As a black female Holocaust educator, I have heard my fair share of the following:
“But you’re black, why do you care?”
“But you’re not Jewish”
“What is YOUR connection to the Holocaust?”
While my blackness within Holocaust Education has often been questioned, it has become clear that this type of thinking goes both ways. Many educators have often found themselves struggling to create connections in the classroom with students of color. When teaching about oppressive histories such as the Holocaust to students who have their own oppressive history, many students of color may be left wondering, “what does this have to do with me?” In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the end of May and the social movement that has followed, this undoubtedly may be a reality for many educators.
Around age ten, I watched Schindler’s List. I was intrigued and equally perplexed by the magnitude and scale of what I was witnessing in many of the scenes. My curiosity grew and I began watching documentaries and catching every movie that dealt with this horror called the Holocaust.
Many years later as an adult, I moved to Washington DC and made frequent trips to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). My fascination deepened and I was transported to a different space emotionally, as I had the opportunity to speak to survivors and hear their personal stories.
My trips were so frequent, that on the day that a white supremacist/antisemite walked into the USHMM with a rifle and opened fire, many reached out to make sure I was okay. Thankfully I was not there that day, but sadly an on-duty security guard named Stephen Tyrone Johns was killed on June 10th, 2009.
What started as a casual interest began to shift into something more significant, as this incident was my first exposure to Holocaust denial and virulent hate against Jews.
Fast forward to 2013, and upon the death of Trayvon Martin and the inception of the Black Lives Matter Movement, it became evident that on the subjects of injustice, prejudice and racism there was a dialogue and sense of understanding and empathy in this country for many groups that was severely lacking. And now in 2020, as our nation continues to reckon with the harsh realities of systemic racism and racial injustice, to speak out and bear witness is a burning necessity. As an educator, my hope is that teaching about the Holocaust can help bridge the gaps between past and present, and create connectivity for the volatile times we are in.
Along my journey of becoming an educator, I had the privilege of attending a teacher’s workshop with Echoes & Reflections in 2019, which further helped to ground my teaching philosophy. Echoes & Reflections personalized approach focuses on individual survivors’ stories, which I have been able to implement in my work as a docent at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Destined Project” is born
About five years ago, I came across a book called Destined to Witness, which is the autobiography of Hans J. Massaquoi, an Afro-German who lived and survived in Nazi Germany. This blew me away as I didn’t even know there was a black experience within the context of Nazi Germany.
Hans’ story is devastating in many ways, but nowhere near as horrifying as the plight faced by many Jews during the Holocaust. With that being understood, reading his autobiography felt personal to me as a black woman. I understood the Holocaust on a whole new level because I could now see my blackness within the context of the Jewish Holocaust.
A few colleagues of mine also read the book and have been inspired to begin a project called “Destined Project”. Our objective is to create a class curriculum for high school students that centers primarily on the life of Hans Massaquoi, and the racial abuse he faced in Nazi Germany. He essentially went from one form of oppression to another after he immigrated to a segregated America just before the Civil Rights Movement. This would all be taught after students learn about the Holocaust.
What will make our work different will be a sharp focus on Hans’s identity and psychological journey. The goal is to foster connection and empathy, by encouraging students to think critically about Hans’ phases of life and how they relate to their own identity and life journeys. Using Hans’ unique point of view as an Afro-German, will create new spheres of kinship to the subject manner for all students, especially those of color.
“Part of the reason students of color might reject learning about oppressive histories unrelated to themselves is because they think that it is, in fact, unrelated when it's not. We are often taught history outside of the psychology of human beings. We learn what happened, why it happened, but often we don't always connect those elements to patterns of human behavior.”
- Shiree Nicholas Christopher, Co-Producer/writer, Destined Project
In doing our research we’ve found in many spaces, speaking about the black experience during the Holocaust has been written off as insignificant due to low numbers and limited testimonies. But, students of color need to know that they are being seen, and if their history is treated as an afterthought, can they be expected to empathize with the history of another? Furthermore, I do not claim that all students of color reject learning about the Holocaust; many who have learned the history can connect to it just fine. Our aim is to bridge the gap for students who feel this history has nothing to do with them.
“We often say that we teach students about the Holocaust so that it never happens again, and quite rightly so. But what will ‘next time’ look like? Teaching students to recognize and challenge antisemitism remains of the utmost importance, yet through engaging our students with diverse stories, we are preparing them to recognize and challenge all forms of prejudice and discrimination, however and wherever it is found.”
- Sarah Flowerdew, History Teacher, Destined Project
Who tells your story?
I am not the child or grandchild of a survivor, but I am passing the torch by bearing witness to the power of the human spirit. I hope that “Destined Project” and my continued dedication to Holocaust education can serve as a medium to expand our understanding of the Holocaust so that we all “Never Forget.”
About the author: Courtney Ferguson is an actress as well as a voice, speech, and dialect coach based in Atlanta and New York City. She is currently a docent at The William Bremen Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Kristallnacht Pogrom marked a devastating turning point during the Holocaust: a shift from antisemitic propaganda and policy to government-sanctioned violence against Jewish communities in Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of Czechoslovakia that had been recently occupied by German troops. The anniversary of this event on November 9 and 10 presents an opportunity for educators to explore this history with students—to teach about the dangers of antisemitism and the role and responsibility of an individual in interrupting the escalation of hate. Furthermore, the lessons of the Kristallnacht Pogrom, only further highlight the importance of our collective duty to uphold the pillars of democracy. At a time when our nation is facing increasingly high levels of antisemitism, the lessons from the “Night of Broken Glass” can resonate deeply with students and compel them to examine the critical need to stand up to antisemitism and all forms of hate. Here are some strategies and resources to guide you in teaching this topic:
Explore Personal Narratives
Those who experienced the horrors of the Kristallnacht Pogrom provide powerful insights into the impact of the choices and decisions made in the face of the growing hatred and violence that surrounded them. As a teenager, Holocaust survivor Kurt Messerschmidt witnessed mobs attacking Jews in the street, in their homes, and at their places of worship, while many of his German neighbors and friends stood idly by. His testimony offers an important and inspirational message for students:
“SOME OF THE PEOPLE DISAPPROVED, BUT THEIR DISAPPROVAL WAS ONLY SILENCE.”
Have students reflect on this powerful statement and learn more about Kurt Messerchmidt:
- Watch Kurt’s video testimony clip to examine the ramifications of remaining silent in the face of hate.
- Engage students with USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness activity about Kurt to learn more about his experience during the Holocaust.
- Download our Inspiring the Human Story poster series and accompanying activities, featuring Kurt and other important figures from the Holocaust.
Additionally, the testimony of survivor Esther Clifford, also impacted by the devastation of the Kristallnacht Pogrom, can help students understand the human story behind this event and consider the consequences of not standing up to injustice.
Use Primary Sources
A key component of our Echoes & Reflections pedagogy is to enrich students’ understanding of the Holocaust by providing an abundance of print and digital resources from a variety of perspectives. An examination of historical documentation can aid students to further contextualize and gain a deeper understanding of the Kristallnacht Pogrom:
- Access our lesson plan, Kristallnacht: “Night of Broken Glass”, and Unit on Nazi Germany for tools and approaches for incorporating primary sources into your instruction.
- Read our blog written by an Echoes & Reflections teacher who offers suggestions for using primary sources to connect students to the lessons of the Kristallnacht Pogrom.
- Take a virtual field trip with students to Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center to explore primary sources from the Kristallnacht Pogrom featured in their online exhibition.
Teach with a Timeline:
Timelines can serve as a visual tool for studying periods of history and help students realize not only how events happened, but how to construct meaning and illuminate the human experience throughout a past era. This resource can also encourage students to see connections between events occurring in a single period and bring history to life by mapping dates onto a cohesive narrative. On our interactive Timeline of the Holocaust with accompanying activities, teachers can introduce the Kristallnacht Pogrom, as well as the dates prior to and immediately following this pivotal incident, which can allow students to grasp that the Holocaust was a progression of decisions, actions, and inactions, any of which might have happened differently if alternative choices were made.
Teaching about the Kristallnacht Pogrom is a crucial component of Holocaust education as it can reinforce students’ understanding of what ultimately led to the extermination of Europe’s six million Jews by the Nazis, underscoring the notion that the Holocaust was not inevitable.
“…If you ever survive this war tell everyone how we went. Tell everyone how you said good-bye to me and remember one thing. Wherever you may be always wear a nice clean shirt and be clean. If someone throws a rock at you then throw them back bread.”
These are the words that Holocaust survivor Maurice Markheim will never forget. They comprise the indelible message that is etched into his memory as the last conversation he had with his mother.
When we viewed this piece, we were struck by these poignant and heartfelt words of love and kindness as well as the way in which Evan Hong, an eighth grader at Mariners Christian School in Costa Mesa, California, memorialized them by creating a wire silhouette as an art project her school submitted for Chapman University’s 21st Annual Holocaust Art and Writing Contest.
Last year, thousands of middle and high school students from across the United States and seven other countries, watched survivor video testimonies and responded to the contest prompt through prose, poetry, art, or film. This year’s contest, now in its 22nd year, challenges students to reflect upon and interpret the theme, “Sharing Strength: Sustaining Humanity.”
To prepare students to participate in the contest, many teachers turn to Echoes & Reflections, a valued partner in the contest, for professional development and to help them provide historical context to the testimonies that students watch. This year, Chapman University will team up with Echoes & Reflections to offer a contest-specific professional development program to highlight key resources that align with the contest, as well as effective strategies to further student engagement with the testimonies they view.
In our respective roles as the Associate Director and Education Consultant for the Rodgers Center at Chapman University, we have seen the contest grow tremendously over the years. What we think continues to be particularly appealing and, perhaps why many teachers participate year after year, is the contest’s way of combining study of the Holocaust with the hands-on participation in the arts, offering students a platform and a voice to process and express their thoughts and reactions and to make their own, individual meaning.
In fact, this contest might offer even greater benefits to those participating. Authors Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen, write in their Brookings Institute blog, New Evidence of the Benefits of Arts Education, that participation in the arts challenge us with different points of view, compel students to empathize with “others,” and give us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition.1
For example, Noa Nerwich, a middle school student from King David Linksfield School in South Africa, drafted the following poem based on the testimony of Holocaust survivor Ruth Halbreich. It examines how a simple, everyday object, a “Maroon Hankie,” became a meaningful, everlasting and valued connection to her father.
Cleanly pressed and folded it was placed into my hand
A last token of a soon to be memory
I received a maroon hankie
I didn’t know the value of objects, until had one
I didn’t know the value of people, until I had none.
But my one object carried all the worth in the world
A maroon hankie
I don’t know what happened to him
All I know is the walls were rising
And there were bombs, more people dying
And Warsaw was in flames: Red, licking flames
Like the colour of my maroon hankie
We watched the window, havoc unleashed on our home
Yet we were the opportune, we were on the right side of the window pane
The side where we still wore silky dresses made by the sisters.
The same silk of my maroon hankie.
I was lucky
Not because I was saved
But because I learned the true meaning of love
His love was sewn into my heart
The same way I held the hankie so tight at night
That its fibers have sewn into the fibers of my skin
Because of my father’s honour I survived
Because of his love for us he died
He sacrificed it all so we could breathe the air of freedom
To the man who gave to me
The thing that has carried all of my tears
A maroon hankie
His maroon hankie
This year as we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camps we were reminded that today’s students are the last generation to hear directly from the survivors. As we look to the future, one of the lasting artifacts we have are the survivors’ precious video testimonies, a permanent record that captures their stories, warnings, and memories. The testimonies also stand as the fulfillment of a promise that the eyewitnesses made to each other during the Holocaust, in which they vowed if they survived to tell the story, to let the world know what happened and to do their utmost to assure that these events would never be forgotten. Students who participate in the contest have now become their “messengers of memory,” the ones entrusted with perpetuating this vow for generations to come and, as a recent survey has shown, their exposure to Holocaust survivor testimony can support them in building a better future.
This year’s contest information is now available and educators are invited to participate.
For more information: Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest
Contact: Jessica MyLymuk at firstname.lastname@example.org, (714) 532-6003
Note: Last year, Chapman University had to cancel its 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest awards ceremony, which was scheduled on March 13, 2020, due to the Coronavirus. A virtual program is posted on the contest website and can be watched here.
About the authors:
Jessica MyLymuk is the Associate Director at the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University and oversees the planning and implementation for the Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest.
Sherry Bard is an Education Consultant for the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and a Senior Training Specialist for the Echoes & Reflections program.
Whether you have returned to the classroom, are embracing a hybrid model, or are entirely virtual, we can all agree that teaching this school year comes with more distance. As a former classroom teacher who now works with educators, I have heard and understand the many concerns teachers have about how to teach the Holocaust in these environments. Like you, Echoes & Reflections has been learning throughout the pandemic from students, teachers, and other educational experts on best practices for this new way of life. You can find some of these suggestions in a previous blog.
Although much has changed, there are many aspects of teaching the Holocaust that remain the same. Good pedagogy is essential although how we implement it may need some updates. Our rationale for teaching the Holocaust ought to be consistent with several of our principles of pedagogy: to foster empathy, to encourage inquiry-based learning and critical thinking, and to make the Holocaust relevant to our students.
Primarily, it’s important to:
- Focus on salient themes that students can connect to using real examples from history, case studies, and the power of human connection using primary sources, especially testimony, which has been shown to have a profound impact on students’ development.
- Highlight powerful themes that are relevant to today and inspire action in students: resilience, resistance, and rescue, just to name a few. Emphasize agency, individual choice, and how lessons of the Holocaust invoke the need for positive action in the world today.
How do we do this in a classroom with more distance between ourselves and our students?
1. Ensure a supportive learning environment, what we call “Safely in and Safely out.” Topics such as the Holocaust elicit strong emotions, require deep reflectivity, and extensive debriefing. Providing opportunities for students to express their emotions comes naturally in the classroom but with more distance, teachers must be deliberate in facilitating these vital conversations. Utilize the time you have together, in-person or online, to connect with your students in conversation and to address questions. Structure social-emotional check-ins and activities often and encourage student reflection on the events of the Holocaust. Remember, emotion can be a powerful source of knowledge.
2. Focus on the entirety of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). We often focus on the “E” of emotion when we talk about SEL, but the “S” is just as important. In the classroom, it is natural to group students together or have them have a quick conversation with a partner. In a more distanced environment, we must structure these social learning opportunities more concretely. Asynchronous learning can be a great opportunity to foster these conversations in discussion boards, to task students with creating a shared product, or to engage in project-based learning. Grant students the freedom and flexibility to research, connect, and share new knowledge with you and their classmates in multiple modalities. Enable students to engage with this material in a meaningful and personal way to “leave something of themselves,” such as an artifact they can share with the class. We know that successful teachers imbue their lessons with elements of themselves; create opportunities for students to do the same.
3. Work to connect our students with us, with each other, and with humanity in general. Again, we look to our pedagogy to guide our instruction when we proclaim: “Teach the Human Story”. This principle is the fulcrum of Echoes & Reflections pedagogy, and in a more distanced environment only carries more weight. The human story should be a focus in developing and delivering lessons to students who must connect themselves to these narratives on an individual basis.
4. Rely on primary sources to highlight the events of the Holocaust. Highlight multimedia projects, videos, and other multi-modal sources such as artwork, poetry, diary entries, photographs, and especially testimony. Push students to interact with these sources in depth to read between the lines and foster empathy. For example, when viewing testimony, such as Kurt Messerschmidt’s recollection of Kristallnacht, challenge students to read his emotional reactions through body language, tone inflection, and facial expressions.
There is great concern that students are behind due to the upheaval caused by COVID-19. Although there is a desire to overload on content to “catch up,” we mustn’t allow this to cloud our judgment or change our rationale for teaching the Holocaust. Our role as Holocaust educators is to inspire our students to learn more, seek understanding, and grow as individuals to become more human. Knowledge can be acquired but empathy, compassion, and activism must be cultivated. That should be our focus as we enter a school year unlike any other. Teach the human story, teach it to the humans who so desperately need your support, and cultivate in them a desire to positively impact the world which so desperately needs their support.
To learn more, participate in the webinars in our new series on supporting Holocaust education in the virtual classroom:
- Responsible Practices in the Virtual Classroom: Dangers of Simulation Activities and Connections to Bullying (10/5)
- Making it Work: Tools for Effective Holocaust Education Online (10/14)
- The Use of Films Via Digital Learning (10/19)
- Teaching with Testimony: The Power of Testimony in the Virtual Classroom (10/21)
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Operations and Outreach Manager for Echoes & Reflections. He holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is a current Ph.D. student beginning his dissertation on female concentration camp guard Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan.
In the fall of 1968, Margaret Michaels stood in front of her middle school American History class and shared a difficult truth: her 99.99% white school district had accepted its first Black teacher from Central State University in nearby Wilberforce. At the time, the Beavercreek School District covered fifty square miles of suburban and rural families in the southwestern portion of Ohio. Over seven thousand students filled the high school, two middle schools, and seven elementary schools, and most of the faculty, staff, and administration lived in the community. Some of these individuals still carried the names of the founding families who settled in the area as Ohio emerged from the unexplored west. Parents worked in major industry, owned mom and pop businesses, and farmed the land, and raised the livestock. Busing was a topic of discussion, usually out of earshot of children, as demands for desegregation for the students of the West End of Dayton grew. The West End was home to most of the Black community members, while the North Side housed the synagogue. Unspoken yet clearly understood lines had been drawn long ago. Parents worried that forced busing would send their children to the questionable neighborhoods just outside the township’s borders.
Margaret Michaels, one of the most honest and courageous people I have ever known, explained to her students that day that she was prejudiced. She related how her family ardently believed in the inferiority of Black people. She explained how having a Black friend or dating a Black person was completely beyond the realm of reality in her community and would have resulted in being disowned by her family. She described her qualms about meeting this student teacher and working with him. Mrs. Michaels went so far as to admit that she asked him if she could touch his hair since she had never come in physical contact with a Black person before that moment. Then, Mrs. Michaels explained that although her family would never understand or accept her changing attitude, she was admitting her prejudice and taking responsibility for letting go of the hatred and seeing the individual human, as well as the greater Black community, for who he is: a person deserving of respect and equal rights and access; a person with hopes, skills, and ideas just like anyone else in the world.
Margaret Michaels opened my eyes and my mind when she bravely explained that she chose to change the way she judged people. More than fifty years later, I can still see her standing there telling us that we alone are responsible for our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. We may choose to use the excuse of our upbringing, our families, our friends, our religious institutions, or anything else, but ultimately, we must own our stance in this world.
It is difficult, uncomfortable, and even embarrassing, at times, to speak out when family, friends, or colleagues disagree vehemently. But we must. We must hold up the mirror as individuals and as a country to see honestly why we are where we are in 2020. This requires ongoing reflection and learning and is a fundamental principle that has guided me throughout my personal and professional life. Our responsibility as educators is to show our own discomfort with past and present decisions and actions and impart this value to our students. We must also admit our failings, our moments of hesitation, our fear of speaking up, and speaking out. Just as we admit when we do not have an immediate answer, one that requires additional thought or research, we must admit that we are humans who have and will again fail our fellow humans. That does not excuse our shortcomings; it makes us work harder to acknowledge our own prejudices and fears of peer pressure.
As a Holocaust educator, I could not discuss the prejudice and hateful actions of the Nazis and their collaborators without discussing other examples of hatred around the world and throughout history in the U.S. Pointing a finger at Germany in 1944 is easy; but looking honestly at ourselves and our past is immensely uncomfortable. Yet, we must own that while we may not have personally forced Native Americans to walk the Trail of Tears, or forced those of Japanese descent into internment camps, or enforced the Jim Crow Laws, or supported the sundown laws for People of Color, or denied women equal pay, and the list goes on, we are obligated to fully acknowledge how these pieces of history have caused damage to both the human spirit and body and have consequences that continue to impact us today. It is long past time to stand up for what we know is right in this country.
When I speak with groups about the Holocaust, I do so not just to teach history, but to show the power of one individual. One perpetrator, one victim, one rescuer, one bystander – each has the power to change the world at that moment. The survivors I have met have talked about spiritual resistance which might have included practicing their religious beliefs in Auschwitz, listening to a scholar in the Warsaw Ghetto, or sharing food in hiding. One person can make a difference, and one person can change the world.
Margaret Michaels made her choice and accepted the consequences. When I look at my grandson, I try to see the legacy I will leave for him as a citizen of this country and of this world. I think of my paternal grandparents who decided to travel to Nazi Germany to bring one orphaned Jewish child to the safety of their home in the United States. I believe that most people are loving, caring individuals with the capacity to make the world better, but I also know that our voices and our actions are the only tools that can make long-lasting and positive change.
About the author: Lynne Rosenbaum Ravas retired from teaching and began presenting with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh's Generations Program. In addition to serving as a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, she volunteers with the Federal Executive Board's Hate Crimes Working Group, FBI's Citizens' Academy, and other organizations in the area.
This piece was originally published in The English Pub (April 2020 Newsletter, pg 22-23).
In March, in the middle of the virus onset, conferences I had planned to attend began cancelling. Papers I’d workshopped with friends were put on hold, and opportunities to reconnect with colleagues and reinvigorate my inspiration to teach evaporated. It was about that time that I remembered the Echoes & Reflections organization I’d learned about at an NCTE convention. I’m always shy about undertaking new adventures alone, so I talked it over with a friend who teaches mathematics and together we embarked on an April training course in Teaching the Holocaust: Empowering Students.
I know quite a bit about the British Civil War and Victorian cultural shifts, but I know embarrassingly zip about 20th century history, so I had a lot to learn. I’d never puzzled over the meaning of the term “antisemitism” before. I didn’t realize that Jews weren’t allowed to be teachers. I wasn’t aware that a vast archive of firsthand records and artifacts is available to those who incorporate Holocaust studies in their classroom curriculum.
In this course designed primarily for middle and high school teachers, I was able to identify the connections I need to make in my university classes—to Shakespeare plays, to William Blake’s Romantic poetry, and to John Ruskin’s declarations that architecture tells the story of a culture if we read it with care and attention.
I learned about “bystanders” and “liberators” and the importance of defining such terms for students who are investigating Holocaust history for what may be their first encounter. I made note of the Glossary of terms Echoes & Reflections provides. I dove into the vast video archive and watched Paul Parks tell his story about meeting a woman who remembered him and his kindness from when she was a little girl in Dachau concentration camp and he was a soldier in uniform come to save her. His words, quoting hers, “I know you by your eyes” still echo in my soul as testimony of the importance of showing compassion to every child we encounter.
I learned about the Kindertransport that saved Jewish children by tearing families apart. I found a ready link to the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child. I examined the Pedagogical Principles for Effective Holocaust Instruction and considered their insistence that teachers Use Primary Source Materials, Encourage Inquiry-Based Learning and Critical Thinking, and Foster Empathy. These sound pedagogical approaches adapt readily to all that ELA teachers in Arkansas attempt in our classrooms, so the effectiveness of this direction rings true.
I took part in these webcasts: “`Who Will Write Our History?’: A Special Conversation with Director Roberta Grossman,” “Mindful Exploration: Resilience in Times of Change,” and “Echoes of Night: Personal Reflections from Elie Wiesel’s Student.” I connected with IWitness, part of the USC Shoah Foundation, and learned to create assignments there enabling students to access a wealth of video testimonials recording the accounts of witnesses.
There was no way to plumb the vast extent of free resources available to teachers in the three weeks I had, particularly as one of them was spent dodging tornadoes and without electricity and the other two were spent navigating my students’ transition to online learning and modifying and implementing my formula for assessing their performance. Final grades, after all, were due before the work for my course was complete. Nevertheless, I got a glimpse of the possibilities, and I have the summer before me.
I made note of the upcoming webcast Sherry Bard will offer on July 1st, “Creating Context for Teaching Night” and have bookmarked the link to other upcoming webcasts sponsored by Echoes & Reflections. Whether we directly teach Holocaust studies in our curriculum or not, developing a sensitivity to the topic and a sympathetic means of introducing it to students is essential to helping them understand the importance of an empathetic response to the world they live in.
The information I gleaned from my participation in the course has implications in my own classrooms as I teach research skills, composition, world literature, Shakespeare, and other courses. It will help me discuss the importance of developing communication skills and the responsibilities that come with education. It will help me explore with my students the importance of recognizing and defending the humanity of every child. It will enable me to share with them the power of voice that a treasury of records and primary documents provides, and it will highlight the wonder of memory.
ELA classrooms in Arkansas, or their virtual cousins, can feel a world away from the gritty realities of concentration camps in World War II Eastern Europe, but we have local the relics of Japanese internment camps in Jerome to remind us and reason enough to thank God the outcomes of those moments in Arkansas history differed from those of the Jews during the Holocaust.
About the author: Dr. Kay Walter is a Professor of English at University of Arkansas at Monticello. She can be contacted at email@example.com
For me, like nearly every other teacher in the United States, March 11th was a fairly regular day. That week, my students had competed in their regional National History Day competition and my juniors had gone on a field trip to nearby Monticello. Although it was a Wednesday, I had scheduled time off for the next two days and told my students to have a great rest of their week at Staunton High School and that I would see them on Monday. Little did I know, it would be the last time I would see them for the 2019-2020 school year - at least in person.
The next morning, I received notification early on that an appointment I had in Northern Virginia had been canceled due to accelerating COVID-19 cases in that area. As Thursday turned into Friday, as a Department Chair, I found myself in frequent contact with my Principal regarding possible release to spring break one week in advance. Still, nothing was certain, and it wouldn’t be until 2:40 PM on Friday, March 13th.
Staunton’s initial plan was to add an additional week onto spring break; however, on the first day of our “official” spring break, we received word that Governor Ralph Northam would be canceling traditional schooling for the remainder of the year. I knew that this would be a challenge for my colleagues and myself and quickly switched into planning mode. Additionally, as a regional consultant for Echoes & Reflections, I also began to think about how I could assist the school districts in my region to meet the challenge of delivering effective Holocaust instruction in this unfamiliar setting.
In my time teaching virtually, I have experienced a lot of highs and lows. My colleagues and I all missed interacting with our students in-person, and we spent many hours mourning for their lost opportunities. We also worried about those young people who live in less than ideal home-situations, and for whom school was a refuge. We deeply cared about finding ways to help our students and colleagues navigate life in quarantine. Yet, these experiences have forced me to grow as an educator and more importantly, as a human being, and to recognize “silver linings” in the midst of an overwhelming situation.
Overall, despite the craziness of the time, I have seen many students eager and ready to “take the reins” to keep learning and to pursue their intellectual and emotional curiosity in new and exciting ways. This includes hearing from an African-American student who encountered liberator Leon Bass’ USC Shoah Foundation IWitness testimony, and who shared that this was the first time she has seen “someone like herself” represented in this era of history. His impact went well beyond his experience in the Holocaust and translated into a voice of inspiration for this young person and several of her peers. Curious to learn more about African-American liberators, she asked for other testimonies to review. In many ways, the bravery and strength showcased by my students during this turbulent time was inspiring and gave me continued hope that despite the countless losses, humanity would ultimately survive in spirit and fortitude.
Another powerful moment for me was the opportunity to help a first-year colleague tasked to teach about the Holocaust for the first time via a virtual setting. He has a strong background for someone in his first semester of teaching and knew that he needed to take careful steps but was not exactly sure how to navigate the situation. Echoes & Reflections provided the perfect pedagogy and resources through which to guide him in structuring a meaningful educational experience for his sophomores, and he ultimately ended up sharing it with other colleagues because he knew it was working well. Even though I was physically distant from my colleagues, I was grateful that I still had the power to support others to succeed.
This time is also about seizing new opportunities to learn and build community with my educator colleagues. The quarantine has allowed us to rethink professional development and explore “in-person” virtual opportunities at a deeper level. My participation in the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teacher’s Program partnership allowed me and nearly 50 other educators to reunite without the cost of travel expenses and extended time away from families and work. We spent an incredible three hours learning together about Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust and further discovering how we can connect our students with this content in a virtual setting.
As we end the 2019-2020 school year, in many ways we also say goodbye to a distant world. Education will likely look different as we move forward and we will need to keep innovating, be willing to leave our own comfort zones, and take some risks. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that these unknowns, guided by our collective strength and dedication to this field, will unequivocally lead to success and allow us to positively impact our students’ futures.
About the Author: Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Staunton City Schools in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012.
The following is a reflection from Leah Warshawski, producer and co-director of the award-winning film about Holocaust Survivor Sonia Warshawski, Big Sonia. Leah will be joining an Echoes & Reflections Connecting Communities webinar in July to introduce the film to educators for their use in the classroom.
At this time when we are struggling through a global pandemic impacting our lives in the most profound and difficult ways, people are looking for models of resilience, unity, empathy, and hope. Sonia Warshawski, a 94-year old Holocaust survivor and my grandmother, is that kind of model.
In my film, Big Sonia, I sought to capture all of these emotions as Sonia shares her experiences with students, inmates, and her community - all from a small tailor shop in the bottom of a dead Kansas City mall. While the film is a poignant story of generational trauma and healing, it also offers a funny portrait of the power of love to triumph over bigotry and the power of truth-telling.
As I believe all teachers hope to achieve when they teach young people about the Holocaust or other atrocities in history, we wanted this film to inspire positive change in the world. That is why we ask viewers to spread the #SoniaEffect – to share what happens after people see the film and are fueled to action. Big Sonia has inspired people in ways we never imagined. Deeply moved by the film’s message, the Mayor of Kansas City declared an annual “Big Sonia Day” on December 21 to remind everyone of the power of kindness.
Making and distributing films is not for the faint of heart, but what keeps me motivated is the profound reactions from students. One example was from 14-year-old Luke, who shared,
“My favorite part was seeing how she brought vulnerability to the students. It is hard to be vulnerable as teenagers. She showed them that they should stand up for each other and value differences in their self and their classmates.”
Big Sonia has become our way to open important and difficult conversations, and the project has become our beacon of hope when the world around us doesn’t seem to make sense. With antisemitism and hatred on the rise in so many communities and across the globe, there has never been a more important time for this film, its themes, Holocaust education, and for Sonia herself.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonia was forced to close her tailor shop and stay at home. Her attitude towards her enforced confinement is a model for all of us when she says in a recent voicemail,
“I am still a free bird. I am not in the camps. I am not in the gas chamber. So, I am not scared…we will make it.”
Sonia’s powerful words bring comfort and perspective during this time of social distancing and give us the opportunity to re-examine connection, prioritize relationships, and ask: who do you want to spend time with and how do you want to spend your days? Sonia reminds us that we’re all connected just by being human and that we should always choose love over hate, no matter our circumstances.
Learn more about Big Sonia and how the film can support Holocaust education:
- Educators are invited to join Leah on July 16 at 4 PM EST for a webinar. Registered educators will receive a link to watch the 45-minute educational version of the film in advance and will receive a 50% discount to purchase the film and educational resources after participation.
- After watching the film, students can engage in this Big Sonia IWitness activity from USC Shoah Foundation to reflect on the power of personal testimonies.
- Kansas City area educators can register for a Big Sonia virtual program on June 10th hosted by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education here.
About the author: Leah Warshawski is an Impact Producer / Director with over 20 years of experience in the film/video industry. Learn more about her work here: www.inflatablefilm.com
...feels different this year. As we prepare to honor Holocaust Remembrance Day (beginning the evening of April 20 through sundown on April 21) an unprecedented global health crisis unfolds. In many ways, tragedies can bring out the best in humanity. However, historically, such crises can also lead to an increase in scapegoating, xenophobia, and hurtful or damaging rhetoric. Today, as COVID-19 continues to affect us all, ADL has documented a rise in these behaviors, specifically against Jewish and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the U.S. Teaching about the dangers of unchecked hate and antisemitism, both past and present, remains paramount.
Yet, in these dark times we are hopeful. We believe that one of the most effective ways to combat antisemitism and other forms of hate is through a deep understanding of the history behind these harmful attitudes and how they continue to influence our world today. Yom HaShoah, a call for remembrance, presents a meaningful opportunity for educators to help their students reflect on the past in order to build a positive and peaceful present and future. And, although you may not be in your regular classroom or have the ability to physically make a school trip to a memorial or museum, you can still honor this day and positively impact students with lessons from the Holocaust.
How can we remember the victims of the Holocaust during this turbulent time?
Teach the Human Story
Teaching the human story of the Holocaust is one of Echoes & Reflections key pedagogical principles, as it can have a profound impact on students’ connection to this event. Fostering empathy through personal stories is especially essential during this unsettling period of uncertainty and separation. We encourage educators to commemorate this upcoming day of remembrance by sharing visual history testimony from Holocaust survivors and witnesses with students, all of which are found in our lesson plans. Each testimony is accompanied by guiding questions to support student reflection and comprehension. The testimony of survivor Henry Oertelt in our Contemporary Antisemitism Unit is particularly powerful, as he states:
"I am the prime example of what can happen when no one speaks up against prejudice."
Poignant words like Henry’s help students understand the importance of being an ally and work to make the world a better place.
Human stories are not only found in visual history testimony, but can also be accessed through works of poetry, art, photographs, and other artifacts from the Holocaust, also found in our lesson plans. These primary sources act as powerful tools to enrich students’ understanding of this history and can compel them to make change.
Engage with The Power of Community
Many of our friends at local Holocaust Museums and Centers, who would normally host in-person commemorative events for Yom HaShoah, have shifted to online ceremonies. We encourage you and your students to connect with others by participating in virtual commemorations offered by these institutions in your area. Additionally, we invite you to join our Partner Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center's live broadcast marking the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day on 4/20 as well as their virtual name-reading campaign on 4/21 to record the name reading of a Holocaust victim and share the video on social media.
Even during this deeply difficult time, we still have the power to work towards change and connect with our communities. On Yom HaShoah, by looking towards the past we can support our youth to examine the present and build a more secure and peaceful future. Through remembrance we can inspire positive action.
This blog originally appeared in The Times of Israel
Ever since returning from the United States more than a week ago, straight to quarantine in Jerusalem, I have been debating with myself whether to write an op-ed about an uplifting experience I had in Greeneville, Tennessee during my trip. In “normal times,” I would not have thought twice about doing so, but with practically every person on earth focused on the coronavirus, I had strong doubts whether anyone would have the patience to read my account. Even worse, many of the readers might think that I had “lost it” completely and was now in “la-la land,” cut off from our dismal reality.
In any event, after almost eight days of total isolation, during which I finally mastered the art of online shopping, and internalized the fact that in Jerusalem one has to order groceries about five days before they actually arrive at your doorstep, I decided to take the leap and sit down and recount what happened almost three weeks ago in a small town in Tennessee. I hope that at a minimum, this story will cheer up a few of our readers, and remind them that there is a world out there, that we all will hopefully return to, in the near future.
I first became aware of the town, when I received an invitation to speak at an annual “Holocaust Conference of Eastern Tennessee,” which was scheduled to be held in Greenville in early March 2020. The invitation came from Noelle Smith, the young assistant principal of Greeneville High School. She is an incredibly enthusiastic member of the growing cadre of teachers who utilize “Echoes & Reflections,” an online program sponsored by Yad Vashem, ADL and the USC Shoah Foundation to encourage and help train teachers how to teach the Shoa to elementary and high school students. The program also offers the teachers an opportunity to attend a special two-week seminar at Yad Vashem, or to visit the death camps in Poland, as well as webinars on special timely topics.
Noelle had participated in the course at Yad Vashem at which I gave a lecture on the efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, as well as a special webinar on the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, in the wake of the recent Netflix series. Thus, when she heard that I was coming to the States to launch the English version of the book Ruta Vanagaite and I wrote on Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes (Our People; Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust, Rowman and Littlefield, 2020), she inquired whether I would be willing to speak at the upcoming annual Holocaust education conference she and Tennessee Holocaust teaching fellow Lori Wilhoit were organizing in Greeneville, with the help of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, headed by Knoxville attorney Lawrence Leibowitz, and with the assistance of its Education Director Devora Fish.
Normally, I would not jump at an opportunity to speak to children under 18, let alone elementary school students, because of the complexity of the issues I usually discuss in explaining the challenges I face as a Nazi-hunter. And when Noelle told me about the expected size of the audience (two groups of 1,000 students each, ranging from age 10 to 18), I was very hesitant, but her enthusiasm, along with the encouragement of my friend Sheryl Ochayon, who coordinates the Echoes & Reflections program at Yad Vashem, convinced me that it would be important to speak at the conference.
Getting to and from Greenville was a bit of a shlep, but my experience at the conference more than made up for it. The venue was the First Baptist Church, which had the largest auditorium in town, and as promised, each of my two lectures were before an audience of 1,000 students and about 60 teachers and interested adults from the area. The program included greetings from Lawrence Leibowitz, who has played an important role in promoting Holocaust education throughout the state, as well as a wonderful speech by Carla Kesterson, the 2020 recipient of the Belz-Lipman Annual Teaching Award for excellence in Holocaust education, who explained in a very convincing manner to her young audience why it is vital to learn about the Shoah.
Given the relatively young age of the children, I devoted most of my lecture to stories about individuals, primarily about legendary Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Jasenovac concentration camp commander Dinko Sakic, the totally unrepentant Croatian mass murderer who escaped after World War II to Argentina, and whom I helped bring to justice in his native land. To my great surprise, the audience was a model of decorum, and there were no disturbances whatsoever. On the contrary, I had a very attentive and appreciative audience, as evidenced by the large number of questions posed by the students, especially the younger ones, after the lecture, some of which were a bit surprising.
Thus along with the usual queries such as: How many Nazis have you caught? [Several dozen] Did you always want to be a Nazi-hunter? [No, my fantasy was to be the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA] How did you become a Nazi-hunter and did you accept the job right away? [Read my autobiography.] How much money was offered for information leading to the arrest of a Nazi war criminal? [In the case of Mauthausen sadistic doctor Aribert Heim 310,000 euros; in other cases up to 25,000 euros] Who was the most famous Nazi you caught? [Dinko Sakic], I fielded questions such as: Is Nazi-hunting profitable? [I’m not in it for the money!] and Who are the most famous people you met? [the most recent was Serbian President Vucic]. And to top it off, literally, there was the young student who, after his question was answered, yelled out: “I like your hat,” i.e. my kippa.
If there was a discordant note in the entire day, it took place in private. One of the oldest students approached me after my second lecture to ask me whether I believed in Jesus Christ. When I replied in the negative, he was so disappointed that he didn’t wait for my explanation that Jews are still waiting for the Messiah. While that encounter was somewhat unpleasant, the next day’s headlines in the local media provided an amazing postscript to the conference. The US Justice Department announced that they had obtained a deportation order against a 94-year-old German concentration camp guard living in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Needless to say, Noelle made sure to inform all the teachers who participated in the conference of the wonderful news, which strongly reinforced my message to the students about the importance of justice, even many years after the crimes had been committed.
During these trying times, the thought of 2,000 non-Jewish children and 115 teachers being educated about the Shoah by such enthusiastic educators so dedicated to the task, is a very comforting thought. A ray of light in hard times and an important reminder that “Ha-olam LO kulu negdeinu!”
One day, hopefully very soon, the coronavirus crisis will pass, our fears will recede, and life will return to some semblance of normalcy. And then we can return to our contemporary concerns about many other important issues, including anti-Semitism , Holocaust memory, and we can also more fully appreciate what is taking place in Greeneville, Tennessee.
Best wishes to all our readers for good health and if necessary, speedy recovery!!
Dr. Efraim Zuroff
About the author: Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center's Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.
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