“I always knew I was Jewish, but in our house, there was no religion practiced really.” These are words from Holocaust survivor Margaret Lambert, describing what her life was like in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. It’s a sentiment I can relate to as I also have always known I was Jewish. There was never any need to give intentional visibility to this identity through custom or tradition. My non-English name ascribed to me at birth, given out of remembrance, to hold onto what my mother left behind in her homeland, instilled in me an immutable awareness of my cultural roots.
The “always knowing” clings more tightly as a third-generation survivor, as the Holocaust has also always been a part of unconscious memory. I don’t recall a moment during a classroom lesson, watching a movie, or in conversation where I first acquired knowledge about this catastrophe—it is one that has always been with me, a specter of my past. My maternal grandfather’s survival story was ever-present in my childhood. It was a tale drenched in the heroism and bravery of a young man who fled Poland (now Belarus) by sea to Palestine in 1937, illegally jumped ship and joined the British army as a spy to fight against the Axis powers—forces that would be responsible for the deaths of so many of my other relatives. It never eludes me that my very existence, my ability to live freely and have endless opportunities in this country, is a result of his fortuitous escape.
In some ways I am envious of those who have had the privilege to be introduced in a well thought out and planned way to this pivotal history. That there are those who can pinpoint a specific moment when they learned about the Holocaust, designating a before and after, a division of this time in their lives. These are people who have a mechanism to assess their perspective on humanity prior to knowing vs. now having the knowledge cemented, which can hopefully offer deeper reflection on the timeless lessons of this history.
It's not that I don’t have memories about moments of witnessing, experiencing an awareness of the Holocaust, or that it wasn’t ever presented to me in a classroom setting, but they often are fraught with discomfort—it feels at times too personal. When I was 10 years old, I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and wandered through Daniel’s Story—on my own. I distinctly remember entering the concentration camp section of the exhibit, my lungs filling with a heavy cold air, a sudden suffocation of dread and panic, the thought of “this could have been me” creeping through my mind. I raced out of there as fast I could, wanting to shed whatever memory or passed down trauma I may have inadvertently absorbed. This is not because Daniel’s Story is one that should not be viewed by young people, but it does make me wonder if there are deeper considerations as to how a generational survivor might be impacted by certain Holocaust learning experiences.
Despite the challenges of remembrance, there is the question of responsibility. What is my duty to share, uphold, the memories of a story, that isn’t really my own lived experience, but one that seems to reside firmly in my DNA? “Never Forget” has been, still is, and will always be a reverberating phrase in my consciousness. While there is no clear beginning to the memory, the not forgetting is the foundational tenet of my Holocaust education. I firmly believe in this notion, but over the years I have encountered a tension between the “knowing'' and the actions I am expected to take with this knowledge, particularly if it involves sharing my own ancestral trauma. Perhaps it’s because I don’t want myself or my family to be defined by tragedy, by the weight it inevitably carries.
And yet, the work I do is a reminder that the action of remembrance can take different forms. I may not be openly sharing my family’s history on a regular basis, but it is because of my background that I feel an unexpected comfort, sense of ease even, in being one to support educators and students in learning about the Holocaust. I am contributing to a program that provides Holocaust education in a responsible and effective manner, which perhaps is my own way of moving “safely in and out”—an experience I severely lacked in my youth. And, with time, almost six years at this point, I am beginning to allow more of the personal to seep into the work, like seeing myself through Margaret, or through the multitude of visual history testimonies our program provides. It is perhaps through this ongoing experience, that at some point I will be able to move towards a greater security to openly share my family’s Holocaust story.
About the author: Talia Langman is the Media & Communications Specialist for Echoes & Reflections.
A swastika emblazoned on a wall. A cruel and insensitive joke. A comment seeping with antisemitic tropes of Jews having too much power or controlling the media. A shallow and inappropriate comparison of medical guidelines to the Holocaust. These are just a few of the countless antisemitic acts we see every day from our political leaders, news pundits, community members and, unfortunately, even students. But why has there been such a proliferation of comparisons and references to the Holocaust and Nazism recently? And perhaps more importantly, why and how should we address these issues in our classroom, especially when it is happening in our own schools and communities?
To prepare and guide our dialogue with our students, we must recognize, understand, and convey the power of symbols and symbolic language. As we have seen time and time again, both historically and in our present day, hate does not end with odious language and imagery. It has the real potential to cause increased harm by influencing more destructive acts–attacks on safe and sacred places: schools, places of worship, as witnessed by the attack in Colleyville, TX earlier this year, or cemeteries, just to name a few. It is clear these symbols of hate are influential, pernicious, and harm our entire communities, not just those who are targeted by their bigotry. These are spaces that help create and develop our identities and thus an attack on them is a clear, direct, and simple message of “you don’t belong here.” They are unsettling, foundation-shaking, and evoke fear and uncertainty on both our present lives and our hopes for the future.
Discussing dangers of the appropriation of Holocaust Imagery and Jewish Trauma with Students
Along with the obvious symbols of hatred, poor analogies and inappropriate comparisons to the Holocaust and Nazism can do just as much damage, but again, why are they so ubiquitous? Adolf Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust are universally known in our society. Yes, studies have shown that many don’t know a lot of the specific facts and figures about this era, but a majority do believe the Holocaust was the most evil event in human history, perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis. When trying to describe something or someone as evil, it is a cheap, shallow, but sadly an effective tool to brand it as Nazism or as terrible as the Holocaust.
Further, antisemitism is latent but ever-present in our society, and its hatred is rising and becoming increasingly overt. Because of this widespread bigotry, references that demean, delegitimize, and attack Jews and Judaism will continue to be effective until antisemitism is rooted out of our culture, our country, and our world. The politicians, world leaders, and adults who make these statements know what they are doing. It isn’t an accident. In an age of instant news and social media, there is an astute awareness that any inflammatory post or tweet will receive increased exposure. When this occurs, we should deconstruct this damaging rhetoric to help students understand the motivations and effects of these appalling statements. Using age-appropriate and constructive strategies to engage students, we can help them explore these incidents and understand the harm caused.
How do we address these issues when they happen in the classroom?
When confronted with an antisemitic comment or verbal attack, or presence of a symbol, be firm, direct, and give no leniency. This type of behavior is threatening, hateful, and completely unacceptable. The student(s) in question may backtrack their comments or actions and frame them as a joke or not important. Regardless, it is vital to convey to the student(s) that this is a serious matter and then invite them and all students to learn why.
After this point, we want to engage with our students to become critical thinkers, who examine images and statements with an analytical lens, seek truth and understanding of similar and opposing views, and ultimately be able to evaluate these actions in a rational manner. Echoes & Reflections’ pedagogy and approach centers student inquiry, utilizes tools such as graphic organizers and our Learn and Confirm Chart will help students navigate their way through difficult history.
For additional guidance on how to comprehensively address incidents of bias and hate in schools, including specific examples of antisemitic behavior, view ADL Education’s resource on this topic.
As we teach about the Holocaust, we obviously want our students to gain knowledge and learn the content, but we must not lose sight of the true purpose of education: To develop young people's characters and thinking processes, and ultimately make them engaged global citizens who will improve the world in which we live in today. Thankfully, we know that Holocaust education is a powerful tool to achieve these goals and it has been shown to foster social responsibility, civic efficacy, and a greater willingness to challenge intolerant behavior in others.
And while we are seeing more and more hate-motivated incidents — which should always be reported to the proper authorities—we know that educators can play a critical role in intervention, education, and ideally prevention of the escalation of antisemitism and hatred among students. This is meaningful and transformative, yet challenging work. Echoes & Reflections is here to support you with our resources, professional development, and our team of experts.
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Program 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.
When I was asked to write about love during the Holocaust, I was excited to dive into USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive to look for testimony to showcase this uplifting sentiment from a tragic period in history. Before I even started my research, I knew that I wanted to write about the many types of love that shined through the darkness of the Holocaust. Through stories of family, significant others, and friendships, the following testimonies highlight that love was truly a powerful force in keeping the human spirit alive during and after the Holocaust.
- Eric Richmond: Parents in Nazi-occupied Europe were faced with the unimaginable choice of keeping their families together or sending their children to unoccupied countries. Later on, parents were also faced with the choice of having their children smuggled out of ghettos and being hidden with non-Jewish families. Both of these circumstances present an inconceivable choice with no right or wrong answers. But hearing survivors talk about being separated from their parents – their parents who told them they would be reunited, their parents who tried to make this seem like a big, exciting adventure – is heartbreaking. Eric Richmond, who was sent on a Kindertransport from Vienna, Austria to England, begins talking about his experience looking directly at the interviewer. The more he remembers, the less he looks at her. He’s recounting the lifesaving decision his parents made, but he’s reliving the trauma of being separated from them. No matter how many times I watch his testimony, it always affects me. Knowing what his parents did out of love, and seeing his reaction fifty years later, is a reminder of the unconditional bond between parent and child.
- Fritzie Fritzhall: When Fritzie Fritzshall was forced to do slave labor in a factory—after her mother and brothers had been murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, after she had been separated from her aunt—she was the youngest in a group of 600 women, and now considered the other women her mothers. In her testimony, Fritzie remembers a promise she made the women to preserve their legacy, and discusses when she realized she had to tell her story to fulfill her promise. I’ve been working with Holocaust survivors for over fifteen years, and I know how hard it can be for them to tell and retell their story. I’m grateful that Fritzie was able to keep her promise, and that her story, and the story of her 599 mothers, can continue to survive.
- Kurt & Sonia Messerschmidt: Throughout the archive, there are beautiful stories that describe the moment survivors are reunited with their partners. Kurt and Sonja Messerschmidt were engaged before they were deported to Theresienstadt, where they were wed. However, in 1944, they were separated, and after the war, Kurt wasn’t sure if Sonja survived. In this clip, he describes the moment he realized she survived, and he discusses the significance of the date they were reunited. I am inspired by how overcome with emotion Kurt becomes when describing what happened as it exemplifies the deep devotion he carried for Sonja.
- Gerta Weissman & Kurt Klein: Unlike Kurt and Sonja, Gerda Weissman did not know Kurt Klein before the war. However, neither she nor Kurt would forget meeting one another. Here, Gerda describes being liberated by Kurt, wondering what happened to the nice man who liberated her, and being reunited with him. The couple eventually married and immigrated to the United States. Their love is evident in both their testimonies (Kurt is also in the archive; you can hear his version of events here).
- Gad Beck & Manfred: Gad Beck had two strikes against him in Nazi Germany. He was Jewish, and he was gay. One night, when he went to pick up his boyfriend Manfred for a date, Gad learned that Manfred and some of his family members had been taken to a transit camp. Gad tells the story of what happened next in this clip. Gad’s love for Manfred was so great that he helped Manfred escape from the camp; Manfred’s love for his family led him to return to be with them. The first time I watched that clip, I didn’t expect the story to end the way it did. But I absolutely respect Manfred’s decision, even if it broke Gad’s heart. It shows the devastating complexities of the choiceless choices many Holocaust victims faced, having at times decide between one love over the other.
- Herman Shine & Max Drimmer: Herman Shine and Max Drimmer were friends in pre-war Germany. During the Holocaust, they were reunited at Auschwitz, and the friends decided to escape. They were inseparable for the next sixty years – they had a double wedding with their wives, they immigrated with one another, and they lived close to each other in California. I am absolutely convinced that their friendship and love for one another is what got them through their hardest times.
- Bertram Schaffner & his Army Unit: After being drafted in October 1940, Bertram Schaffner worked as a psychiatrist in the U.S. Army. During World War II, when gay men were dishonorably discharged from the armed forces just because of their sexuality, Bertram – who himself was gay – helped enlisted men who he suspected were also gay by either keeping their records clean of anything that could be incriminating or honorably discharging those men who realized they did not want to serve under such discriminatory conditions. His empathy, decency and humanity shine through his entire testimony, and I’m grateful that he loved his fellow draftees to support them in extremely inequitable times.
- Roman Kent & Lala: Even pets played a strong role in offering love and devotion during the Holocaust. When Roman Kent and his family were sent to the Łódź ghetto, they had an unexpected visitor: their dog Lala. After the war, when Roman had children of his own, he used to tell them the story. In his testimony, Roman recalls Lala visiting the family every night, and reflects that “Love is stronger than hate.”
Whether through family, significant others, or friendship, it is clear that love endured and prevailed throughout the Holocaust. Let these testimonies be a reminder that love is a potent force that can inspire actions today that will build a better tomorrow.
About the author: Rachel Herman is the Content Management Specialist at USC Shoah Foundation and helps curate content for IWitness and other educational programs. Rachel received her M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Stockton University.
As we know, a Tennessee school board voted recently to ban use of the graphic novel Maus in its 8th grade classrooms. Sadly, the losers in this fight are – as always – the students, for whom a great work of literature is erased. Interestingly, the winner by a landslide is Maus – sales of which have skyrocketed on Amazon since the ban, and free copies of which are set to be provided to students. All this proves that banning books can be quite the boomerang.
Books can open new worlds. They can spark imagination. They can transport readers to different places, show them different perspectives, and introduce them to different ideas. But not when they are banned.
Those of us who teach the Holocaust know the value of books. Readers can literally explore the unknown and transcend physical boundaries: this is why so many ghettos during the Holocaust had libraries and so many imprisoned and persecuted people – especially children – read books. In December, 1942 in Vilna, even after tens of thousands of Jews had been murdered and death was all around, the ghetto library held a ceremony marking the loan of the 100,000th book. In the Warsaw ghetto, children continued to borrow books during the Great Deportation in the summer of 1942 during which almost 300,000 Jews were murdered. Often the books they borrowed were never returned; they were packed into the bundles the children took with them to the Treblinka death camp. "The ghetto child, robbed of the world—the river, the green trees, freedom of movement—could win all this back through the magic of the printed word."
For these reasons, books hold a special reverence for us.
It turns out that book banning goes back at least as far as Plato in 360 B.C. For as long as books have been written, there have been those who have pushed to ban them. Even classic literature such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and classic authors such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, have been challenged. In 2001 student access to the "Harry Potter" book series was challenged (because of references to witchcraft and the occult). Those who support book bans generally fear that the books in question present ideas, raise issues or provoke critical inquiry that they find inappropriate. Yet, isn't that the function of education? Don't we want to support freedom of thought, of expression, of speech? Don't we want students to explore new issues and to think for themselves? Often, challenged books are entry points into difficult subjects that need to be discussed.
This is why it's so sad for the students of McMinn County to lose a book like Maus over eight curse words and one ostensibly objectionable picture.
Maus is a brave and unflinching work. It is the author's father's first-person, eyewitness account of the Holocaust. As such, it functions as Holocaust history through a personal story (something Echoes & Reflections firmly advocates). But it is also the author, Art Spiegelman’s, account of his relationship with his aging survivor father, and how he experienced writing about the experience of being a survivor's son. On this level it depicts the process of transmitting and recording memory and trauma, and how the present is continuously shaped by the past.
Maus is both an authentic Holocaust story and a story of the "second generation" – its honesty without sentimentality is what makes it so memorable and powerful. In its pages are discrimination, persecution and hate, as well as resilience, resistance and perseverance: all very human, very real, very gritty. Nothing is sugar-coated; this is part of its appeal.
What distinguishes Maus still more is that it is written as a graphic novel, where mice are used to represent Jews, Germans are represented by cats, and other ethnic groups are represented by other animals. It is an allegory: the Germans viewed Jews not as people, but as vermin, which is why the book begins with a quote by Adolf Hitler, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” Spiegelman has said that his anthropomorphic characters call attention to the absurdity of dividing people up into different animal groups, and take Hitler’s rhetoric to turn the notion of the subhuman back on itself by letting the mice “stand on their hind legs and insist on their humanity.” Using animal characters allowed Spiegelman to say otherwise unsayable things and show events too disturbing to show.
For all of these reasons, Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and is read today in many high schools as well as in college courses. It brings new insights to the study of the Holocaust. And for all of these reasons, the ban in Tennessee has boomeranged – the school board may believe it is protecting the county's students from eight curse words and an objectionable picture, but the students will be deprived of these insights and of a great work of literature.
To learn how to teach with Maus, join Echoes & Reflections webinar “Bringing Maus to the Classroom” on 2/23 at 3 PM ET. Register here.
About the author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Director of Echoes & Reflections for Yad Vashem.
 Rachel Auerbach, "The Librarians", PaknTreger, Summer 2017, https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/language-literature-culture/pakn-treger/2017-pakn-treger-translation-issue/librarians.
 The list of books at issue included such classics as The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud; Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; and Black Boy, by Richard Wright, called by the Board of Ed, "anti-American…and just plain filthy."
 The opinion’s scope was narrow because the case did not involve textbooks or required reading, but the Court sang the praises of books, libraries and broadening students’ worlds through reading.
 For an interesting summary of censorship of books and ideas through the centuries, see Claire Mullally and Andrew Gargano, “Banned Books”, Freedom Forum Institute, 2017, https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-speech-2/libraries-first-amendment-overview/banned-books/.
In the United States and across the globe, there is an all-out assault on Jews arising from the political left, political right, and seemingly everywhere in between. From virulent and overt violence to the dog whistles of antisemitic tropes, one can see antisemitism alive and growing in almost every facet of life. In a survey conducted by ADL, over 1 billion out of 4 billion people surveyed across the world harbor antisemitic attitudes. That is over 25%. As the Program Manager for Echoes & Reflections, my career is focused on helping secondary educators effectively and responsibly teach about the Holocaust and contemporary antisemitism. This work has been inspired by my previous role in the classroom and the reaction to antisemitism I saw in my own students.
As a non-Jew teaching in Catholic high schools, I am almost positive that I never had a Jewish student. By my sixth year teaching in 2019, the project Eva’s Stories premiered in January on Instagram. Filmed utilizing the platform’s unique features, it was a modern way to tell the story of one person’s experience of the Holocaust. Although I mostly taught Catholic theology, I often engaged my students with contemporary issues, what was happening in the news, and what I was learning in my graduate program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Before I started the day’s lesson, we watched the first few stories posted on the Instagram account and discussed briefly what the students thought about telling such an important story using the platform.
With our conversation finished, I went over to my computer to change the big screen to project my PowerPoint for that day’s lesson. A student spoke up and asked what the echo symbol in the comment section was ((())). I answered, informing the student that it was a tool used by antisemites to denote who was Jewish on the internet and thus open them up to harassment and vitriol. I remember saying it matter-of-factly. Even though this student didn’t know what the echo symbol was, I assumed they knew that Jews were constantly bombarded with antisemitic abuse on the internet. I was mistaken. The student was horrified by my simple explanation. She was completely unaware of the cesspool of violent Jew-hate that floods the internet. Although probably not the safest response in hindsight, I began scrolling through the comments as account after account spewed antisemitic tropes, degrading rhetoric, and pure hatred to an Instagram post that had been created to teach a factual and what should be a non-controversial topic.
We often think of antisemitism as a core belief of antisemites similar to how we view Adolf Hitler and the Nazis: consumed with a violent hatred of Jews and a desire to rid the Earth of them by murdering every last one. Yes, there are plenty of antisemites that believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, indulge in the wildest conspiracy theories, and base their entire worldview on the evil Jew. They are ignorant, hateful, dangerous, and frankly, a small minority in the world of antisemitism. They may be the most dangerous of committing acts of terror and murdering Jews today, but they are on the fringes of society and do not pose the same level of threat as the systems, institutions, and public antisemitism that has infiltrated human society for generations.
My students were not antisemites by this definition and most likely will never join a Neo-Nazi movement or engage in the violent actions of these radical extremists. I think we could say that about the majority of people in the United States and certainly the vast majority of students who have been fortunate enough to have caring parents and guardians, good teachers, and placed value in their education. That is not to say, however, that my students were not antisemitic. They were raised and educated in a system that perpetuates antisemitism, that utilizes dog whistles to rally the most extreme in our society to persuade us to believe that their fringe beliefs are mainstream, and who have been bombarded with antisemitic tropes in their social media. For some of them, like the young woman who asked about the echo symbol in my class, they are unaware that antisemitism exists today and yet know the negative stereotypes that have been used for centuries and may even accept them as true when it fits their agenda.
Have you ever asked an older person, whether it be a grandparent or someone else, a question, and the answer you get makes you cringe? I can remember my grandmother telling me about the “nice Chinaman” who helped her at the gas station. When I discuss antisemitism with teachers and students, I often use the example of my uncle claiming at the breakfast table while reading the newspaper, “Well of course it says that since the Jews control the media.” These were not people I would describe as ignorant, hateful, or antisemites and yet it is clear that the system in which they were raised imbued in them a latent racism and antisemitism. This is how antisemitism continues to exist even after the horrors of the Holocaust and why it is so easy for it to escalate and erupt once again: it is always there in our society. It always exists in our systems, in our institutions, in our government, in our education, and in almost every other facet of our lives. Latent antisemitism remains a fact in human society.
Antisemitism burns uncontrollably when fueled by ignorance and fear, but that is not where it is first learned, taught, and manifests itself in each individual. Antisemitism morphs, changes, adapts and is perverted to fit the current landscape but its existence within the systems that are part of human society remains. It will take exhaustive education, understanding, empathy, compassion, and courage to combat the systems and create a just society that includes Jews. In their formative years, most young people do not encounter Jews on a regular basis, if at all. They are even less likely to learn about Jewish life, culture, diversity, and all the wonderful aspects of Judaism. They have no connection to Jews or real knowledge of what it means to be a Jew. They have no evidence to disprove the seemingly endless conspiracy theories and vitriol aimed at Jews from nearly every direction. They are fed lies from their earliest development about Jews, especially when they do not know any.
Young non-Jews need education (as do plenty of adults). They need experiences learning about Jews and Jewish life. They need to discover the traditions, the history, and the people. They need to be invited into various aspects of Jewish life, from religious services to Passover Seder. They also need to understand the nature of antisemitism as illogical, baseless, and yet ever-present, with the potential to escalate at any time. With the knowledge of the beauty of Jews and Judaism with the ever-constant threat that Jews face, they will be empowered to advocate for and protect their new Jewish friends. Understanding this can help young people combat blatant lies and slander with the truth, empower young Jews to be proud of their heritage and share their beliefs and culture with others to cultivate empathy and understanding, and be inspired to reach out and bring non-Jews into the fight against antisemitism.
For those victims who have had to endure and continue to endure antisemitism, it is a personal and emotionally harrowing experience. As a non-Jew, I can sympathize with Jews, but I cannot truly empathize with that horrible experience as it is one that I will most likely never have to endure. But a clueless non-Jew who doesn’t know antisemitism still exists or just how prevalent it is? That is an experience that I truly understand, through my own upbringing and in the eyes of my former students. We may never be able to educate and change the minds and hearts of violent extremists who are determined to wreak havoc and endanger Jewish lives, but the vast majority of antisemites just need to be educated and empowered to act against antisemitism. It may be an illogical and baseless hatred, but it exists and grows in a scientific and systematic way, especially recently as the ADL has tracked over 2,000 antisemitic incidents in the United States for each of the last two years. We must work to dismantle the systems in place that perpetuate antisemitism while engaging with young people to understand its nature, why it is disgusting and wrong, and what can be done to combat it.
About the author: Jesse Tannetta is a former high school teacher who is now the Program 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.
This article was originally published in The Lookstein Center of Bar-Ilan University’s Jewish Educational Leadership Fall 2021 issue, Jewish Education Amidst Rising Antisemitism. This journal issue, with articles from Jewish communal leaders and experts, explores the educational implications for Jewish students of rising antisemitism. Read the full article here and access the full journal for free here.
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