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