Monday, April 14, 2008

Teaching the Holocaust


Last Thursday, April 10, I spent a long day-into-night at the University of Utah-sponsored "Days of Remembrance" teacher workshop. The objective of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) workshop is to support educators in effectively teaching students about the Holocaust.

As I participated in the activities, I thought of several reasons why we need to pass on the stories and lessons of the Holocaust. The following are just a few of my ideas

1. Like World War II veterans, Holocaust survivors are dying daily. Although many have recorded their stories through written or video-taped testimonies, the chance to interact with them is coming to a close.

2. With the downfall of the Soviet Union, along with the distancing of decades, more documents and pictures are forthcoming from sources once closed to the world. Examples of these include maps housed in former USSR archives, the "Auschwitz Album"and the "Höcker Album" that emerged in 1980 and 2007, respectively.

Upon liberation, Lily Jacobs, an 18-year-old former inmate of Auschwitz, found the first album while searching for some warm clothes in a vacated SS barracks. After several decades, she donated it to Yad Vashem, the Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Israel.

A retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel donated the Höcker album this past December, 2006. He found it in a German apartment in 1946 while working for the military intelligence agency. All this information adds insights into to complex story of the Holocaust.

3. Among resources given to workshop participants were two DVDs produced by the Holocaust Museum's Committee on Conscience: Witnessing Darfur: Genocide Emergency and Defying Genocide: Choices That Saved Lives. Both documentaries reminded me that genocide is not a condition of the world's past. Knowledge can lead to action on a local level as well as a world-wide level. Without knowledge, however, little will change.

4. Those thoughts lead to the question: If not us, who? Who will teach today's youth about yesterday's Holocaust and today's genocide? If not educators, who? Parents often shy away from the particulars of such topics.

My parents, part of the "Greatest Generation," did not share the Holocaust story when we talked of Dad's wartime experiences as a top-turret gunner in a B-17. I initially learned of "The Final Solution" when I read the first chapter of Leon Uris' best seller Exodus. I was 13 years old, and it terrified me. Although the novel is a work of historical fiction, somehow I knew that Uris' writing was factually based, and so I asked parents and teachers if the Nazis really performed the atrocities described in that book. My questions were answered, but the topic was not studied during my years as a student in public education.

Those who agree that educators have an obligation to teach the Holocaust often wonder how to best do that. Peter Mehlbach and David Nienkamp, both USHMM Teacher Fellows, presented two important suggestions. Peter emphasized that "less is more." Whether teachers have a day or a month, he recommended that they should focus upon one aspect of the Holocaust and study it in depth. To support that adage, the workshop centered upon Auschwitz 1944, especially January through July when nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews were shipped to the infamous camp.

David shared "Methodological Consideration for Teaching the Holocaust in Middle School and High School." The 14 "considerations" serve as excellent guidelines in approaching this sensitive and serious subject. Furthermore, he presented ways to outline the unit via a graphic organizer. (To examine reproduced handouts from the workshop, click onto Considerations.)

For more ideas, peruse the Holocaust Museum's website listed at the end of this site. Link 2 Literacy and Literacy Link-up were created as avenues of teacher collaboration. I would greatly appreciate comments and ideas. Please feel free to post them.

Best wishes,