation and Providing Context
Martin starts with a timeline. “It is like a KWL chart. I do this activity with photos from 1933-1945 and ask my students to put them in order. Then we rate the events from most significant to least significant. I find that using photos of people help students make the connection that these were peoples’ lives and the events we are learning about happened to them. I want to help my students connect on a personal level and pictures work well.”
Martin also emphasizes the importance of framing the historical context. “I provide an introduction to Nazi Germany where we start with the Treaty of Versailles and then move forward.” Helpful resources from Echoes and Reflections Lesson 3: Nazi Germany include - The Weimer Republic and the Rise of the Nazi Party, Europe before 1919, and Europe after 1919. “It is helpful to understand that Otto Frank chose the Netherlands because during World War I it had remained neutral and he thought they would be safe. He chose it strategically. Echoes and Reflections is great because you can pull the resources you need and the procedures organize it all for you step by step.”
Brown adds, “I like to show an excellent documentary called Anne Frank Remembered. It incorporates survivor testimony and gives a lot of background information about what it was like in Germany and what motivated the Frank family to leave and go to the Netherlands. It addresses Hitler’s invasion of the Netherlands and the integration of the Nuremberg Laws.”
In addition to helping students understand the political conditions that gave rise to fascism in Germany, both educators highlight the importance of helping students understand antisemitism. Brown shares, “It is really a study of racism and intolerance… Here in our rural district in upstate New York, I might be the first Jewish person my students have ever met so we get started with the basics.”
Both educators utilize Echoes and Reflections Lesson 2: Antisemitism resources including the Antisemitism Definition and Summary, and the map of Jewish Communities in Europe. Martin notes that she also references the illustrations from this lesson to demonstrate the use of propaganda. “I try and explain what the time period was like and help students consider what it might be like to hear antisemitic messages your whole life.”
Teaching Anne Frank: A Lesson in Taking Action
Building on the historical context, both Martin and Brown introduce their students to Anne Frank, a thirteen-year-old girl who is roughly the same age as their students, by teaching the stage adaptation of the book. They find it better captures students’ attention and creates more opportunities for engagement.
Brown prints copies for all of her students and encourages them to take copious notes and write all over it as they work through the text together. “As we read it we emphasize the interaction between the people in hiding and that they could not have survived without Miep Gies. The people who helped the Frank family chose not to be bystanders. They chose to help because they believed that it was the right thing to do. We talk about this and contrast it to the majority of people during this time that chose to go along with the demands of the regime. What makes a person do what they do or don’t do? What was it in Miep’s values that caused her do what she thought was right and put herself at risk?”
To answer these questions, Brown and Martin utilize Echoes and Reflections Lesson 7: Rescuers and Non-Jewish Resistance. In an article adapted from a speech given by Miep Gies after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Anti-Defamation League she talks about Anne Frank’s Legacy.
Martin highlights that she likes to emphasize the lessons in Anne Frank’s story as having a lot to do with the choices people make. She uses Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders directly from the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide and Salitter’s Report in which he talks about the deportation of Jews. “This ties back to the end when Anne gets deported. As a class, we go back and talk about it. We also do a lot of collaborative work. I put my students in groups and have them talk things through with each other. Echoes and Reflections does a nice job of setting it all up for me and making these connections.”
Questions and Discussions
Martin shares that as an educator in a Catholic school her students often want to know more about the role of the church during the Holocaust. “Students always ask, ‘What did Pope Pius XII say and what was the Catholic response?’ It can be really hard to answer some of these questions and help students work through this material.”
Her students often ask personal questions about Anne Frank as well. They want to know how her hiding place was revealed, what happened to her afterwards when they got to Auschwitz, and how she died. “These are hard to answer because for a lot of them we don’t really know. We talk about Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and what that must have been like. I use Echoes and Reflections Lesson 5: The “Final Solution” to help answer some of these inquiries.”
She said that in her classroom they have started using an anonymous comment box. “This is a great way to make sure all the students questions are answered and gives me a chance to think through how I can best prepare a strong answer to those tough questions.”
Brown says, “My students have a lot of questions like, ‘Why did they kill the Jews? Why did they target them?’ In some ways, our course on Anne Frank and the Holocaust is an introduction to what human nature can be. I try to minimize the atrocities of it in class and put emphasis on what we can learn and what these lessons mean for our role in society today.”
After years of teaching the Holocaust, Martin shares that she has found it helpful to start by having a meeting with parents. Engaging parents as partners in the process of teaching this difficult material helps them prepare for some of the tough questions their children might have. “I tell them everything that we will be doing, reading, learning, and suggest that if their children have questions to please write them down and I’ll be happy to answer them in class.”
As an additional complement to this unit, Martin encourages her students to apply to the Chapman University Art and Writing Contest every year, which focuses on themes central to both the Holocaust and to ethical decision making.
Sarah Brown has taught 7-12th grade in the AuSable Valley Central School District for 25 years and currently teaches 8th grade. Carol Martin is a 6th-8th grade English and History teacher at Our Lady of Fatima Parish School in San Clemente, CA. She has been teaching about the Holocaust for 12 years.
Since 2009, I have been using Echoes and Reflections as an essential resource with English/language arts and history/social studies teachers to help their students understand the literature (fiction and non-fiction) of the Holocaust. Using the well-crafted lessons, powerful visual testimonies, and carefully selected primary documents in Echoes and Reflections, I help teachers learn compelling content and effective strategies that deepen students’ engagement and analysis of Holocaust literary and historical texts. By integrating these texts into Echoes and Reflections, teachers and students personalize the history of the Holocaust; reflect on the role of individual responsibility, and learn to act on behalf of social justice for all.
A lesson that I have found to be particularly effective is a lesson that I developed for use with in-service and preservice teachers using Lesson 4: The Ghettos and We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust (Jacob Boas, Scholastic, 1995).
Below is an outline of the lesson “Integrating Holocaust Non-fiction into Echoes and Reflections.”
- Write the word “ghetto” on the board and ask students to write their images and thoughts about the word in a journal.
- Introduce Ellis Lewin and Joseph Morton to the group using their Biographical Profiles and then show their testimonies from Lesson 4. Have students compare their original images and thoughts about the word “ghetto” to what they learned from these survivors.
- Distribute primary source materials in Echoes and Reflections to enhance students’ understanding of the ghettos.
- After an introduction to the teenagers in We Are Witnesses, have students divide into groups by teenage author and then read about their chosen teenager as a group.
- Initiate a jigsaw exercise, asking students to move into new groups with at least one representative from each diary. Have students discuss their teenagers and perceptions of life in the ghettos.
- Share testimony from additional survivors featured in Lesson 4: Leo Berkenwald, Milton Belfer, George Shainfarber, and Eva Safferman to provide students with additional perspectives of ghetto life.
- Ask students to consider what they learned about the ghettos from the diary entries and visual history testimonies shown in class using the following questions to guide the discussion:
- What did the young people you learned about do to survive in the ghettos?
- How did the people you read about or listened to maintain hope?
Lesson 4: The Ghettos addresses Common Core State Standards and the NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts with its focus on citing textual evidence, analyzing multiple mediums, and referencing texts.
Beverly Ann Chin is Professor of English, Director of the English Teaching Program, and former Director of the Montana Writing Project at the University of Montana in Missoula.
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