Teaching the Holocaust in Today’s World

Teaching about the Holocaust
can be overwhelming. How do you provide a meaningful learning
experience for your students, whether you have a month, a week,
or even less? What is an effective approach to make learning about the Holocaust relevant to students in todays world? We, at Echoes and Reflections, would like to share our approach with you. With the end of WWII, as the horrors of the Holocaust
were revealed, the world was shocked. The dimensions of the catastrophe
were unprecedented. It was the first time that an attempt was made to completely
annihilate an entire nation. Every single Jew was targeted. It was not a battle over territory,
assets or power. This was a murder motivated
by antisemitic, racist ideology. Seventy years have passed. Genocides and wars have happened
since then. Why is it still so important to teach
about the Holocaust? Echoes and Reflections is a program that was created to prepare educators
to teach about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a human story. A story relevant to us all. It was perpetrated by human beings
against human beings, in the center of civilization. The Holocaust raises deep questions
of morality, ethics and human behavior
that continue to echo today. Here we can see Jewish men being deported
to concentration camps after “Kristallnacht”, the Night of Broken Glass. Here are the Jewish victims,
here are the perpetrators. Watching are the bystanders. This photo, a primary source,
raises many questions. Why are these innocent people
being deported? Why aren’t the bystanders
doing something to help? In order to answer,
we must contextualize the photograph, as we do with all other resources we use, by relating it to the events of the period. The story of the Jewish victims is at the center of our study
of the Holocaust. How shall we teach this story? We should not see it as the murder
of six million anonymous Jews, but rather that six million times
an individual Jew was murdered. Eli Bosak was born in Krakow, Poland, to a Jewish family that had lived
in the city for generations. He was a smart child
who enjoyed mathematics. While in the ghetto,
his father Avraham was offered the chance to hide Eli
and his sister, Renya. He couldn’t bear the thought
of parting from them. By the time he steeled himself to do so
it was too late. Eli and his sister were murdered
in Auschwitz. Eli was 11 years old. Renya was only 6. We will never be able to understand the torment of making
this impossible decision. We will never understand
the enormity of his pain when his children were taken away. Giving the victims a face and a name
by listening to testimonies of survivors or reading words of those who perished
evokes a sense of empathy with them. They become real people. The empathy created allows
a more meaningful discussion as students can relate more easily
to human beings than to numbers. As educators, the discussion
should derive from the question: How did Jews live in a world
where they were treated as less than human and ultimately sentenced to death? Nazi Germany and its collaborators
did not just murder the Jews, they made every attempt to dehumanize them. In the midst of this horrifying reality, Jews struggled not only to survive, but also to maintain their identity,
values and dignity. Let’s look at this teacher
in the Łódź ghetto. Twenty-one percent
of the ghetto’s population died from hunger, cold and disease. Every person in the ghetto experienced
the loss of a close relative or friend. Nevertheless, schools were established. Children learned. Jews were confronted with dilemmas
that challenged normal moral standards and many times,
were a matter of life and death. What choices could they make in a world
that was filled with choiceless choices? Educators in the ghetto were anguished: was it right to tell children
not to steal food when they were dying of starvation? Mothers of infants
with nothing to feed them agonized: should they go to work to get food, though it meant leaving their babies
home alone? Elie Wiesel, a Nobel laureate, described
his arrival at Auschwitz and how an inmate told him to lie
about his age. For Elie, lying was a betrayal
of his identity and values. However, though he didn’t know it, lying about his age turned out to be
a question of life and death. It is critical to make a distinction between discussing a dilemma
and creating a simulation. Simulations can traumatize students and may create the illusion
that Jewish victims had a real choice when in reality
they had only choiceless choices. This may lead students to believe that the victims’ bad choices
determined their fates. As the Holocaust unfolded, death became ever-present. We can’t ignore this darkness
when teaching about the Holocaust. But focusing on the light in the darkness, on the compassion that people
showed toward one another, on cultural and armed resistance, gives the story meaning,
and can inspire students. For the survivors, the struggle did not end
with the end of the war. This photo was taken in Bergen Belsen
in 1945. This wedding occurred that same year,
in the same place. It depicts the choice
of life and continuity. After the trauma and loss
they had experienced, survivors could have easily turned
into embittered people, seeking revenge. The educational emphasis
should be on the fact that most survivors chose
a constructive path rather than a destructive one. In teaching the Holocaust, we can’t avoid dealing with the perpetrators. Tolkatchev was among the liberating soldiers
of the Russian army. In his painting the victims’ faces
are illuminated. The perpetrators are a faceless group. Why does Tolkatchev depict them as faceless? It’s tempting to believe that monsters perpetrated the Holocaust. However, it’s important to emphasize that the perpetrators were human beings. The Holocaust was not inevitable, it was the result of choices. As educators, we encourage our students
to think critically. How was it possible that millions of people chose to become
involved in mass murder? Undoubtedly, the perpetrators were influenced
by a constellation of factors: centuries of antisemitism,
extreme ideology based on racism, a totalitarian regime that turned racism
into an official policy, aggressive propaganda and education. Perhaps we can interpret the painting
as reflecting that the perpetrators chose to ignore
their humanity by becoming part of the system
of dehumanization and murder. During the Holocaust,
as their neighbors watched, Jews were torn from the homes
they had lived in for generations. These people are participating
in an auction of Jewish belongings. Did they question whether something
had happened to their Jewish neighbors? Can we really see them
as uninvolved bystanders? These people also had a choice. Elie Wiesel said
that the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. This indifference was
what enabled evil to spread. But there were those
who chose to act differently, to risk their lives to try to save Jews. These rescuers, recognized as Righteous Among the Nations,
came from all backgrounds. They were young and old, rich and poor,
peasants and intellectuals. What made them risk their life and freedom
for people who sometimes were strangers? Dr. Pesante and his wife hid Hemda, their daughter’s Jewish friend,
for over a year. When Hemda suggested that she leave
so as not to jeopardize them, Dr. Pesante said to her, “I beg you to stay with us for my sake,
not yours. “If you leave I will forever be ashamed
to be part of the human race”. Miep Gies who helped hide Anne Frank
and her family said: “People sometimes call me a hero. “I don’t like it,
because people should never think “that you have to be a very special person
to help those who need you!” As educators, we understand
that “Never Again” starts with education. Focusing on choices, on values
and on light in the darkness may inspire our students
to be critical thinkers, engaged learners, and ultimately, compassionate citizens. Our hope is that this will ultimately
contribute to creating a better world.

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