The recent film Denial, which recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier, provides an opportunity to critically examine Holocaust denial and contemporary antisemitism. For students, analyzing the ways that what they have learned about the Holocaust debunks the assertions of deniers allows them to reach important conclusions based on evidence.
Echoes and Reflections sat down with Dan Leshem, PhD, Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and former Program Manager of the Holocaust Denial on Trial website (HDoT.org), to learn more about what teachers should know as they consider this topic from an educational perspective.
What is Holocaust Denial?
“Holocaust denial is a very strange concept and a very difficult thing to teach,” Leshem explains, “because it requires student to hold a lot of things in their mind at the same time… Students have to reflect on the historical truth of the Holocaust while also considering the denier’s claim, think about why someone would deny the Holocaust, question the way denying the Holocaust hurts the people that were there, and how it hurts Jewish people today. Holocaust denial becomes a complicated story.”
Leshem emphatically states that the most important thing to know is that Holocaust denial is antisemitism. “There is no other reason that it exists other than to hurt Jews and rehabilitate the image of Hitler and the Nazi party.” He goes on to add that, many of the most vehement Holocaust deniers are antisemites as well as being anti-immigrant, racist, misogynistic, homophobic haters of all “others”.
Much of denial focuses on inserting doubt or suspicion into the narrative about the Holocaust and presenting assertions as if they are historical fact and historical proof. “Offering a series of logical fallacies is less detectable. Insert enough doubt and people start to think that ‘maybe there is more to the story than I was told.’”
Dr. Lipstadt uses the term “immoral equivalencies” to describe these logical fallacies. In an interview transcript on HDOT, she explains that Holocaust deniers will say, “Yes, the Germans had camps (because they can’t deny that there were concentration camps. Those were reported even in the German press, which was hardly a free press, but everybody knew there was this system of concentration camps), but the Americans had camps too… they did bad, we did bad, in war bad things happen.” The danger in these assertions, Lipstadt explains, is more than that they’re completely false. It is that, “There is no moral equivalency for the Holocaust,” so deniers need to negate its significance to further their own hateful agenda.
Common Contentions of Holocaust Deniers
According to Leshem there are, at the heart of deniers’ rhetoric, two core themes: that the Jewish people were not the victims but the victimizers, and that the material evidence of a genocide were all fabricated.
In Lipstadt’s trial, Richard Evan’s expert witness report listed the following common contentions:
- The number of Jews killed by the Nazis was far less than six million; it amounted to only a few hundred thousand, and was thus similar to, or less than, the number of German civilians killed in Allied bombing raids.
- Gas chambers were not used to kill large numbers of Jews at any time.
- Neither Hitler nor the Nazi leadership in general had a program of exterminating Europe's Jews; all they wished to do was to deport them to Eastern Europe.
- 'The Holocaust' is a myth invented by Allied propaganda during the war and sustained since then by Jews who wish to use it to gain political and financial support for the state of Israel. The supposed evidence for the Nazis' wartime mass murder of millions of Jews by gassing and other means was fabricated after the war.
“It can be very challenging to debunk some of these ideas if you’re not an expert,” Leshem adds. These contentions require one to be knowledgeable about the Holocaust and able to point to all the pieces of evidence that negate each claim.
Is Denial Unique to the Holocaust?
“Denial is the last stage of every genocide,” Leshem explains citing Gregory H. Stanton, noted Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at George Mason University and President of Genocide Watch. Stanton’s extensive work in genocide studies led to his paper, The 8 Stages of Genocide, which offers a framework that is now used throughout the world. “There isn’t a group in history that has experienced a genocide, that does not have a group that is trying to deny it… The difference with the Holocaust is that the government of Germany has made a conscious effort to acknowledge what they did.”
To most people, given the evidence, to question whether the Holocaust happened or the facts surrounding it is irrational; it is one of the most documented events in human history. And yet, as we move farther away from the event in history, and with the enormous amount of information and misinformation shared through the Internet, students may have seen or heard some of the propaganda that Holocaust deniers spread.
If the topic comes up in class, Leshem recommends approaching it as an opportunity to teach critical thinking and research. Challenge students to consider, “How do you evaluate the credibility of your source? Where did you get your information?” He also recommends that students dig deeper into their research to find multiple credible sources to measure evidence against. “In this day in age it is also a digital literacy question… If your source is comments on YouTube, how good is that source compared to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum?”
Echoes and Reflections provides students and teachers with authentic primary sources, survivor testimony, and historical facts, that reveal what took place. If students, or adults are voicing myths and misinformation about the Holocaust, HDOT’s Debunking Holocaust Denial provides historical data to refute the most common assertions and provides fact sheets for debunking Holocaust denier claims.
Additionally, consider these resources from Echoes and Reflections:
- Teacher's Discussion Guide - The film Denial recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier.
- Contemporary Antisemitism Resource - Provides an opportunity for students to understand that antisemitism did not end after the Holocaust, and tools for interpreting data and content students encounter on and offline.
Dan Leshem, Ph.D. is the Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College.
According to the late David Bowie, “We can be heroes, just for one day.” In countries all over the world, social studies curricula have used the past to create and highlight heroes, models of civic duty and individual sacrifice to inspire a nation. Some heroes may even become significant sources of identification, moral formation, and identity development for students (Yair, 2014).
Reading a personal, emotional story–albeit sad–can often resonate with people of all ages, especially the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Echoes and Reflections content does not focus on heroism per se, though after watching featured video testimonies and reading primary source documents, we often see some students identify and/or begin to empathize with Holocaust victims. Though never will you hear survivors refer to themselves as heroes, some students may be inspired by Holocaust survivors who managed to rebuild their lives, often against all odds.
Over the past decade, Scholastic Inc., a long-standing reading hub of ongoing popularity, has published two Holocaust-related books by Mara Bovsun and Allan Zullo: Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust and Heroes of the Holocaust: True Stories of Rescues by Teens. These books focus on the personal stories of Holocaust survivors and/or non-Jewish teenagers who dared to help Jews during this period.
Echoes and Reflections content can offer a bridge of understanding and context to those themes raised in Bovsun and Zullo’s books. For example, in Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust, students are introduced to George and Ursula Levy. In Chapter 7, Ursula shares her experience hiding in a Dutch orphanage. The Levy children’s story in this book highlights many difficult dilemmas and may be of special interest to students after studying material in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance and Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators.
Zullo and Bovsun’s books have been widely reviewed on the Internet by young readers, as well as by adults who are interested in this genre. In the opening notes to both books, the authors express their hope that readers will “Find the stories in the book inspiring and that they help you to understand how important it is to keep recalling the past… so no one ever forgets.”
On the Goodreads website, two students reviewed Heroes of the Holocaust: True Stories of Rescues by Teens as follows:
"I rated this book as five stars because I was very fascinated by it. I can’t believe how brave these teenagers were. It was very touching. Bad things can sure bring out the best in people. This book was also very motivating. It’s good to do what’s right."
Another wrote, "I thought it was amazing to read about teenagers who were caught doing good [sic], instead of bad, for once. These teenagers, by simply choosing to do what they knew was right, saved a lot of people. Because of what they did, and by hearing their stories, I honor them as heroes. It's great to know that anybody can change the world for others."
In the eyes of these two students, and perhaps those of their peer group, heroes are driven by a moral compass, trying in essence “to do what’s right.” These two students openly state that they were inspired by the stories researched and written by Bovsun and Zullo.
The dilemmas that people faced during the Holocaust are powerful stories that can be inspirational for some students, yet the gray zones of human behavior raise questions more often than they provide clear answers. As outlined in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance and Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders, most people were apathetic bystanders during the Holocaust and elected not to help many Jewish people. We also know that while people may be considered heroes for their so-called brave actions on one day during the Holocaust, they may have collaborated with perpetrators the following day. Recalling again the chorus of David Bowie, some people really were heroes – just for one day.
As educators, it is our mission to encourage the use of primary sources and critical thinking so that our students can study this paradigmatic event in world history as the complex event that it was. Teachers should introduce their students to the history of antisemitism in Lesson 2 so that they can gain a better understanding of the power of propaganda and the roots of antisemitic legislation in the Third Reich and other European countries during this period. Students should also learn more about the stages of the “Final Solution” in Lesson 5 so that they begin to grasp how and why Nazi Germany developed an extermination camp system. By learning more about the historical context, students may begin to better understand that the people whom they perceive as “heroes of the Holocaust” did not always “do what’s right,” either by virtue of circumstances or as a result of decisions they made at the time.
Echoes and Reflections can help us teach our students about the past as we strive to shape a better future. By gaining more knowledge about how human beings failed to respond to antisemitism and hatred in their midst, we hope our students will internalize the words of the German-Jewish essayist Kurt Tucholsky: “A country is not just what it does, it is also what it tolerates.”
Richelle Budd Caplan has served as the Director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem since 2009, and has been working at Yad Vashem since 1993.
Over the past ten years, I have had the honor of delivering Echoes and Reflections professional development programs to thousands of educators across the United States. During that time, I have seen the differences from state to state with respect to when and how the Holocaust is covered in school or district curriculum; however, my experiences have also taught me that the similarities greatly outweigh the differences. Educators care deeply about teaching the Holocaust and feel a profound responsibility to provide accurate, authentic, and sensitive instruction―instruction that honors the memory of the victims and provides an opportunity for students to think critically about what the Holocaust can teach us about the moral and ethical choices people make and the impact of those choices.
Another striking similarity is the selection of texts that teachers across the country have told me they use in their classrooms―namely, The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The first two titles have been part of the canon of Holocaust literature for decades, and while there are certainly cautions for how to use these texts effectively, they are the words of those who experienced the events about which they write and show respect for the survivors and the victims. But, let’s talk about that third title.*
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas calls itself a fable―a story of two young boys who meet in a place that most readers understand to be Auschwitz but that the characters do not know as anything other than where they are at a particular moment in time. In fact, the word “Auschwitz” never appears in the text. Soon after the book was published in 2006, Boyne shared in an interview that he was well aware of the complexity of writing about a topic like the Holocaust and was therefore careful not to portray the storyline as anything other than fiction, changing certain aspects of concentration camp history in order to serve the story. Like any fable, there is no expectation that this story be factually accurate; the purpose is to convey universal “truths” and moral lessons. Boyne hoped that his fable would challenge readers―especially young readers―to think about the “fences” that divide groups of people and be inspired to work to dismantle them whenever and wherever possible.
The question that must be asked, however, is whether students are clear that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable when they begin reading it? This is particularly important when students have an opportunity to self-select texts for independent reading, a practice used in many language arts classrooms. Without adequate framing, students may believe that they are reading a novel based on fact, and walk away with historical inaccuracies in terms of time, place, and events that result in gross misinformation about the Holocaust in general, and Auschwitz specifically.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can leave students thinking that being in Auschwitz wasn’t that “bad”―after all, the inmates who walk around in pajamas seem “fine,” and children move around freely and have clandestine meetings at a fence that is not electrified and even allows for crawling underneath. Boyne’s book never reveals or even hints at the constant presence of death that permeated Auschwitz, nor the forced labor, starvation, brutal beatings, and dehumanization. The author’s portrayal of young Bruno’s innocence and naiveté about what was happening in the camp his father directed yards from his home allows the myth that those who were not directly involved can claim innocence.
One can argue that works of fiction set during the Holocaust do not present themselves as attempting to tell the history of the Holocaust; however, a topic as sensitive and tragic as the Holocaust if not presented carefully can disrespect the truth of the experience, lead students to doubt the facts of the Holocaust, or cause confusion. Often when romanticized events compete with factual information, it is the romanticized events that will be remembered. For me, this has been reinforced when adults that I have spoken to do not realize that Chelmno extermination camp had an almost zero survival rate and cite Jane Yolen’s fictional Briar Rose as their source of understanding about this camp. In lieu of historical knowledge, the romanticized story of a young female protagonist escaping from Chelmno became what readers knew (or believed they knew) about the camp. It is critical for readers of Holocaust fiction to have accurate historical knowledge so that they are not confused by the historical inaccuracies often found in fictional accounts of the Holocaust.
It is for all these reasons that at Echoes and Reflections, we do not recommend using this text in teaching. Instead, we encourage teachers to select authentic memoirs or diaries that can resonate with teenage readers while giving them accurate information about the Holocaust.
That being said, I have discussed The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with teachers who use it. They often respond that this is a book that resonates for their students; they are thrilled that students are interested in the story and express empathy toward Bruno and Shmuel. While it is true that we can never truly understand what the victims or survivors experienced or felt, Holocaust fiction can appeal to certain readers whose empathy can be aroused from efforts to imagine themselves in the plot.
In my conversations with teachers, I have asked them how they deconstruct these responses with their students. While all good teachers hope to foster empathy in their students, what exactly can students learn from stepping into the fable-like world of two young boys that leads them to think they understand what happened at Auschwitz? Why does the book engender so much empathy for Bruno? Are students able to consider how they would have felt at the end of the book if only Shmuel had died? Does the story of Bruno and Shmuel add to their understanding of this tragic time in human history? If Elie Wiesel’s Night honors how Jews fought for survival in Auschwitz and The Diary of Anne Frank is a testament to the human spirit, does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust? Such questioning allows students to think more deeply about the text―how and what they are feeling and for whom.
If educators do ultimately make the choice to teach The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with students, it should be done with the greatest care and preparation. Using primary sources including visual history testimony should always be the first choice of teaching materials as they help students be clear about what happened historically and what did not and could not have happened. In response to queries from teachers about use of the text, Echoes and Reflections recommends that students study the material in our Teacher’s Resource Guide Lesson 5: The “Final Solution.” This will allow students to raise issues and questions about the narrative based on accurate historical knowledge. An activity for helping students analyze fiction about the Holocaust is outlined in Making Connections.
Let’s have a discussion! We invite you to share your experience with this text or others: What literature do you use with students and why? How do you prepare students for reading these texts, and how do you encourage critical analysis of what they have read?
* The focus here is on the text, not the film, even though the commentary here can apply to the film as well. Depiction of the Holocaust in film is a topic that warrants its own discussion.
Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005.
This blog is reposted from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Impact in Profile
Jason Hensely’s project to interview Kindertransport survivors who were taken in by Christadelphians during World War II began in 2015 with an Echoes and Reflections online professional development program.
In 2014, Hensley, a principal at Christadelphian Heritage School in Simi Valley, California who specializes in teaching about Christianity and the Holocaust, had attended the Belfer National Conference for Educators at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to learn more about teaching the Holocaust.
Following the conference, one of his instructors, Echoes and Reflections trainer and classroom teacher Jennifer Goss, invited him to participate in a new Echoes and Reflections online professional development course. The course would instruct educators on teaching the Holocaust, utilizing testimony in the classroom, and integrating other primary and secondary sources. At the end of the course, each participant was required to create an original lesson to utilize with students in their classrooms.
“It hit me that in teaching my Holocaust Studies course, we’ve been talking about Christadelpians and the ways in which Christadelphians helped Jewish children, and I thought ‘Ah, this is what we need to look at,’” Hensley said. “It really revolved around this idea of individual stories.”
Christadelphians are a small Christian sect. Hensley estimates that about 250 Jewish children were sheltered by Christadelphians in Britain during World War II.
Hensely searched in IWitness for any mentions of Christadelphians and was surprised to find one testimony, Suse Rosenstock.
“No one has any clue who Christadelphians are, they’re such a small little group. I was blown away to find one video,” Hensley said. “She talked about all her experiences in detail and that was hugely inspiring.”
With his students, Hensley set out to find out as much as he could about Christadelphians and the Kindertransport. They pored through old Christadelphian magazines looking for stories written about the Holocaust during the war and even watched testimony in the Visual History Archive (VHA) while on a field trip to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
“The kids started going through the different [museum] exhibits and I went to a computer and searched “Christadelphians,” and found seven videos,” Hensley said. “I started running through the museum telling them all. I think the kids thought I was a little crazy.”
In addition to providing background information about Jewish children’s experiences with Christadelphians, the testimonies in the Visual History Archive also led Hensley directly to survivors themselves and their families. He was able to get in touch with the families of two survivors he watched in the VHA.
So far, Hensely has filmed two interviews with survivors who recount their experiences living with Christadelphian families during the war. He has also written a book, Part of the Family: Christadelphians, the Kindertransport and Rescue from the Holocaust, based on his research.
The project would not have happened if it weren’t for Echoes and Reflections and the professional development course he was invited to participate in, Hensley said. Through Echoes and Reflections, Hensley realized the importance of discovering and sharing the stories of individuals in the Holocaust. And through testimony, Hensley was able to do his own original research and tell stories that in many cases have never been told before.
“I think if you allow it to, Echoes and Reflections will change your life,” Hensley said. “It will give you a whole different perspective on understanding the Holocaust. It will change the way you think about things and, in doing so, change the way you act. It really brings you face to face with survivors and you get to hear what they experienced and you get to be moved by it.”
Jason Hensley, M.A.Ed, is the principal of Christadelphian Heritage School, a small private school in California where he teaches religious studies and a senior-level course on Christianity and the Holocaust.
I felt such a sense of loss on Saturday when I heard the news of Elie Wiesel’s death. It felt so personal and profound. I never met Elie Wiesel, but I felt as if had lost someone I knew, someone I cared for, someone who, perhaps on some ridiculous level, I thought would always be here.
I have been so moved reading the tributes to him from those who knew him – as a friend, a teacher, or a speaker who forever changed their lives. I have enjoyed seeing friends and colleague post photos of their proud moments shaking his hand, looking at him so intently, listening for a word of wisdom or insight, which was no doubt plentiful.
For me, who has spent many years working in anti-bias education and now in Holocaust education, his presence was ubiquitous. I think how often he is quoted in my circle – about the dangers of indifference, the precious gift of a life saved, about being a witness. I recall first reading Night in college: actually not wanting to read it, but feeling a duty to not look away, not to ignore the world that was lost and the cruelty of humanity. Now, at Echoes and Reflections, we offer a program and resources to support teachers in their teaching of Night, and we hear continuously how profound this reading is for students and what it means to teachers to teach his memoir, which can be difficult to grasp. However, they feel a sense of duty to get it right – to do him justice, to use his voice to give voice for the millions who lost theirs.
In some ways, I suppose it is all of these moments that make this loss feel so personal. Elie Wiesel somehow managed to share the worst possible moments of his ruptured childhood with us. He brought us with him on this tortured path of trauma and loss, and the absolute worst of man’s inhumanity to man. Yet in his survival – in his dedication to being a witness to the history, to challenging our continued indifference to hatred, racism, bigotry, and his commitment to the world – to life – he carried with him, and perhaps for all of us, a suggestion of hope for a better future. Right now, the world feels more fractured than ever, but I say this without having lived through the Holocaust, so I know this is just one moment in time, my moment in time, to try to make a bit of difference. What will I do with it? What will we all do?
Lindsay Friedman is the Partnership Director for Echoes and Reflections. She resides in Chicago, IL.
“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.
In a recent article by Corey L. Harbaugh on the professional development of US teachers in the field of Holocaust education, the author notes that according to data collected for his research, "82.9% of students are introduced to, or experience [Holocaust] content during the years considered to be middle school in the United States... " (Harbaugh, 2015, p. 381). Moreover, students in US schools are “much more likely to encounter Holocaust content in an English class than in a history class" (Ibid, p. 380).
Harbaugh's findings appear to correlate with the long-standing popularity of Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, a children’s historical fiction book focusing on the rescue of the majority of the Danish-Jewish community in the fall of 1943. Because this book is typically read in middle school, US educators who are trained in using Echoes and Reflections in their classrooms can capitalize on its popularity when students reach high school, and build upon what their students remember about the Holocaust from reading Number the Stars.
Number the Stars is a story about the friendship of two ten-year-old girls, Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen, who are living in Copenhagen, occupied by German forces during the Second World War. Rosen’s family, together with other Jewish families in Denmark, are warned that they will be deported. The Johansen’s, including their friends and family members, decide to hide Ellen and her parents as well as to actively participate in the operation to send Danish Jews to safety in Sweden.
Although this Newberry Award winning book was published over twenty-five years ago, it remains a widely read book by elementary school students across the United States. According to Publisher's Weekly, Lowry's book was the 82nd best-selling book of all time in the United States with sales above two million as of 2001 (the book was first published in 1989). The book continues to be purchased even after multiple editions, though this story can now be read gratis online. Moreover, students who wish to hear this book aloud (chapter by chapter) will also easily find it on YouTube.
According to Scholastic, the reading level of Number the Stars is geared for grades 4-6, yet clearly younger and older students are reading the book as well. According to Harbaugh, almost fifty percent of respondents in his study indicated that, "They asked students to produce a personal paper as an end-of-unit assessment strategy" (Harbaugh, 2015, p. 387). In addition to writing book reports, some students (who are clearly in elementary schools) reading Number the Stars are also creating "book trailers" or short films that are later uploaded on School Tube (URLs) and other sites.
What does this all mean for our growing network who have been trained to use Echoes and Reflections in their respective classrooms? Although some organizations and institutions discourage the introduction of the Holocaust in elementary schools, de facto Holocaust-related books like Number the Stars are being widely taught in English language arts. It would not be surprising therefore that teachers using the Teacher's Resource Guide in eighth grade or in high school would encounter students who recall reading Number the Stars at an earlier age.
In light of this reality, educators in the US may choose to build upon what their students remember from Lowry's story, such as assigning the student handout in Lesson 7, "Rescue in Denmark." This handout may provide additional historical context for students to deepen their knowledge about this topic, connecting it with their previous encounter when reading Number the Stars in younger grades. Witness testimonies, such as that of Leslie Banos highlighted in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance will also buttress the students' understanding, enabling them to gain a wider context of the Holocaust. In addition, the testimony of Leslie Banos will encourage eighth graders and up to think about dilemmas that real people faced during the Holocaust period as well as the choices that witnesses made during that difficult time.
All in all, Number the Stars has become an entry point for elementary school age children to begin learning more about the Holocaust through the friendship of two young Danish girls. It is hoped that the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide will help US educators create a spiral educational process so that their junior and high school students will add layers of knowledge based on their encounters via English language arts curricula in US elementary schools.
Richelle Budd Caplan has served as the Director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem since 2009, and has been working at Yad Vashem since 1993.
All of the Holocaust survivors featured in Echoes and Reflections become near and dear to the hearts of facilitators. For me, Ellis Lewin’s testimony worked its way into my heart and never left. I’m not sure if it is because he was such a young child when he was imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto and subsequently sent to Auschwitz, or if it is the way he tells his story, but, when Ellis speaks, he is transported right back to his childhood and he takes us with him. I have spent a lot of time analyzing his testimony and seeking to understand what was going on in his head at the time.
In Echoes and Reflections professional development programs, we use Ellis’s testimony to show what it was like for children when their world was turned upside down, when they were closed off from the world as they knew it, and everything changed. As Ellis says, “It was the beginning of the end.”
When I introduce Ellis to educators, the room always becomes completely silent as he begins to speak, and it often remains silent for a few minutes afterwards. In fact, it is always me who breaks the silence.
In Lesson 5: The “Final Solution,” Ellis describes in detail what it was like when he arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. His retelling is horrifying and painfully detailed. And, it does another very important thing; it allows us to compare and contrast his account with the account of Elie Weisel, in the excerpt from Night, which is also in Lesson 5. Comparing and contrasting is essential when examining primary sources. It allows students to piece together the experience without having been there.
I live in Ohio, and although I knew that Ellis lives in Cleveland, I had no idea that he lives around the corner from me. For years, I kept saying that one day I was going to find a way to track him down and meet him. When I finally asked a friend of mine, who is also a Holocaust survivor, if he knew Ellis he said, “Sure, he is my best friend!” He gave me Ellis’s phone number.
The first time I called and got Ellis’s voicemail, I cried. All he said was something like, “This is Ellis Lewin. I am not here. Please leave a message.” But that voice. There it was, the same voice I had been listening to for years. I will never forget the moment Ellis called me back and his name popped up on my caller ID. For a minute I was paralyzed, star struck, even. I answered and we spoke for a while. We made arrangements for him to come speak to a group of teachers.
Though Ellis knows what Echoes and Reflection is, I was never sure that he realized what an important part he plays for educators and their students as they study the Holocaust. Ellis is very proud of the testimony he gave to USC Shoah Foundation, and also of his ability to speak to students about his experience. I knew he would be so happy to see that he is helping students understand what happened and helping them think about their own responsibilities and choices in the world.
It has been such a pleasure getting to know Ellis. He is smart, funny, and incredibly charming. He understands Holocaust education on a very deep level and grasps the pedagogy in an incredible way, particularly for a non-educator.
Family is an important part of Ellis’ life and they are invested in having his story told. They often join him when he speaks about his experiences and his daughter made a short video that they use before his talks at schools. In 2016, Ellis and his wife celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
As we move farther and farther away from the actual events of the Shoah, it becomes increasingly difficult and yet even more important to remember that the Holocaust happened in modern times, in one of the most enlightened countries in all of Europe, and to a group of people who were targets, not because of something they did or didn’t do, but because of their religion. Taking time to remember the victims of the Holocaust and to think about what the world lost is important because we need to honor their memory.
Having Ellis in my life has been such a privilege. I want him to know that the victims will never be forgotten and the survivors are not alone.
Jill Rembrandt is the Deputy Project Director for Echoes and Reflections. She resides in Cleveland, Ohio.
Human Rights and Genocide Awareness Month offers a unique opportunity for educators to think about meaningful ways to raise complex and challenging topics with students.
In an effort to bring students, “safely in, and safely out,” seasoned Echoes and Reflections’ educators Kelly Bales and Tyrone Shaw discuss, “Where do I begin?” and share their different approaches to introducing students to the Holocaust and other genocides.
Where do I begin?
“When I speak with my students about the Holocaust and about genocide for the first time, it is hard to anticipate their reactions,” Bales shares. “Will they be shocked? Interested? Horrified? I try to start the conversation about genocide with something that is relevant and familiar to my students…”
She notes that because students are familiar with human rights as a buzzword she starts there, and challenges them to identify examples where they think human rights have been violated. “We look at recent cases of young teens in urban areas… I bring in examples from history such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Together, we begin a dialogue about what factors contribute to human rights violations, which begins a longer discussion about the way our choices and actions today are influenced by the way we understand the Holocaust and other historical human rights abuses.”
Shaw begins by asking his students to look within. “Who am I?” he asks, and challenges his students to consider, how studying the Holocaust and other genocides might inform their lives today. “My students encounter real life experiences of classism, sexism, and racism,” Shaw explains. “But, they don’t always have the tools or the language to talk about it… In my course, we develop those skills and explore the social construction of identity…” He adds that in starting with identity, his students gain a strong understanding that human rights abuses, the Holocaust, and genocide, don’t “just happen.” “They are the result of choice, prejudices, and a lot of people remaining silent.”
Resources – Deepening the Conversation
Building on the conversation about human rights, Bales introduces her students to the Holocaust and other genocides. “I rely heavily on primary and secondary sources,” Bales shares. “Echoes and Reflections is an excellent tool for any teacher in reaching students… I generally start with Lesson 2: Antisemitism. Students understand being discriminated against or targeted because of their skin color, race, or national identity... Echoes and Reflections’ primary sources help me introduce the idea of antisemitism and explain its historical origins.”
Shaw adds that building from identity, “I use the three definitions of the Holocaust that appear in Lesson 1: Studying the Holocaust.” He asks students to explain why there are different definitions and why each group might think differently about the same event. “We then do an activity where students discuss the way identity influences our perspectives on events and I use the Pyramid of Hate to explore this further.”
Bales shared that a key component of introducing students to the study of the Holocaust and other genocides is exposing them to the idea of being a bystander. She uses Echoes and Reflections Lesson 7: Rescuers and Non-Jewish Resistance and notes, “Many of my students identify with the people and their experiences that are highlighted in this lesson–the power of the individual becomes evident.”
Both Bales and Shaw utilize resources from Lesson 4: The Ghettos to support their students in understanding the context. In framing a conversation about this lesson, Shaw uses resources from this lesson in conjunction with the external resource, Iris Marion Young’s, “Five Faces of Oppression,” to explore the idea of powerlessness and the experiences of marginalized, oppressed groups. Bales’ students read Excerpts from the Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, which she feels helps them better understand what life was like for Jewish people in Europe during the Holocaust.
“I try to focus on the survivors and emphasize that life did not end for the Jewish people after the Holocaust,” Bales shares, emphasizing that people’s experiences rather than the numbers and statistics are central to the study of human rights and genocide. “One action, one statement, one look, could have changed or altered people’s lives… Human interactions and human behavior are key to these historical events... What can we do as individuals to bring attention to this? What is our role as human beings? It is important to have these conversations with your students.”
Shaw adds that, “What I hope students take away is an understanding of some of the reasons the Holocaust and other genocides have taken place and continue to take place. I hope they come to understand that atrocities like these are not random or inevitable. They stem from society not acknowledging and respecting human rights.”
Kelly Bales has been teaching at Tates Creek High School, an International Baccalaureate School, for four years. She is an alumna of the 2015 Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Conference in New York. Tyrone Shaw is in his fourth year of teaching at McKinley Technology High School in Washington D.C. He teaches World History I, AP World History, and an elective focused on Social Justice, the Holocaust, and Genocide Studies.
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