Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Finding the Holocaust in other stories and histories

As an English / Language Arts / Communication Arts teacher, I am always looking for good books to read and pass on to my students. I am also always looking to read for pleasure, and as a member of a book club, I am always trying to “branch out” and read books that are not always ones that I would have been interested in on my own. Because of this, I have noticed that the Holocaust has become a topic in more and more fiction books as well as being connected to so many issues in history that I read about in non-fiction books.

For example, a few years ago I read Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos, a fiction book about the intertwining lives of people living in Seattle that had ties to the Holocaust. The link to the Holocaust was subtle, but it was there. I also read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a non-fiction book about an African-American woman whose cancer cells have been used by doctors and scientists to discover cures to diseases, help with cancer treatments, and a plethora of other research but who never received any compensation and little recognition. This book also tied into the Holocaust very subtly because of the medical ethics established as a result of the experiments in the camps.

Some other books that I have enjoyed (both fiction and non-fiction) that have related to the Holocaust include Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, and Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

In addition to these, there are many more books out there and the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education’s resource center has many that you may check out and read. I recommend these to my students who want to read more about the Holocaust beyond what we study in class and hope that they continue to learn about this important time period.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Concept of the "other"

I teach Sociology, as well as American history. Teaching an elective allows me the freedom to stretch my wings and look at standard history from different angles and through different prisms. I have become enchanted with the concept of “the other.” “The other” is anyone who is not like you. We all create a concept of the “the other” in our heads. When we group ourselves with like-minded people, whether based on performed race, economic status, performed gender, or countless other divisions, we band together because of some form of commonality. We find those whose values we share in some way. We join with others who reinforce our beliefs. Those who don’t share our beliefs are in one way “the other.” It is difficult for us to see the world through the eyes of “the other.” We assume that those we agree with view the world with the same eyes we do, those that don’t must not have anything in common with us. When we walk into a crowded room of people we don’t know, we look for someone that we assume is like us. It is a survival mechanism and quite natural. But it is also very base. By choosing others that we think will share our interests, we are pushing away those that don’t look like they will “get” us, hence we lump them up as “the other.” (As a point of clarification, in Sociology, we discuss the fact that we are all performers, acting out a role. We perform our gender to varying levels: hyper masculinity, as seen on football teams; hyper-femininity, as witnessed on the cheer or dance squads or in modeling; Eminem is a white man who performs black culture. President Obama has been derided as a black man who “acts” white. While culture is somewhat fluid, we must understand that we all “perform” or “act” out certain traits that we wish to personify to fit in to a group. As a white male, I perform to standards that are beyond my control as a father, teacher, role model, and husband.)

When I am teaching the concept of the development of racism to a predominantly Caucasian student base, I explain the difficulty in doing cruel things to someone that I may see as a potential mate, sister, daughter, mother, etc. When I look in the mirror, or at a family portrait, is this someone that could ever be a part of that? If yes, the bar is higher, and it is more difficult for me to minimize their feelings, to do them harm. If the answer is no, though, it is much easier to act without regard to them. They are the embodiment of whatever I am not. The Kansas City Star ran an article about slavery several years ago. In a part of that article, a historian said that if it hadn’t been for African slavery, the English colonists would have enslaved the Irish. I disagree from a sociological perspective. The Irish, with white skin, would not have faced the same brutality or lasted as long in bondage as did blacks. A good history teacher will take me to task on that and describe the conditions in Ireland at the time and the cruelty inflicted. Which will bring me to my next point: The concept of “the other” works best when you have a clear, visible, physiological/physical difference that can be exploited. It can be extrapolated to neighborhoods, class, religion, or any number of culturally created cleavages. Once these cleavages have been identified, they are often exploited.

Building on Dr. Gregory Stanton’s “Eight Stages of Genocide”, we can see the development of "the other" is a process of dehumanization. As much as we attempt to say that we respect all equally, often we place our concept, our values, our norms on others, assuming that what we hold true must be universal. When others don’t share those views, we can marginalize the target. The process of dehumanization is a slippery slope, and we too often engage in it without realizing. It is our duty to help our students guard against this process in everyday life through examples from the past.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Providing context for Anne Frank

I was careening through a Barnes and Noble store recently on a mission for something else when the image of Anne Frank on the cover of a book almost caused me to give myself a case of whiplash. I executed an abrupt U-turn and went back to the display table to take a look. The book that attracted my attention and made its way into my shopping bag that day was Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. Sid Jacobson is the author of the text and Ernie Colón created the graphics. This 149 page book reads like a graphic novel and appeals to middle and high school students – especially those who are reluctant readers.

The biography is divided into ten chapters that tell the familiar story of Anne, her family, and the other residents of the Secret Annex. However, there are many details in the book that I did not know. For example the first chapter tells the history of Otto Frank’s and Edith Holländer’s families; I learned that Otto Frank worked at Macy’s department store in New York City for a couple of years before WWI. The ninth chapter tells how the residents of the Secret Annex were arrested and what happened to them following their arrests. I learned that Otto tried to convince Peter Van Pels to hide with him in the infirmary at Auschwitz; however, Peter decided to evacuate the camp as the Russians drew close in January 1945. The tenth chapter tells about Otto’s life after the war, the publication of Anne’s diary, and the creation of The Anne Frank House.

Throughout the book, the creators have provided background information to help the reader understand Anne’s story in the larger context of WWII and the Holocaust. The second chapter is devoted to explaining the rise of Nazi party in Germany. Maps are provided in several places. There are pages titled “Snapshot” that illuminate in text and graphics concepts such as Germany in World War I, the Nuremberg Laws, Concentration Camps, the Wannsee Conference, and the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. There are smaller frames tucked throughout the book that give background information about other important events such as Germany’s acquisition of territory without war between 1935 and 1938, Kristallnacht, Operation Barbarossa and the Einsatzgruppen, and the evacuation of the Danish Jews. The last pages of the book feature a chronology and a list of print and web resources for further reading.

This book would be an excellent addition to school libraries and to the personal libraries of educators who teach about Anne Frank.

Jacobson, Sid and Ernie Colón. Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

Short Research Topic Lesson Plan

In teaching the Holocaust to any grade, especially Middle School, it can be tough to deal with such a sad topic for any period of time. I have found that, rightfully so, the kids get very down about it and get burned out easily. While that is one of the key elements of teaching the Holocaust, letting it be sad and depressing, I think it is also important to teach about some of the positive aspects of it as well, to balance it and to let the kids see the humanity that did come out of such a devastating situation. In order to do this, and to meet the objectives for doing a research project, I had my students choose 2 people who are on the Righteous Among the Nations List and do a short research essay about them.

Because this was their first research paper for me, I kept it limited and fairly simple. We focused on writing a thesis statement and putting things into their own words. I only allowed them to use two websites:

We began with taking notes. From the Yad Vashem website, they had to take notes on The Righteous in general. What kinds of people were they? Why did they help? What forms of help were common? Then they went on to the JFR website and browsed through the actual Righteous and their information. They were to choose two people who they found inspiring, but whom they had not already learned about in class (the Frank helpers and Sugihara). For each person they chose, they were to take notes on them specifically. Who did they help? How? Why?

Finally, they put their notes into an essay form, with three basic parts.

  • Intro paragraph, including basic information about The Righteous and ending with a thesis statement about their two rescuers.
  • At least one paragraph about each rescuer, including their opinion of the rescuer and their actions.
  • A concluding paragraph, putting it all together. They had to include their opinions about why they thought people helped and how these Righteous could be an inspiration to them and their generation.

I, personally, did not even have them type this. I didn’t make it a major project. After studying the Holocaust for about 4 weeks at that point, they weren’t in the mindset for a large project. Instead, I wanted them to get some inspiration at the end of such a heavy topic. Reading the essays, I was not only impressed with how well they wrote thesis statements and summarized in their own words (meeting curriculum objectives), but they really did seem to be inspired. They saw a light in this dark topic and could see how something that happened so long ago, in their minds, could be applicable to them. I had not done much research myself on the various Righteous and I learned so much from reading their essays. This project took about 4 days in class, and they had a weekend to finish it up, but I think it really made an impact on them.

Classroom Handouts
Thesis Statement
Heroes of the Holocaust
Grade Sheet
Sample Paper