I did a double-take when I saw the recent photo in the news of the students forming the Solo Cup swastika and making a Nazi salute at a weekend party. This image came on the heels of another photo of a group of laughing young men making the Nazi salute prior to a school dance. Swirling around these events have been Jewish cemetery desecrations, hate-filled graffiti, and even swastikas drawn in blood. And in this context, we still grieve for the Jewish congregants shot dead at the Tree of Life synagogue and now the murder of 50 Muslim worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand.
I am sure many have felt as I do: What is happening? What can I do about it? On an intellectual level, I know this is not new – hatred, violence, and targeting of the “other” has always been with us. The acts of violence may ebb, but it is always there.
Having spent the better part of 25 years working in anti-bias and Holocaust education, I feel some sense of failure. Even though I know these incidents do not reflect the values and beliefs of the majority of people, I can’t help but question if the work I have done has mattered. I recall my former colleague who would say that the efforts to counter hatred, antisemitism, and racism could sometimes feel like having the tiniest of pink Baskin-Robbins sample spoons, trying to chip away at the mountain of mistrust, fear, anger, ignorance, resentment, or downright apathy that can so often push against positive change. She would use this analogy to inspire others – if we all worked together, even with the smallest of tools, we could get there.
So, I move on. But I haven’t quite been able to get the image of the Solo-Cup swastika out of my head. Is the Holocaust such a remote event that it has lost all meaning? Are students merely reflecting a society where hate crimes are on the rise, and the swastika the symbol of choice to provoke and shock? Is this an inevitable by-product of a world where life for so many young people (and some not so young) is defined and experienced through rapid-fire photo snaps, posts, and tweets, without any time to think or process the words or images that consume them?
In some despair, I reached out to one of my wisest counselors: my 16-year-old daughter. “What is this about?”, I asked her. “Do you think these young people have never been taught about the Holocaust? Do they not understand the pain this causes or recognize this as a symbol of the most awful form of hatred?” “Sure, but they probably don’t care,” she quickly answered.
Therein lies the rub: caring. I’ve always framed my work, as many do, in three, interlocking phases of impact: What do we need to know about an issue/topic, why should we care, and how can we act to make a positive difference. Or, in the more poetic frame, how do we inform the head, move the heart, and motivate the hands.
In Holocaust education, these three concepts could not be more vital and interdependent. What do we want students to know about the history of the Holocaust? There are so many complex concepts, events, decisions, and actions that occurred. If you want to understand the why and how this genocide could have happened, you need a foundation of the what. The Echoes & Reflections Partners toiled for a year to distill the core historical content that now forms our ten classroom units. Our goal was – and is - to guide teachers to build this essential knowledge with their students and to ask those critical questions of why and how at every step.
Now, to the caring. The Holocaust is practically ancient history for many young people, and in the United States, for the majority of the population, this is not their history. It’s remote, it happened somewhere else, and it’s over. This is where our primary belief of teaching about the Holocaust as a human story comes in. We seek to bring this knowledge to life through the integration of visual history testimonies and primary sources. We want young people to see, listen, and come to know that these were real people who had desires, dreams, hopes, and lives that were just waiting to be lived. While I would never ever guarantee that a student who watched a testimony of a survivor describing his arrival at Auschwitz or who read a poem by a girl left alone in the Lodz ghetto, would reject the Solo Cup swastika game, maybe, just maybe, they would make a different decision in that moment.
Which brings us to action. How do we create and inspire a sense of personal agency so that in the face of hatred or antisemitism, or when someone is excluded or “othered,” we don’t just walk away or swipe the screen? When I began my work in this field, this step was almost always about an in-person response – will you speak up if someone is being taunted? Will you call out an antisemitic comment or joke? Today, for most adolescents, these moral choice moments are experienced online and at lightning speed. Does this make it easier or harder to intervene? Does it fuel a level of insensitivity to these issues that carries over to real-life choices and decisions? Does an intervention online have more or less power to impact the person who is being offensive?
These are the questions I have been wrestling with these past few months. As we approach Yom HaShoah, this sacred day of remembrance for all those who perished during the Holocaust, I hope to start to find some answers. At Echoes & Reflections, we will be working with educators in our network to learn more about the experiences and perspectives of the adolescents in our country and what is driving some of them to engage in and/or ignore hurtful behavior – and how can we inspire more to stand up. And I encourage others, not just educators, to do the same. At a time when it feels so hard to have these tough conversations, doesn’t it mean it is that much more important that we try? If we want our children to care, we must first care enough to listen to them.
About the Author: Lindsay J. Friedman has been the Managing Director for Echoes & Reflections since 2014.
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.