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ANTISEMITISM

HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE



I did a double-take when I saw the recent photo in the news of the students forming the Solo Cup swastika and making a Nazi salute at a weekend party.  This image came on the heels of another photo of a group of laughing young men making the Nazi salute prior to a school dance. Swirling around these events have been Jewish cemetery desecrations, hate-filled graffiti, and even swastikas drawn in blood.  And in this context, we still grieve for the Jewish congregants shot dead at the Tree of Life synagogue and now the murder of 50 Muslim worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand.

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I am sure many have felt as I do: What is happening? What can I do about it? On an intellectual level, I know this is not new – hatred, violence, and targeting of the “other” has always been with us.  The acts of violence may ebb, but it is always there.

Having spent the better part of 25 years working in anti-bias and Holocaust education, I feel some sense of failure. Even though I know these incidents do not reflect the values and beliefs of the majority of people, I can’t help but question if the work I have done has mattered. I recall my former colleague who would say that the efforts to counter hatred, antisemitism, and racism could sometimes feel like having the tiniest of pink Baskin-Robbins sample spoons, trying to chip away at the mountain of mistrust, fear, anger, ignorance, resentment, or downright apathy that can so often push against positive change.  She would use this analogy to inspire others – if we all worked together, even with the smallest of tools, we could get there.

So, I move on. But I haven’t quite been able to get the image of the Solo-Cup swastika out of my head. Is the Holocaust such a remote event that it has lost all meaning?  Are students merely reflecting a society where hate crimes are on the rise, and the swastika the symbol of choice to provoke and shock? Is this an inevitable by-product of a world where life for so many young people (and some not so young) is defined and experienced through rapid-fire photo snaps, posts, and tweets, without any time to think or process the words or images that consume them?

In some despair, I reached out to one of my wisest counselors: my 16-year-old daughter.  “What is this about?”, I asked her.  “Do you think these young people have never been taught about the Holocaust? Do they not understand the pain this causes or recognize this as a symbol of the most awful form of hatred?”   “Sure, but they probably don’t care,” she quickly answered.

Therein lies the rub: caring. I’ve always framed my work, as many do, in three, interlocking phases of impact: What do we need to know about an issue/topic, why should we care, and how can we act to make a positive difference. Or, in the more poetic frame, how do we inform the head, move the heart, and motivate the hands.

In Holocaust education, these three concepts could not be more vital and interdependent.  What do we want students to know about the history of the Holocaust?  There are so many complex concepts, events, decisions, and actions that occurred. If you want to understand the why and how this genocide could have happened, you need a foundation of the what.  The Echoes & Reflections Partners toiled for a year to distill the core historical content that now forms our ten classroom units. Our goal was – and is - to guide teachers to build this essential knowledge with their students and to ask those critical questions of why and how at every step.

Now, to the caring. The Holocaust is practically ancient history for many young people, and in the United States, for the majority of the population, this is not their history.  It’s remote, it happened somewhere else, and it’s over.  This is where our primary belief of teaching about the Holocaust as a human story comes in. We seek to bring this knowledge to life through the integration of visual history testimonies and primary sources. We want young people to see, listen, and come to know that these were real people who had desires, dreams, hopes, and lives that were just waiting to be lived.  While I would never ever guarantee that a student who watched a testimony of a survivor describing his arrival at Auschwitz or who read a poem by a girl left alone in the Lodz ghetto, would reject the Solo Cup swastika game, maybe, just maybe, they would make a different decision in that moment.

Which brings us to action.  How do we create and inspire a sense of personal agency so that in the face of hatred or antisemitism, or when someone is excluded or “othered,” we don’t just walk away or swipe the screen? When I began my work in this field, this step was almost always about an in-person response – will you speak up if someone is being taunted? Will you call out an antisemitic comment or joke? Today, for most adolescents, these moral choice moments are experienced online and at lightning speed. Does this make it easier or harder to intervene? Does it fuel a level of insensitivity to these issues that carries over to real-life choices and decisions? Does an intervention online have more or less power to impact the person who is being offensive?

These are the questions I have been wrestling with these past few months.  As we approach Yom HaShoah, this sacred day of remembrance for all those who perished during the Holocaust, I hope to start to find some answers.  At Echoes & Reflections, we will be working with educators in our network to learn more about the experiences and perspectives of the adolescents in our country and what is driving some of them to engage in and/or ignore hurtful behavior – and how can we inspire more to stand up. And I encourage others, not just educators, to do the same.  At a time when it feels so hard to have these tough conversations, doesn’t it mean it is that much more important that we try?  If we want our children to care, we must first care enough to listen to them.

About the Author: Lindsay J. Friedman has been the Managing Director for Echoes & Reflections since 2014.



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HOLOCAUST EDUCATION

TEACHING

UNCATEGORIZED



As we enter Genocide Awareness month in April, we offer our community an inside perspective on how to approach the important, yet challenging subject of the Holocaust in the classroom. Seasoned Echoes & Reflections teacher Lori Fulton, English 11 & Technical Reading and Writing instructor at Mattawan High School in Mattawan, MI, lends her perspective and approach to inspire students with these lessons from history to prevent future acts of hate.

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Why do you feel it is necessary to teach about the Holocaust?  

Teaching students about the Holocaust should be the responsibility of instructors in all secondary schools.  As a high school English teacher, I am amazed at how little my students know about this subject.  Sure, they know a little about Hitler and gas chambers, but they have no idea how the Versailles Treaty connects to the Nazis, most of my juniors assume all the death camps were in Germany, and none are aware of the 10 Stages leading to genocide.

More importantly, the Holocaust requires studying to prevent genocide from happening again.  We are raising a generation of students who will one day rule the world. They are subjected to the constant noise of social media, which unfortunately at times, is accompanied by hate speech.  They all have a sort of cyber-courage that makes them vulnerable to saying things online they would never say to anyone in person.  As a result, there is almost a sense of acceptance of anything online.  With that potentially comes the notion of denying the Holocaust, something that must be addressed as wrong and dangerous.

We live in a world where words breed hate, not just on the internet but from the mouths of our politicians.  We see vandals desecrating Jewish cemeteries and tagging buildings with swastikas, as well as Americans in parades wearing Nazi-like uniforms; we hear of news of a person going into a synagogue and killing innocent worshippers.    Our students see and hear all of this and need to know that hate didn't end or begin with the events of World War II.

Why should I teach the Holocaust?  If I don't, who will?  Who will provide students with the resources, the knowledge, and the ability to help them make up their own minds about that horrific time in world history? It is my duty and my desire to help students realize genocide can happen again and, as the next generation of Americans, they must do everything in their power to stop it.

What are some recommended strategies for teaching such a sensitive theme? How do you approach this important yet complex topic with your students?

We must approach the subject of the Holocaust with students in a sensitive manner to help them understand, remember, and hopefully eliminate future genocides.  This means sharing the stories of those who faced life-and-death situations simply because of who they were.  We cannot replicate their experiences through simulations, but we can learn from the experiences of others.

I start by introducing the idea of antisemitism.  From there, we study pre-war Jewry, the Treaty of Versailles, then how Hitler rose to power, steps leading to genocide, the Final Solution, resistance, liberation, and what happened to European Jews following WWII.

Furthermore, personal stories are essential ingredients in the teaching of the Holocaust. The testimonies on the Echoes & Reflection's website and USC Shoah Foundations’ IWitness powerfully say what I cannot say.

Holocaust Films, as well as literature, are also great tools to reel in my students.  Most of them are visual learners, so having new resources available to meet their learning styles is important to teach this complex subject.

I have traditionally shown Schindler’s List when teaching about the HolocaustI cannot think of a better movie for my juniors to really set the stage for deeper learning and truly connecting to the story of Schindler and the Jews he saved.  We discuss many questions that arise from the film:  Who else is considered  “Righteous Among the Nations” in the eyes of Yad Vashem--and what does that mean?  What would have happened if Schindler's ultimate objective to save Jews was discovered?  What happened to the survivors after liberation?  Would I have the courage to save someone if it meant my possible death?

Finally, I take my juniors to the Holocaust Memorial Center and Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  For some of them, they have never been much farther than the next town over.  A docent takes us through the museum to study the artifacts, as well as (again) the stories of individuals.  This comes to the penultimate point of the unit where a survivor speaks to my students about his or her experience.  This is life-changing for my students.  Many are in tears by the end of the survivor's story.

If students are emotionally drawn into this experience, I feel I've done my job.  They have seen a bigger picture of the Holocaust and genocide than they have ever seen before.  History has come alive for them, but more importantly, they have come full circle in their learning experience.  Most of my students will say the unit is the one they will never forget and graduates who return to visit express similar sentiments.

What specific resources would you especially like to highlight that support you in teaching about the Holocaust?

After spending several weeks last summer in Jerusalem as part of Echoes & Reflections Advanced Learning Seminar at Yad Vashem, I have gained deeper insight into resources that can support classroom instruction on the Holocaust. These include:

  • Echoes & Reflections’ new timeline helps show the events leading up to when the Nazis came to power, as well as what happened as a result of it.
  • Echoes & Reflections’ companion resource for Schindler's List, which includes survivor testimony, new handouts on historical context, and a series of discussion questions and writing prompts add to the unit and unpacking the film.

Nothing, however, is more important than the testimonies of survivors as far as I'm concerned.  Their recollections bring a perspective nothing else can-- not books, not films, not internet sources.  The pathos of survivors’ experiences motivates my students to keep learning. Overall, the resources available from Echoes & Reflections and their Partners help enhance my unit on the Holocaust and genocide, making it relevant and inspiring to my high school juniors.



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CLASSROOM LESSONS

TEACHING

UNCATEGORIZED



What do we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do? It’s a question with which I continuously grapple. It is impossible to deny that much of this history showcases the most devastating and bleakest views of humanity. Yet, despite this heart-breaking reality, as educators, we understand the critical importance of teaching our students the consequences of allowing antisemitism and other forms of bias and hate to pervade a society. From this realization, another equally vital question emerges: How do we best teach this history?

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The horrors of the Holocaust are undeniable, and though they must be taught, it is imperative that students are able to understand the material in a way that inspires them to engage positively with their communities to ensure that the past does not repeat. Art can act as an excellent gateway for students to effectively connect to the lessons of this history. Art raises questions seldom addressed when dealing with a historical subject. Art elevates viewpoints to a whole different level, which traditional historical approaches alone cannot inspire. While there are many types of art mediums from the Holocaust, poetry in particular is an excellent way to engage students. Poetry highlights an individual’s voice. This allows the reader to more fully empathize with the author’s experience and inspires both personal reflection and a greater understanding of the subject matter. Essentially, Holocaust poems are the whispers and cries from a dark past that we must bring to light.

A poem I often recommend educators introduce into the classroom is Five, by Hanuš Hachenberg, a Jewish boy from Prague who wrote these words in 1943 when he was 13 years old.

FIVE

This morning at seven so bright and so early

Five novels lay there, sewn up in a sack

Sewn up in a sack, like all of our lives

They lay there so silent, so silent, all five.

 

Five books that flung back the curtain of silence

Calling for freedom and not for the world

They’re somebody’s novels, somebody who loves them...

 

They call out now, they cried, they shed tears and they pleaded

That they hadn’t been finished, the pitiful five.

 

They declared to the world that the state trades in bodies,

And slowly they vanished and went out of sight

They kept their eyes open, they looked for the world

But nothing they found, they were silent, all five.

-Hanuš Hachenburg

Hanuš wrote this poem and others, for Vedem (“We Lead”) - a clandestine magazine produced by Jewish teenage boys imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There, amidst their crushing reality of ever-present death and disease, horrific overcrowding and hunger, living in constant fear of transports “to the east”, Hanuš and the boys of his dormitory performed an incredible act of resistance: they created. They secretly wrote stories, poems, jokes, and essays. They illustrated comics and drew fantasy drawings. They wrote bitterly about the inhumane prison they were forced to endure while trying to make sense of the hatred that had engulfed their lives.  Mourning their lost childhoods, they still dared to hope that the world they knew would one day be restored. They cautiously dreamed of a brighter future.  They remained determined to retain their human dignity in a world that had betrayed them, and their magazine was a means to that end.

Almost of all the young contributors to Vedem were murdered in Auschwitz and other death camps. Of the 7,590 children deported eastward from Theresienstadt, a mere 142 survived to be liberated. Of Hanuš, all that remains behind to show that a person of such sensitivity and brilliance ever existed are his beautiful Vedem poems and writings and a few black and white sketches. Not one photograph of this young man survives. We know almost nothing of his early life, except that it probably wasn’t a very happy one — following his parents’ divorce Hanuš spent 5 lonely years in an orphanage. The few people who remember Hanuš can only tell us that he was a frail, thin child with very dark and expressive eyes. Even in death he left nothing tangible behind. We will never have the solace of putting a memorial rock on his tombstone, running our fingers lovingly over the name engraved on its surface, sanctifying it with our tears. Auschwitz is his grave, and his poem Five is his epitaph.

For me, Hanuš lives on in his poetry, and its power to move us. His maturity, sensitivity, and brilliance are almost palpable in each line that he writes. Reading the poems of Hanuš, I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of loss. And anger. And yet, his poetry offers us a conduit to connect students to his inner world, to give voice to his fear and despair, his anger, his hope, and his dread of being forgotten. It is a towering testimony to his humanity and individuality. The imagery in Five leaves us to face difficult and important questions to address with students:

  • How could such grotesque hatred have led to these young innocent lives being cut short, like unfinished novels? How was this possible?
  • What sack are the 5 books sewn into? Is it the closed sack of the impenetrable walls of Hanuš and his friends’ prison, Theresienstadt? Or are the novels engulfed by the indifference of the world, a world that would bury them out of sight, muffling their pleas and stifling their cries?
  • And the most heartbreaking question of all: If only the five books had been completed, if only they had been allowed to reach their natural conclusion, what might have been contained in their chapters and pages? What could Hanuš and his friends have given the world? Furthermore, what could a million and a half murdered children have given the world?

I think this is at the heart of what we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do. As we accept the challenge of teaching our students this painful history we can amplify it by the use of powerful mediums such as poetry; mediums that can inspire important and meaningful reflection. As educators, we want our students to be the ones to open the sealed sack, take out the forgotten books within, read their brief unfinished chapters, vow to remember the stories, and assure the voices behind them are still heard. By adding to our teaching the personal artistry of the poet, we not only honor the memory of Hanuš, his friends, and all victims of the Holocaust, but also inspire students to reflect on and create more healthy and humane futures.

About the Author: Liz Elsby is a Holocaust Educator and Museum Guide who has worked at Yad Vashem since 2006.

Looking for additional ways to teach about the Holocaust using art and poetry? Please explore the following resources from Echoes & Reflections and our Partners:

 



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