Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What to cover? A case for studying the Einsatzgruppen

When teaching about the Holocaust most teachers face the difficult task of deciding what topics to cover. Whether students have any previous knowledge adds to the difficulty of deciding. Also whether the topic and materials are age appropriate must be considered. If the students have no background or very little then you probably will focus on giving a broader overview of the Holocaust. But if the students have enough of the basic information then the focus can shift to more specific topics. All of this must be considered within the time available to teach the Holocaust. For most of us that can be measured in days not weeks.

I am lucky to teach seniors in International Baccalaureate History. This means they come into the class with some previous knowledge and they are academically motivated students. It also means age appropriateness of topics and materials is not a limitation. The topics covered, within the 8 days I make available to teach the Holocaust, can vary from year to year based on resources available and personal/student interests. This year I added a new topic, the Einsatzgruppen.

The Einsatzgruppen were mobile killing squads who followed the German army into the Soviet Union during the Nazi invasion in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa). Their purpose was to murder anyone behind the German lines who was considered racially impure (primarily Jews but also Roma) and politically threatening (Soviet officials). The Einsatzgruppen often used willing collaborators from among the local civilian population to aid in their task. Jews were identified and then ordered to assemble in an area before being transported or marched to an execution site. At these sites people of all ages and gender were shot so as to fall into a prepared trench and then buried. Between 1-1.5 million Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen.

So why teach about the Einsatzgruppen? The fact that over one million Jews died as the result of being shot locally not shipped to some distant camp is probably something few students know. The image in most people’s minds when thinking about the systematic murder of Jews during the Holocaust is the death camps. In studying the Einsatzgruppen students can learn that there were other ways the Nazis murdered Jews in large numbers even before the death camps. The issue of collaboration can be brought in as the murders were done locally and in some cases with the assistance of the local population. The question of resistance can be discussed. Why didn’t the Jews fight back? The story of survival can be explored as some victims managed to escape death. The reality is the details may not be suitable for younger students but even if its not possible to spend a day or two on the topic the Einsatzgruppen should be mentioned to make students aware.

If you’re looking for information on the Einsatzgruppen there are a couple of excellent videos available, an A&E documentary entitled Nazi Secret Killing Squads (1999 and available in the MCHE Resource Center) and a National Geographic Channel documentary entitled Hitler’s Hidden Holocaust (2009). In addition the book Masters of Death (2002) by Richard Rhodes gives a good overview of the people who carried out these murders and how they were committed. Finally the book Holocaust by Bullets (2009) by Father Patrick Desbois discusses his attempt to identify and examine all the execution sites in the Ukraine.

Recommended Resources:

The Einsatzgruppen: Mobile Killing Units
Liepaja - The Holocaust
Testimony by Rivka Yosselevska

Testimonies from Babi Yar


One Day in Jozefow - From Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men