I teach in a small community in the Midwest. Two years ago I found that many students were leaving our school without a thorough understanding of the Holocaust, one of the most unprecedented acts of inhumanity in modern world history. Located in a homogenous, semi-rural part of southwest Wisconsin, most of my students are unfamiliar with cultural and religious practices different from their own.
After attending a one-day Echoes & Reflections seminar hosted by the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, my colleague and I felt inspired and equipped to implement a Holocaust elective studies course that not only teaches the history but also challenges students to grapple with the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping that are increasingly embedded in our world today.
As an educator, it was important for me to find a sound visual representation of the progression of time during the Holocaust, in hopes that students would be able to easily grasp the overlap of these historical events. With this year’s release of Echoes & Reflections new interactive Timeline of the Holocaust, which was also their first student facing resource, I felt this would be an engaging tool to enhance my course and students’ understanding of how one decision, decree, or act of complicity could impact an entire population. As an English teacher, I appreciate the Timeline’s multimedia incorporation of photographs, primary documents, and personal testimonies to help humanize this complex period.
I first introduced the use of the Timeline through a scaffold process of guided note taking. I provided students with a digital template of the pre-war years and walked them through how to view and “read” the Timeline. I modeled what it looked like to take notes from the Timeline and we discussed the significance of the early years’ events.
Students were instantly comfortable utilizing this learning tool. They engage with not only the material, but also one another during what we refer to as “Timeline Time” as they interact with the online content and discuss the significance of the events. There is a plethora of primary sources available; we do not use a textbook. The students, who crave a tangible resource from which to study, have latched onto the Timeline as a means of creating their own sort of “textbook.”
It can be difficult for a student without a comprehensive world history background to understand all the puzzle pieces that enabled the Nazi rise to power and ultimately the implementation of the “Final Solution”. As a visual representation of years progressing, the Timeline enables students to easily grasp the overlapping of world events and how seemingly isolated events relate to larger scale history. Students interact with the photographs, poems, and audio recordings in a way that helps them build a personal, humanizing connection to the text and the individuals impacted.
The use of the Timeline prompts inquiry-based learning, where the class can question, discuss, and analyze events both in the context of the Holocaust and through the lens of broader world history implications. For example, when students learn that Dachau concentration camp was established in 1933, some ask “why didn’t the world intervene then?” It elicits early conversations about the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust and the roles other countries played throughout the war.
As the course moves from one unit to the next, students have more autonomy with the Timeline. Some work in pairs to read, discuss and analyze the events; others prefer to work alone offering their insights during larger class discussions. Exploring the Timeline and concurrent note taking encourages students to synthesize that information with what they have already learned.
This new resource provides the opportunity for students to read, listen, and connect with individual survivors and victims of the Holocaust. It encourages them to question complicity and celebrate acts of resistance. The interactive Timeline engages students with primary documents and personal artifacts at a level of understanding that no textbook can similarly accomplish.
As we wrapped up this past school year, I felt confident that my students now had a thorough understanding of the Holocaust and were equipped to carry these lessons beyond the walls of the classroom.
About the author: Natalie White teaches Holocaust Studies, 9th grade English, and Creative Writing at Prairie du Chien High School in southwestern Wisconsin. She is currently a member of the Echoes & Reflections Educator Advisory Committee.
I am fortunate to be able to teach a semester-long senior level Holocaust Studies elective. I teach in a small rural school; thus, most if not every student who elects to take my course had me as their Civics or U.S. History teacher. On day one of the class, I am upfront with what students can expect, or, not expect. They should not expect Holocaust Studies to be the same as my previous two courses. There are no simulations, games, or any of the other multitude of means I typically use to engage students. Students are not going to “pretend” to be in Auschwitz. They aren’t going to build “models” of a concentration camp or wear the Star of David on their clothes to “simulate” what it was like being a Jew in the ghetto. I set the tone for what students should expect: they should expect deep and meaningful learning about a period of history that may upset them and will likely leave them with more questions than I can answer.
My Holocaust Studies course is a relatively new addition to our school’s History Department, and while it is vastly different from my other courses, it continues to evolve. Upon receiving permission to institute the Holocaust course I was advised of the vast teaching resources offered by Echoes & Reflections. Creating a curriculum map was simple: Echoes had already laid out a scope and sequence via their lessons. They had handouts, videos, survivor testimonies, lists of questions to ask, and much, much more. However, despite my good intentions, as a novice Holocaust instructor, I tended to initially focus on the horrors.
In 2018 I was fortunate to be selected as one of 20 United States educators for the Echoes & Reflections inaugural Journey through Poland with Yad Vashem, visiting Holocaust-related sites, during the summer of that year. During our visit to the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow I heard something I will never forget as an educator. The Director of the museum advised us that many educators focus on the “car accident” of the Holocaust; in other words - they start with the gas chambers. If we stumble upon an accident scene, what draws our attention are the mangled vehicles, the injuries, and the possible deaths; the Holocaust is no different. What draws attention is often the carnage in and of itself. He iterated that car accidents have a history; something led to the accident. There are stories involved. Again, the Holocaust is the same. The story does not begin in the forest outside Vilna, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or Treblinka, or in the gas vans of Chelmno - the story is complex and involves human beings with a rich history and culture. It involves perpetrators who made choices, that led to one of the, if not the largest genocide in recorded human history. It involves millions of stories - not all of which can be told in a semester-long course.
After my trip to Poland and visits to sites such as the former Warsaw and Lodz Ghettos, sites of mass graves of Jews murdered by the SS, Chelmno, Treblinka, and Auschwitz, I was invigorated to vastly improve my Holocaust course. I felt a sense of responsibility to ensure I was honoring the victims and survivors alike and took several steps to alter my course. An initial change was to the first unit of study which now focuses entirely on pre-war Jewish life, an aspect completely missing from my previous classes. Further, I amassed a library of non-fiction books written by or telling the stories of survivors. I did this through grants and a Donors Choose campaign. Students are tasked with choosing a book to read and sharing the story with their classmates. While Elie Wiesel’s Night is a masterpiece, there are countless other stories written by survivors, giving different perspectives on the multitude of aspects of the Holocaust. I also include an activity that I was blessed to do for my Poland trip. Each student chooses a victim of the Holocaust, does research, and tells their story to the class, in a sense, providing the victims with a eulogy. I was able to do this for Jewish football player Eddie Hammel as we stood next to Crematorium II in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Holocaust education remains extremely vital. While it is definitely a means to memorialize the victims and thwart Holocaust denial and distortion, it is much more. It is a study of choices, of human resolve and responsibility to others, and a case study of hatred and its consequences. Unfortunately, antisemitism remains prevalent in our society, manifesting itself last fall at the Tree of Life Synagogue Attack in Pittsburgh, the largest mass shooting on a Jewish community in the U.S. Further, racist and discriminatory choices are still being made in today’s world that denigrate and segregate others, and at times, lead to acts of violence.
Thankfully, many states realize the importance of Holocaust education. Twelve states require it to be taught in their public schools, while a dozen other states have bills pending in their legislatures. However, it should not take a state mandate to realize its significance. I implore you, as a teacher, to truly reflect on teaching the subject. Are you focusing just on the “car accident?” Are you asking students to take the perspective of a survivor or victim? Are you simulating anything at all? Are you doing your due diligence and taking the responsibility to ensure Holocaust education is handled in a respectful, proper manner? Teaching about the Holocaust can be challenging for educators, but thankfully, there are programs and resources that exist to support teachers in tackling this important and complex topic.
About the author: Dr. Joe Harmon is a Civics, U.S. History, and Holocaust Studies teacher at Redbank Valley High School in New Bethlehem, PA where he has taught for the last 15 years. He is currently on the Educator Advisory Committee for Echoes & Reflections and is the 2018 Pittsburgh Holocaust Center's Educator of the Year.
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