Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Beyond the Pale - Teaching about antisemitism

I teach World History. Each year I teach the Holocaust in the spring. Each spring students ask the same question: “Why did people start disliking Jews all of a sudden?” For many of my students they don’t know much about Jewish history except for the Holocaust and what they might learn about Jews from the time of the death of Jesus in Church.

I start each fall in World History teaching about the Middle Ages. We cover the basics including the plague. A couple of years ago we watched a video in class about the plague and it mentioned how Jews were often blamed for the plague (accused of poisoning water supplies) and massacred by Christians. My students were shocked and could not understand why the Christians would act in such a way.

I found a website that focused on the history of Judaism. It is called “Beyond the Pale: The History of Jews in Russia.”

Inside this exhibit there is a section called The Middle Ages. There are many images that will prompt discussions and also straight, to the point text that is easy to comprehend. Topics include the First Crusades, Anti-Jewish Myths, Patterns of Discrimination, Usury, The Jewish Community, and Expulsion and the Black Death.

In the past I have had students work their way through the website independently and then we will discuss many of the imagines and issues in class. I have attached a worksheet that I have used with students before.

I feel that to better understand the Holocaust students really need a better understanding of Jewish history in Europe. I like this website because it already addresses many of the issues talked about during most Middle Ages units so it isn’t hard to integrate it into the curriculum.It gives students a greater understanding and background knowledge when studying the Holocaust.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Righteous Rescuers Demonstrate Traits Transcending

Many resources---books, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), Yad Vashem, memoirs, journals, DVD/VHS movies, podcasts, encyclopedias---are available when teaching the Holocaust. However, organizations such as the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) enrich the learning process in the classroom with these resources and continuing education in Holocaust studies. One group whom I teach in my curriculum is the righteous rescuers and their traits that transcend through a poster set that is available from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Courage, Ingenuity, Cooperation, Integrity, Compassion, Social Responsibility, Self-Sacrifice, Moral Leadership.

Traits that transcend teaches humanity and honors the rescuers. Why do we examine traits that transcend? By exhibiting these traits in their efforts to save Jews, ordinary people transcended their own limitation and the obstacles that stood in their paths. By affirming the potential they have to show courage, ingenuity or self-sacrifice in their own lives, students will realize that these traits transcend the confines of history. Therefore, as a class, we find the definition of each trait. Two righteous rescuers and their stories are told to represent one of the eight traits that transcends. In cooperative learning groups, students will be responsible for teaching the class about a trait and the two rescuers; thus, taking leadership of a trait. Eight presentations, which could be poster, power point, photo story or other form, take place over two to three class periods.

  1. Courage---the state of mind that enables one to face danger, hardship or uncertainty with composure and resolve--is demonstrated with Marian Prichard of the Netherlands and Irena Sendler of Poland. Irena Sendler helped smuggle over 2500 children from the Warsaw ghetto. “My family taught me that what matters is that people are honest or dishonest, not what religion they belong to,” stated Irena Sendler.
  2. Ingenuity---the qualities in an individual that exemplify ingenuity are cleverness, creativity, resourcefulness and cunning---is brought to life (jumps off the poster) with Olga Kukovic of Croatia and Oscar Schindler of Poland. Primo Levi describes his rescuer, Lorenzo Perrone, (If This Is A Man), “I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence,,,that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole...for which it was worth surviving.”
  3. Cooperation---the act of working together for a common purpose or benefit---is illustrated with Preben Munch Nielsen of Denmark and Dimitar Peshev. Nielsen joined a resistance group and helped 1400 Jews escape from Denmark to Sweden by boat.
  4. Integrity---a firm adherence to a moral code---is shaped with the stories of Eugenia Wasowska of Poland and Chiune Sugihara of Lithuania. Eugenia, known as Sister Alfonsja, took in thirteen Jewish children at a Catholic orphanage where food and medicine were scarce. Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Kovno, helped thousands of Jews escape through the Soviet Union.
  5. Compassion---a feeling of sympathy for the suffering of another and the desire to alleviate it---is displayed by Olga Rajsek of Croatia and Hasmik and Tigran Tashtshiyan of Ukraine. Escaping the Armenian genocide, the Tashtshiyan family helped their friends. Some righteous rescuers welcomed children into their home and treated the children as their own to keep the children safe and out of harms way. These people did not think twice about what they had to do, it was a compassionate act of human kindness, a trait that transcends.
  6. Social Responsibility---an obligation to ensure the welfare of others---is highlighted with America’s Varian Fry and Poland’s Jerzy Radwanek. Varian Fry is the only American recognized by Yad Vashem, Israeil’s Holocaust authority, as a Rightowus Among the Nations. Through his actions in France, Varian helped more than 1,000 refugees escape to safety, including some of Europe’s leading culturual, intellectual and political figures.
  7. Self-Sacrifice---giving up personal wants and need for the sake of others or for a cause---is exemplified by Jadviga Konochowicz of Poland and Aristides de Sousa Mendes of France.
  8. Moral Leadership--the ability to influence other to accomplish a goal arising from a sense of right and caring is shown with Andre Trocme of France and Raoul Wallenberg of Hungary. From the beginning of the German occupation, pastor Andre Trocme encouraged the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon to a adopt a spirit of resistance. The people of Le Chambon helped the Jews and by September 1944 when Grance was liberated, the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and eleven surrounding village had saved 5,000 people, including 3,500 Jews.

Therefore, these eight traits transcend through the righteous rescuers. Not only do students learn the word or trait but also identify a person who has put this trait into action. Additionally, meaningful connections are made to people and events of today as well as strong discussion regarding what my students can do as future leaders, professionals, and contributing editors to our community.

The criteria for awarding the Honor of “Righteous Among the Nations”, determined by the public committee of Yad Vashem, is as follows:

  • An attempt that included the active involvement of the rescuer to save a Jew regardless of whether these attempts ended in success of failure.
  • Acknowledged moral risk for the rescuer during the endeavor during the Nazi regime, the warnings clearly stated that whoever extended a hand to assist the Jews place not only their own life at risk but also the lives of their loved ones.
  • Humanitarian motives as the primary incentive---the rescuer must not have received material compensation as a condition of their action.

Thus, “Righteous Among the Nations” or righteous rescuers continue to be honored today. Rescuers were in every corner of Europe. They are ordinary people and are models of moral courage, ingenuity, cooperation, integrity, compassion, social responsibility, self-sacrifice, and moral leadership. Today, my students have access to information on these rescuers through Yad Vashem, USHMM, and the JFR where they link the past to the present.

“I want them to know that I tried to open my door. I tried to tell people, ‘Come in, come in.’ In the end, ‘Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances that will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision of your own, not about other people but about yourself.”

Magda Trocme, French rescuer

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Teaching about resistance - the partisans

Following a presentation by Mitch Braff, the Executive Director of the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation, during the summer course offered by MCHE, I decided to explore the JPEF website. What I found was a user-friendly wealth of information about Jewish partisans (a little-known/taught area of the Holocaust from my experience)--primary sources including first-person testimonies, videos, photographs, and letters; interactive maps, lesson plans and accompanying materials for easy download, and a fascinating set of courses provided though E-Learning.

From the homepage, select Teach, then E-Learning. After creating your account (which is free), you are ready to select a course. I started with “How to Use the JPEF E-Learning Platform.” This course provides comprehensive background on the partisans and resistance basics. Upon completion of this course, a teacher is prepared to teach a 45-60 minute class on Jewish resistance. The presentation is engaging, using interactive maps and photos to cover forms of resistance (including spiritual, artistic, sabotage, and humor). Many interesting anecdotes enhance the material; and the film, Introduction to the Jewish Partisans, provides a fascinating overview narrated by Ed Asner, whose cousin was a partisan (an interesting local connection there).

Each lesson provided is designed to be used in a single class period. The films range in length from 3-21 minutes. Everything I viewed is designed to be very teacher-friendly. There is a virtual underground bunker for students to explore. The themes covered in the lessons include heroism, ethics, leadership, power, resistance, and one’s personal responsibilities.

One of the student activities that I found most creative is entitled “Someone Like Me.” A student is paired with a partisan with similar characteristics—the student can then read a biography of that partisan, do additional research on the site, and share the information with the rest of the class.

The purpose of the activities is not only to help students learn about Jewish resistance and the partisans but to also help students apply the life lessons from this history. I highly recommend the site—but preview the films and activities carefully as some are more suited for high school students. The E-Learning classes (I just completed the one on Women Partisans as well) make use of unique and engaging primary sources—almost makes me wish I were still teaching (almost)—I know students would benefit from these creative activities.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Essay Contest theme announced

The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education is pleased to announce its seventeenth annual White Rose Student Essay Contest, open to 8th through 12th grade students in the 18 county Greater Kansas City area.

1942: Destruction of the Polish Ghettos

After the establishment of the death camp system in 1941, the full-scale destruction of the Polish ghettos commenced in 1942. By summer and early fall, massive deportations were under way and the Operation Reinhard camps (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka), which were designated for the murder of those communities, were operating at full capacity.

Part A: Research the history of one Polish ghetto from the list below and explore the first-person testimony of at least one Jewish person who experienced or witnessed the deportation from that ghetto during 1942. Describe the conditions in the ghetto, the circumstances that deportation created for the Jewish community in that ghetto, and how the person you researched personally experienced the history you have described.

Part B: How does learning about the Holocaust through the personal testimony of an individual make this history more meaningful to you?

You must base your research on one of the following ghettos:
Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, Lvov, Miedzyrzec, Prezemysl, Radom, Tarnów, Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Zamosc

Full details including teaching resources, entry forms and criteria are available on the MCHE website at