Monday, December 21, 2009

Humanize the perpetrators too

During the eleven years I taught a Holocaust unit to my 8th grade language arts classes, I often discovered that I was a student myself. Preparing for various lessons, I would delve into research, videos, and literature, finding more information to pass on to my students. I often felt that the more background information students had on the Holocaust, the more they would appreciate our various readings. Soon, this developed into a research project, as well. During those early years, I would nod my head in agreement as the students talked about the "evil" perpetrators and the inhumanity of the German people.

It wasn’t until much later in my teaching career that I realized I needed to present the perpetrators and citizens of Germany in a different way. It almost seemed that the students were seeing Hitler and many of the high-ranking Nazis as evil characters synonymous with the type of villains seen in movies. It became apparent that perhaps the students needed to know that many of these men had families and lead very normal lives.

Images of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Hedydrich with their children humanized these individuals, thus putting into perspective that even an ordinary man is capable of committing horrific acts. We would discuss how, in many cases, these were family men simply looking to advance their positions in their careers, as incomprehensible as that may seem.

Left: Heinrich Himmler with daughter Gudrun
Right: Reinhard Heydrich with daughter Silke

Furthermore, students always seemed quick to condemn all Germans for their actions. Again, as time passed, I realized that the students needed to recognize that the majority of German people were not perpetrators, but rather bystanders…that it wasn’t so much the action of the German citizens, but rather the lack of action that should serve as the lesson. In addition, I felt that students needed to remember that while we are quick to judge Germany’s past, we have our own dark chapters in United States history that we to need to recognize (slavery, discrimination, etc.). This often became great opportunity to discuss the similarities between the Nuremberg Laws and the Jim Crow laws.

Teaching about the Holocaust can be a very daunting task. It seems that each year, I gained a new insight on how to present a topic. Now, as I hold the position of library media specialist, I discover that I am presented with a whole new list of challenges on how to present lessons of the Holocaust; however it is a challenge I am ready to tackle.

Resources on Perpetrators and Bystanders (available in the MCHE Resource Center):
The Good Old Days by Ernst Klee
Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning
Death Dealer by Rudolf Hoess
Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny
Bystanders by Victoria Barnett
Perpetrators Victims Bystanders by Raul Hilberg
Shoah (DVD) by Claude Lanzmann

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Relevance and making a connection in today's world

One of the biggest challenges in teaching the Holocaust, I believe, comes after students have completed your planned activities and begin asking, “What can we do now; what can one person do to keep this from happening again?” Another side to this issue is how can we speak out against the genocides that are happening in our time.

Students are most ready to respond and act immediately after their study of the Holocaust, so having some responses and actions for them to consider at that time is important. This is also an opportune time to discuss world responses and actions following the end of World War II. A quick and interesting way to do this is to share the book For Every Child (published in conjunction with UNICEF) to illustrate the rights that every child in the world should have (similar to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations in 1948). The book, which you can loan from the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education's Resource Center, is appropriate for use with all grade levels and is beautifully illustrated.

Before I read the book to students, I ask them to work in groups of three or four to list ten rights that all teenagers should have. The groups share and generate a class list of rights. The class votes on the top ten rights, which we then post in the classroom. Then students discuss the importance of rights in general, why we have guarantee rights, the history of rights in our country, what rights Jews and other groups were denied during the Holocaust and why.

After reading the book aloud and sharing the illustrations with the students, we discuss the differences between the rights on the class list and the rights in the book. This brings to light many rights that the students take for granted and raises their awareness of the conditions other children throughout the world are forced to live in.

A natural follow-up is to help the class plan an activity that will benefit children in countries currently experiencing genocides. Jewish World Watch sponsors four relief campaigns which students could easily support as well as educational and support information.

Please share activities you use to help your students respond to current genocides. The larger our community, the better resources we can make available for everyone!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teachers as life long learners

Note: Auschwitz is a complex of camps covering many square miles. It is composed of:
  1. Auschwitz I: concentration camp to house political prisoners (often Poles and usually non-Jews)
  2. Auschwitz II-Birkenau: death camp built to murder European Jews
  3. Auschwitz III (aka Buna/Monowitz: slave labor facility that drew much of it's work force from Birkenau
  4. 50+ slave labor satellite facilities

My recent travels to
Poland have left me pondering the impact that travel has on my teaching and my own education as a life-long learner.
Before the excitement that always follows a trip wears off, I’d like to document my thoughts on how this trip will enhance my teaching of the Holocaust and history, in general.

On October 17th, I departed for Poland, along with nine other American Holocaust educators. We were chosen by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to represent American teachers at a Holocaust Educators Summit, hosted by the Polish Embassy. While in Warsaw, we exchanged pedagogical ideas and learned history by exploring historical sites such as the Warsaw Ghetto (or what is left of it since 80% of Warsaw was destroyed during the war), the Jewish cemetery, and the Jewish Historical Institute. We then said goodbye to our gracious hosts and departed for Krakow where we stayed in Kazimierz - the old Jewish quarter, learned how teachers at a Fine Arts School educate their students on the Holocaust, and visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

The Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw

Interacting with Polish teachers allowed me to understand the different perspectives that must be taken into consideration when teaching the Holocaust and when teaching any historical event. Our Polish counterparts approach the topic from a different vantage point. They are teaching about the Holocaust, primarily as an historical event, which happened in the land that they live their daily life. It is important to Polish educators that the world acknowledge that these events took place in Nazi-occupied Poland and were not a "Polish Holocaust." Overall, I was humbled by the knowledge and professionalism with which these Polish teachers are educating their youth.

Because these events occurred in what seems to be a world away and a life time away from the lives we live, I found this trip incredibly impactful in my understanding of Holocaust history. I am a firm believer that it is important for educators to travel. This will only enrich the teaching of our subject matter, but also allow us to understand the various backgrounds and life experiences that are brought to our classrooms.

This trip was certainly no exception. There are certain experiences at Auschwitz that will always resonate with me. Travel enhances our sensory knowledge like no book can. The day we visited, it was dreary and in the lower 40s. It had been foggy and rainy for several days prior to our visit. The weather conditions and the pervasive mud helped set the tone and create a picture of conditions those imprisoned on those very grounds experienced.

Also, through my studies I have heard many survivors and perpetrators write and speak of the indescribable smell at the camp. This was not in my thoughts when stepping off the bus at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I was taken aback when my first observation was how different Auschwitz I (the camp for Polish political prisoner) smelled compared with Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the Jewish death camp), just roughly 1 mile from one another. This certainly cannot be the same smell as sixty-five years ago, but the difference between locations was staggering. Walking on the grounds left me truly humbled by the vastness. Ruins of barracks stretch on for what seems like eternity, only separated by railroad tracks, fences and guard towers.

While in Auschwitz I, we were able to tour the museum that is housed in the barracks. I was reminded of the horrors that were experienced by not only Jews, but homosexuals, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses and prisoners of war. Walking through buildings that house various artifacts, recovered after liberation, I learned just how personal the events of the Holocaust are and how they impact us each differently, depending on our personal experiences. Having a five-year-old daughter, I found it extremely hard to view the suitcases, dolls, spoons, and shoes from children. Other exhibits in the museum impacted my colleagues differently.

Because I will not teach the Holocaust until May, I am unsure how my experiences in Poland will enhance my teaching. At this point, I can only guess that I will approach the history differently. The purpose of this trip was to allow teachers to share their teaching methods and learn more about the Holocaust. This was certainly achieved but I learned so much more. I learned about Polish culture and Polish history. I teach a course called Modern Global Issues which covers Polish independence from Soviet rule. This experience taught me more about the anti-communist movement than I would ever be able to truly comprehend from reading.

Most teachers strive to create life-long learners in their classrooms. Nothing helps me do that more than being a role-model to my students. Attending conferences to enhance my repertoire and learning from various cultures keeps me moving forward. I will be continually grateful for this opportunity and cannot wait for my next experience …Greece.


360 degree tour of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau
The Auschwitz Album
Auschwitz: Through the Lens of the SS
Liberation of Auschwitz

Monday, November 16, 2009

Teaching about the Nazi legal assault against the Jews

A note before we begin: I use this lesson in my sophomore Challenge U.S. History class, which for the most part includes students who are mature enough to understand the material and discuss it in an academic setting. The students in my challenge classes, for the most part, are highly motivated learners and enjoy discussions. This lesson is recommended as age appropriate for students in 9-12th grade because they possess the critical thinking skills necessary to handle the material.

One of my favorite classroom activities is a lesson that involves comparing and contrasting Jim Crow Laws with Nazi laws such as the Nuremberg Laws. I love this lesson because it gives students a chance to understand the purpose of laws and why people need to be aware of how laws shape our values and norms. For example, most people believe that laws provide safety and security for citizens. Laws tell people what they should and should not do in order to protect themselves and protect others from harm. By passing laws, a “norm” is created that says “x” is dangerous because there is a law protecting a person from it. Encouraging students to see how laws promote certain social standards and beliefs helps students better understand why people acted as they did. The key is to illustrate that laws are both positive and negative. By having students compare and contrast Jim Crow Law with Nazi laws students begin to see how laws created the social norms and values that surrounded both communities.

For many of my students it’s the first time they actually understand what Jim Crow laws were and how they shaped the identity of the South. They also see that many aspects of life in Nazi Germany were not unprecedented or unique. Often the Nazis are illustrated as being “abnormal” when in fact all countries use their laws to create social norms. So not only do students become familiar with the actual laws, but they also become familiar with the purpose of law.

One key thing to remember is that when doing this activity, the idea is to compare and contrast the policies created through laws and how those laws were implemented. Please make sure that students do not try to compare levels of suffering. (Please reference #6 in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust.) This activity is not about which groups or individuals suffered worse under the laws, but about how laws are used to justify policies and actions and how those laws were implemented. As the teacher it is critical that you avoid letting your students make statements about who suffered more and control the focus of the discussion.

Sometimes a discussion concerning “race” and the treatment of minorities based on “race” can be uncomfortable. By the time my classes reach this activity we have already discussed the pseudo-science of eugenics and its impact on the social construction of race. Most kids are shocked when they read the materials. Be prepared for them to laugh out of discomfort at some of the Jim Crow laws and Nazi laws. They may also make comments about how “stupid” these laws are and how they can’t believe people actually followed the laws. Thankfully I have not had any problems with inappropriate comments or questions, and for the most part students keep the discussion on point. I think much of that comes from how I set up the lesson heavily emphasizing that this is not about comparing and contrasting suffering but looking at policy and implementation. I just make sure to be specific about the objectives from the start.

Also, sometimes students have gotten off –topic when it comes to the discussion on how the laws addressed marriage and relationships. Students will want to talk about current dating patterns and the idea of mixed marriage. While this can be relevant in terms of allowing students to connect the material to their own lives, I try to avoid letting the lesson become a discussion on current conditions. To keep this from happening I will sometimes offer students an extra credit opportunity to journal about how this links to current issues and to turn it in next class.

I think you will find that this activity engages students and brings about an intellectual discussion on the use of law. I have used this lesson for the last three years and many of my students tell me it was one of their favorite lessons. Please visit CLICK HERE to find this lesson - complete with links to all necessary materials and teacher instructions.

Jim Crow Laws By State - Click on each state for the laws

Monday, November 9, 2009


November 9, 2009 ~ 7:00 p.m.
Lewis and Shirley White Theatre
Jewish Community Campus
5801 West 115th Street
Overland Park, Kansas

Seventy-one years ago on November 9 and 10, Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”), an anti-Jewish pogrom devised by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister for propaganda and public enlightenment, was carried out by the SS and other national police agencies. Jewish businesses were vandalized and homes ransacked and burned. At least 100 Jews were murdered and 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps. Kristallnacht ended the illusion that normal Jewish life in Germany and Austria was still possible.

This year’s community-wide commemoration of Kristallnacht will showcase the documentary film Kristallnacht, newly produced for MCHE’s Witnesses to the Holocaust series. The film describes the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and the emergence of increasingly brutal policies toward Germany’s Jews that culminated in the violence of November 9-10, 1938. It features excerpts from MCHE’s videotaped survivor testimonies along with archival and personal photos.

Kristallnacht Order
USHMM collection
USHMM online exhibition
Primary Source Documents
It Came From Within...71 Years Since Kristallnacht

Monday, November 2, 2009

Meeting language arts standards with Holocaust education

In this day of testing and the emphasis in meeting state and district standards, it is important to have good justification for taking the time required to teach the Holocaust. When teaching Language Arts, the standards are not based around specific materials, but rather general learning standards which can be met using many different materials. The Holocaust is not something that needs to be taught separately, alongside the state standards, but instead, standards can be taught within the Holocaust unit.

One objective in the Kansas middle school standards is to understand fact and opinion, and to recognize propaganda, bias and stereotypes. The Holocaust is a great unit to incorporate these topics. It is very important to teach students how to distinguish between fact and opinion, regarding the Holocaust. This can be done through looking at materials and judging whether or not the information is fact or opinion, and therefore credible or not credible. Websites, books, and even primary resources can be examined for credibility. Another important factor to look at when examining resources is bias. Understanding who wrote or created the piece, and then understanding their opinions, will help students better judge materials and understand the bias of the author.

One way to help students distinguish between facts and opinions and identify bias is to give them a set of criteria on which they can judge a source. There is a great example of this on the Cornell Library website. This stresses accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency and coverage when looking at resources and their validity. Using this set of standards, you can guide your students through some examples.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a great resource for articles which are valid. Using the Holocaust Encyclopedia on this site, look up a term, such as Nazi, and evaluate the resource. Then go to a website such as Wikipedia, do a search for the same topic, and compare and contrast the validity. Holocaust Controversies, another website, is a great place to show fact, opinion and bias. While this website’s intention is to debunk Holocaust deniers, it can illustrate how opinions, even those that we agree with, are still opinions.

The Holocaust is also an excellent resource for teaching stereotype. It really helps students understand the cause and effect of stereotype. Teaching the history of antisemitism can help students understand the progression of a stereotype and how and why people choose to believe what they do. One great way to do this is through pictures and photographs. Much of the Nazi rhetoric was based on the idea that a Jew could be recognized from outward appearances. I begin by showing my students photographs of Jews and non-Jewish Germans around the time of the war in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's photo archive. It is important for the students to see that there was no way of telling, based on what someone looked like, whether or not they were a Jew. They need to understand that not all Germans were Nazis, not all Jews were practicing, and that the two groups lived among each other for a long time before World War II. Then you can show them the visual propaganda that was used during the war from sources such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the German Propaganda Archive.

One excellent resource for teaching this visual stereotype is using the pictures from “Trau keinem Fuchs auf grüner Heid und keinem Jüd auf seinem Eid” (“Trust No Fox in the Green meadow and No Jew on his Oath”), a childrens book published in 1936 by Julius Streicher as a form of propaganda. This book depicts Jews as dirty, lazy, money hungry and untrustworthy. It depicts Germans as strong, hard working and being victimized by the Jews. You can show students the pictures and have them analyze the propaganda being used, such as name calling, glittering generalities and half truths. Putting the pictures of the Jews and the Germans side by side really shows the bias and slant in the pictures and propaganda.

While there are many important reasons for teaching the Holocaust, it is also important to be sure that what is being taught ties in with state and district standards. This is just one example of how this can be done. The Holocaust can be a tool used to integrate many areas of curriculum, allowing the students to learn on many levels and in many areas at the same time.

USHMM photo archives
USHMM encyclopedia
State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda
German Propaganda Archives
"Trust No Fox..."
"The Poisonous Mushroom"

Monday, October 19, 2009

Book talks and young readers

As a library media specialist, I feel comfortable talking about books. Books about the Holocaust are normally very well written and have great appeal to my students if I book talk them. These book talks can be one on one standing by the library shelves or with whole classes that have come in to check out their historical fiction novel. Our Communication Arts/Reading classes, grades 6 – 8, have different genres that students are responsible for with outside reading. I make sure that when I book talk these genres I check with the social studies teachers to see where they are in class on the American History timeline. This means I do a lot of Civil War and Holocaust book talks throughout the year! The Holocaust books generally come in two forms: historical fiction and memoirs. The tricky part is steering my students towards books that aren’t too mature and graphic while at the same time matching them up with just the right book to keep them coming back for more. When I talk to whole classes I make sure to give them a reading level for each of the books (found on Novel List) and a maturity level that I personally decide on after reading the books.

For young readers, I’ve found asking them first what they’ve already read is a good place to start. Some have read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and a few have heard Eve Bunting’s Terrible Things. Where do you go from here? There are several good possibilities: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine and Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Many middle schools do novel studies and read Devil’s Arithmetic in 7th grade and The Diary of Anne Frank in 8th grade. If your CA/Reading classes don’t do Holocaust novel studies these are both good wrungs up the Holocaust literature ladder to offer your younger students.

The hardest student to find Holocaust books for is the adolescent male! I’ve found a book that most boys can really sink their teeth into though. It’s probably because it’s written by an adolescent boy – Leo Bretholz! The book is Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe. When you tell students that the author decided to write his memoirs because he found his name in a Nazi book of Jews from France killed at Auschwitz- they’re hooked. There’s adventure on every page and not Gary Paulsen-like adventures but adventures that are fatal if you’re caught! We always borrow multiple copies of this book from our feeder high school. But don’t be scared, your 8th grade boys can handle this book.

Another excellent boy book is Andrea Warren’s Surviving Hitler. It won the William Allen White award several years ago and is the biography of Jack Mandelbaum, one of our local survivors and co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. Students who want to know how people actually survived the camps will appreciate Jack’s story. The book is full of amazing primary source photos too.

Several years ago our teachers started using literature circles to allow students more choice of titles. What we’ve found with Holocaust books is that most students end up reading more than one of the titles and sometimes all of them! Students book talk to each other and share the titles! I always book talk Han Nolan’s If I Should Die Before I Wake and start with a warning about the language used at the beginning of the book. Like Devil’s Arithmetic the main character is thrust back to the past and forced to live life as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. You will have to throw out reality and use your imagination to appreciate these stories, but it will be worth the trouble. I also talk to the students about I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton Jackson. She gives a view of the camps that one could only have if they’d actually been there. I particularly like this book because the author describes in detail what it was like when the Nazis first came and the process that was involved before the Jews were moved to the camps. You don’t get this perspective very often. Also, The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang is amazing in its detail of the train ride to the camps. Truly, the entire book is about what it was like to be in a cattle car for a 14 year old Jewish girl and her grandfather. The surprise ending will break your heart.

Finally, in the past several years I have purchased new Holocaust titles that are appropriate for middle school students. Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy about life and death in the Lodz Ghetto is a perfect example. Be sure that you read the inside cover to students when you book talk it. The statistics they give about the ghetto and how many Jews came through it and survived it are staggering especially when they tell you how many children survived, and the author’s aunt was one of them!

These are just a few of the many wonderful books available for young people on the Holocaust. I’d love to blog with you about other titles I know and maybe titles you know as well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

White Rose Student Essay Contest

How do you create a short research assignment that requires students to not only provide a narrative history but also self-reflection? When it comes to the Holocaust this task becomes even more difficult if the assignment is to have any true value. Thankfully the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education created the White Rose Student Essay Contest.
There are a number of advantages to using this contest as a class assignment when studying the Holocaust.

  1. The contest adheres to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust. Specifically, in researching and writing for the contest students will recognize individuals, including victims and perpetrators, as human beings capable of moral judgment and independent decision making. Best of all the essay enables students to translate the statistics of 6 million killed into an individual experience. While the contest theme changes every year it does require students to focus on an individual within the larger context.
  2. Students are challenged to think about what they have learned through the course of their research. The essay includes a requirement that students write a short self-reflection.
  3. The assignment is relatively short at 1200 words maximum.
  4. Students are required to do research. This is a key skill found in both the Kansas and Missouri Social Studies standards. For those worried about what students may find on the internet regarding the Holocaust this can be controlled by using the list of recommended resources provided by MCHE for the contest theme. While not exhaustive the list is provided as a way to ensure students get reliable information. Many of the resources are also available through MCHE.
  5. Students are required to write for a wider audience. Most assignments are only created for the teacher to see. With this essay students need to be aware that they are writing something that others may see and judge. As a result students will probably take more care and deliberation in what they write.

While I teach 12th graders in International Baccalaureate History the essay contest can be used in any History or English class studying the Holocaust. Since I teach advanced students I do not have to take the time in class to teach research. However, this would be a great assignment to use as a means to teach research.

I have used the essay contest in a number of ways over the last 10 years. Initially I used it strictly as an extra credit assignment. Then I made it an option students could choose for their written assignment on World War II. The past few years it has become the required written assignment for World War II. Like most teachers it is difficult to find the time to teach many topics. I know for me the Holocaust is one such topic. While I spend some time teaching aspects of the Holocaust the essay contest enables me to extend that time while students also practice the skill of research.
While I require all students to write the essay, the contest only allows each teacher to send up to ten essays within each division (8th-9th and 10th-12th). I grade all the essays for my class and then choose the best to enter the contest. Sometimes this is the full allotment but often not. Those offered the opportunity to enter the contest can receive extra credit. In order to receive the extra credit the students selected must meet with me to discuss any changes needed to be made to their essay. In addition they must fill out the required paperwork and complete any other criteria by the deadline.

Overall, the White Rose Essay Contest is an easy to use assignment with a great number of advantages. I know everyone reading this can find some way to incorporate it in to their curriculum. You will not regret the effort. All your students will certainly be better off for having researched and written on the Holocaust.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Meet the Cadre

Welcome to the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education's Educator Forum. MCHE is a Holocaust education center located in Overland Park, Kansas. Much of our work focuses on preparing classroom teachers and other educators to accurately and effectively share this history with their 7-12th grade students. We do this through professional education courses, student programs, and providing age-appropriate resources.

One of MCHE's longest running and most successful programs is the Isak Federman Holocaust Teaching Cadre. This is a group of 18 dedicated and highly trained classroom teachers who work with MCHE on a volunteer basis to create educational programming and teaching resources. The group takes an active part in writing lesson plans and curriculum units, serves as peer educators and mentors in MCHE professional development courses and as ambassadors of Holocaust education in the teaching community.

This forum offers the cadre an opportunity to reach out to other Holocaust educators and to share their experiences and expertise. Cadre members (and the periodic guest blogger) will be sharing their reflections on resources, survivor testimony, effective teaching methods, general pedagogy, and actual classroom experiences.

We encourage all interested educators to follow this blog, interact, ask questions, and make this a true forum where you can get and share new ideas. Please check back regularly!