Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Extending your unit to talk about the Rwandan Genocide

In 2005, I was looking for a movie to watch at Blockbuster. There was a case on the bottom shelf that caught my eye. I picked it up, read a little, and took it home. I watched it alone, on a Friday night, and couldn’t look away. Sometimes in April is an overview of the Rwanda genocide, told in a didactic format jumping between 1994 and 2004. When I first watched it, there were no major Hollywood stars to distract me. I grew up well after Debra Winger had peaked. In 2011, Idris Elba did a season of The Office, but still plays his role so convincingly, that you lose yourself in him. Without recognizable stars, you can truly focus on the story.

Having watched Hotel Rwanda, and having read up on the genocide from different perspectives, I felt I understood the man on the ground story of the genocide. Sometimes in April goes so far beyond that. Our protagonist is a Hutu married to a Tutsi. The use of the radio to spread propaganda and enlist the masses is explored effectively. The relationship of Rwanda to other nations, including France, Belgium, the United States, and China is also explored in this film.

does a great job of covering all of the big details of the genocide. It is critical that any instructor choosing to show this film does some research on the events of the genocide. This movie does an incredible job of covering all the major aspects of the Rwanda from a macro perspective. Doing some research into the background, the American reaction to the killings, and the United Nations reactions will allow a viewer to extend the lessons further.

Rwanda was a society divided between two major tribes: Hutu and Tutsi. The movie does a good job of explaining the historical complications between the two, caused in large part by European colonial powers. The ongoing conflict in Rwanda is discussed, and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a militia force in exile, attempting to drive the Hutu heavy government out. The role of Belgium and France in allowing weapons (machetes) to be imported from China in incredible numbers, providing support to the government in power, and providing refuge to the government when things went south are all documented. Rwanda was 95% Christian at the time of the genocide, and the role of the churches in the genocide are touched on. American news stories covering cultural events of the day are contrasted with the escalating violence in Rwanda. The internal debates at the Department of State are explored. The International Court Tribunals in Arusha present both the positive and negative of Europeans in Rwanda. As the RPF enters and the massacres die down, the attempt to prosecute the criminals and the attempt to move forward as a nation are shown. Graphically, this movie is fairly tame, but psychologically, it takes the viewer to a much heavier level.

What makes this film so powerful is that it does not leave you feeling uplifted. In the end, 800,000 people were killed. Paul Rusesabagina did all he could to save so many, but at the end of Hotel Rwanda, one feels a sense of relief that he saved so many. At the end of Sometimes in April, you don’t get to walk away feeling satiated. Questions the movie raises are answered, but it is a bitter pill. The inaction of the American government during the genocide, and the further failure to stop the perpetrators from fleeing into refugee camps in neighboring countries raises new questions. This makes an incredible wrap up to a study of the Rwanda genocide and America’s current involvement in Libya and the Ivory Coast. Paul Kagame, leader of the RPF as they entered in 1994, was just reelected for a second seven-year term as president of Rwanda. This is still an incredibly current issue, that has wide ranging extensions in current events.

When we begin our studies, I read aloud, and discuss the meaning behind Primo Levi’s poem, “Shema”. I think this is a powerful tool to create a sense of urgency in the students. We must not allow this to happen again. I end the poem by telling them that they can no longer claim ignorance, and that it is now on them to be active and involved in world issues. Gregory Stanton’s “Eight Stages of Genocide” is available in a slideshow format, as well, and a great asset to anyone with the time to teach genocide issues. We have a limited amount of time to spend in the classroom on genocide, but it is incredibly topical. As we grow into a global community, we must be aware that our neighbors are no longer so far away. With the news out of the Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt, we must not turn our eyes away. Instead, we must seek out information from a neutral source, and call on our politicians to do what is right and just. We must act morally and ethically, and not shy away from the hard choices. American presidents should be held to a foreign policy standard by an educated voting population, and that becomes our responsibility. An educated population should determine if American foreign policy should extend to humanitarian action or if American military force should only be used in the defense of tangible American interests. As for me, it would seem to be in our best interest, as the most powerful nation on Earth, to stand up for the meek, and act in a just way. American failure in Rwanda jeopardizes future American actions. We must never forget.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Holocaust Photo Analysis

A great activity to use with students studying the Holocaust is analyzing photos. It helps to actually create a “picture” in the minds of our students of the real people affected by the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a photo archive that is filled with powerful photographs. You can access the photo archive by going to

Here are some of the questions you can use with your students when analyzing photographs:
  • Describe the photograph. What is happening in this photograph? What does it tell you about the time period and people portrayed in the photograph? What social class do you think they belong to? Do you know when and where this photo was taken?
  • Who do you think took the photo? How did you come to that conclusion?
  • Why do you think this photograph was taken?
  • What are your personal reactions to this photograph? What does this photo tell you about the lives of the people in it?

This can be a great individual writing activity with students where they write a reflection about a photograph or can be easily incorporated as a group activity. Students can share their analysis of the photographs with the class which can be a great starting point for discussion about many aspects of the Holocaust.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Making connections

As a language arts and reading teacher, I am constantly asking my students to connect what they read to their own personal experience, background knowledge, other texts they have read, and the world at large. I recently finished a book that caused my brain to fire with connections to the Holocaust.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand tells the true story of Louis Zamperini whose pursuit of the four-minute mile took him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Chapter 4 offers a fascinating description of the Nazi Olympics, Louie’s encounter with Hitler, and his theft of a Nazi flag from the Reich Chancellery. It also relates American basketball player Frank Lubin’s experiences when he lingered in Berlin and watched the city reinstate the antisemitic signs and newspapers that had not been present during the games.

Following the Olympics, Louie enrolled at USC and began training for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Of course, that dream was dashed when World War II began. Louie joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor and was trained to be a bombardier. While searching for a missing plane over the Pacific on 27 May 1943, Louie’s own plane crashed at sea killing all but three of the men aboard. The survivors floated on a raft in the Pacific until mid-July when they were captured by the Japanese.

Until the end of the war, Louie was held in Japanese POW camps where he and his fellow inmates were subjected to dehumanizing and sadistic treatment from his guards, inadequate rations, unsanitary living conditions, exposure, disease, lack of medical care, and slave labor. What I find remarkable about how the POWs endured the Japanese camps is the same thing that I find remarkable about how the Jews survived conditions in the Nazi camps – the use of spiritual resistance. On page 243 Hillenbrand describes acts of sabotage and smuggling that “were transformative. In risking their necks to sabotage their enemy, the men were no longer passive captives. They were soldiers again.” On pages 268-269 she describes a Christmas play that the POWs staged for themselves to boost morale. On page 282 she told how Tom Wade recited Shakespeare’s soliloquies and speeches from Churchill and Lincoln to his fellow POWs while they carried back-breaking loads of coal.

The book does not end with Louie’s liberation. It goes on to tell of his struggles with nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and finding a purpose in his post-war, civilian life. Woven throughout Louie’s story, Hillenbrand also tells of efforts made to prosecute the Japanese camp guards for war crimes. Ultimately, Louie finds a way to forgive his Japanese persecutors and redeem his life.

Students in my classroom and participants in workshops at MCHE have often asked me, “How do you manage not to become depressed when you study the Holocaust?” I have been affiliated with MCHE for 14 years now. During that time of intensive learning about the Holocaust, there have been times when I have broached a topic that was simply more than I could bear. However, mostly, I find my studies uplifting. I have read and heard countless testimonies to the strength and resilience of the human spirit. In the face of unimaginable evil, people have acted with kindness, courage, hope, and integrity. I have personally heard survivors as world-famous as Gerda Weissmann Klein and as beloved as our own Bronia Roslawowski speak about the importance of forgiveness.

I believe that all of us are challenged to live our lives with kindness, courage, hope, integrity, and forgiveness. The Holocaust survivors, who have every reason to be fearful, bitter, complaining, and unforgiving, serve as an example for the rest of us when they choose the alternative. Louis Zamperini, through Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful book, now serves as another shining example for me.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Children in the Holocaust and genocide

My 8th graders have just finished studying the ghettos of Poland with emphasis on the Lodz ghetto. I had them view a documentary entitled The Lodz Ghetto which I found at the resource center at the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. This video was divided into 4 parts with discussion questions for each one. This gave my students a great introduction and overview of the ghettos. I would certainly recommend this video for classes either to be seen in its entirety or in parts.
The next reading selection for my class will be Surviving Hitler. It is a memoir written by Andrea Warren about the experiences of Jack Mandelbaum, a local Holocaust survivor. There is a curriculum unit which can be found on the MCHE website which is very good. My past students gave great reviews on this book. They seemed to especially connect with the fact the Mr. Mandelbaum is from the Kansas City area. Of course, they all want to meet him after reading his memoir.
I will be ending my Holocaust unit with a lesson comparing and contrasting the diaries of two young people. The students will read excerpts from the Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, a young man who lived in the Lodz ghetto and the diary of Zlata Filipovic, who lived in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. This lesson is designed to connect lessons learned from the Holocaust with what has happened in the world since the end of World War II. I used this lesson last year and it was a success.