Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Germans facing their history

I must say it’s been an interesting experience this year in my US History class. I have a female German foreign exchange student in my class and we’re getting ready to talk about WWII. We’re actually talking about the Great Depression but connecting it to what is happening in Germany in the 1930s with the rise of Hitler.

Now what I have found most interesting is that as soon as I mentioned Germany and Hitler the other day in class, all the other kids in the class started sneaking glances at her (the German exchange student), as if waiting to see her reaction to the news that we were going to be discussing her “evil” ancestors. I never used the term “evil” but it seemed like kids were already reacting to this history as “evil.” It was interesting to see how my students reacted to her. To be honest, it was almost as if they felt sorry for her—like they wanted to avoid the whole topic. Most of the glances were quick and sympathetic. And she could tell. She seemed to sink a little further in her seat and stare intensely at her paper.

And then what interested me even more was that I began to respond to this. I suddenly felt like I needed to “soften” the history I was teaching. It was almost like I needed to justify the behavior of Germans to make her feel more comfortable. I really can’t describe the sudden, but clearly present, tenseness that overcame the room. I’ll be curious to see what happens as we get further into our WWII unit (I mean we barely even started talking about it!) and to see what happens when we start talking about the Holocaust. Will I find myself avoiding certain topics so she does not feel uncomfortable? Will students continue to steal glances at her, as if checking to see how she is handling, her country’s “ugly truth?” I’m not sure, but if anyone has had similar experiences, I’d be curious to hear them!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Poetry in Holocaust Education

I feel like I should begin this blog entry with a couple of disclaimers. First, this year I am teaching several sections of 7th and 8th grade Creative Writing; it is an elective class. I did not imagine that I could find a way to teach the Holocaust in Creative Writing. Second, as a Holocaust educator, I have a fairly strong prejudice against fictional Holocaust literature. I believe there are excellent memoirs, diaries, and non-fiction pieces which students can read to understand the personal experiences of those who survived or perished during the Holocaust.

That being said, I came upon an interesting book recently which I offer for your consideration. Requiem: Poems of the Terezín Ghetto by Paul B. Janeczko. The poems in the volume were written by Janeczko; however, the voices of the poems vary and show us the Terezín Ghetto from various points-of-view. For example, Hilda Bartos tells us, in her poem, how Terezín changed once the town began to be used as a prison for Jews. SS Lieutenant Theodor Lang speaks in his poem of preparations for a visit by the Red Cross. In most of the poems, we hear the imagined voices of Jews imprisoned at Terezín. Tomasz Kassewitz tells, in his poem, about playing chess on Fridays with his friend Willi - until it becomes too dangerous for Willi to socialize with a Jew. Trude Reimer tells of playing the part of a cat in the play Brundibár. Sara Engel tells of her experiences sorting the possessions confiscated from the ghetto’s prisoners. The volume is illustrated with drawings created by inmates of Terezín which were discovered after the war ended.

The poems reflect solid research by Janeczko. The Afterword and Author’s Note at the back of the volume provide valuable background information that I would advise reading first. There is an excellent list of sources at the end of the text.

In my view, there are at least two questions worthy of debate concerning Janeczko’s work. First, does this volume of poetry contribute in a significant and valuable way to the canon of Holocaust literature? Second, would Requiem serve as a useful instructional tool with secondary students?

I don’t think I qualify as an expert, but I have read quite a lot of Holocaust literature during the past ten years. I own cabinets full of memoirs, diaries, short stories, novels, and non-fiction history. I can think of some individual poems that I have read about Holocaust topics. However, I can’t recall anyone who has tried to do what Janeczko has done – create a single portrait of a ghetto from the points-of-view of the inmates, Nazi guards, and non-Jewish residents of the nearby town. Original poems from all of these perspectives do not, to my knowledge, exist within the historical record. Therefore, Janeczko had no choice but to create them from his imagination based on extensive research. To answer the first question – yes, I think this volume does make a valuable and interesting addition to the canon of Holocaust literature.

My answer to the second question is also yes. The poems in this volume are excellent examples of free verse poetry and could be used as models in several of the craft lessons I teach in Creative Writing. The book is a lovely example of how poems can be used to create a narrative; in this case they tell the story of people whose lives converged in a particular place but not by chance. The book would be an excellent source of material for students in performance, drama, or forensics courses. How exciting it would be to see a group of students perform an interpretive reading of the poems in this volume! The book is very short – only 89 pages of poems and illustrations. Therefore, this may be a good choice for time-strapped language arts or social studies teachers who want to complement non-fiction Holocaust materials with materials from the fine arts. Art teachers may enjoy studying the illustrations that were created by Terezín’s residents. I stated in my first disclaimer that I had not considered teaching the Holocaust in Creative Writing. I think Janeczko's poems create that possibility.

I happened upon Requiem: Poems of the Terezín Ghetto by Paul B. Janeczko by accident. I was searching the Johnson County Library for poetry books for use in my Creative Writing classes. However, I think I stumbled over a gem. I am curious for other Holocaust educators to read this book and share what they think about it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

1942 and the Final Solution - A Course for Educators

This course explores the path and process of the Final Solution, offers in-depth analysis of the death camp system with a special emphasis on the Operation Reinhard Camps, and considers the impact of a short 11-month time frame from mid-1942 through mid-1943 that saw the destruction of millions of people. Analysis of primary source documents, exposure to ready-made lesson plans, and practice with these resources will equip teachers with tools to engage their students in meaningful learning about the Final Solution. 
Appropriate for 7-12th grade classrooms. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Here, There Are No Sarahs

After reading Rebecca Dalton’s blog posted last December, I thought about how often books I’m reading, whether for my book club or my own pleasure (and not necessarily by design) touch on themes directly/indirectly related to the Holocaust. I often choose books based on an interest piqued by something I’ve read online or heard at an author or community event. Exploring the website for the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation, I watched a video testimony of Sonia Shainwald Orbuch. Her story was so engaging I wanted to read her book (co-written with Fred Rosenbaum) entitled Here, There Are No Sarahs—A Woman’s Courageous Fight Against the Nazis and Her Bittersweet Fulfillment of the American Dream.

Sonia was born Suraleh in Luboml, Poland. She was given the name Sonia when she joined a Russian partisan group because her name would have been “too Jewish” and put her in danger from some of the partisans themselves. Sonia’s story took her from the security of her shtetl to the ghetto to the forests of partisan groups. Eventually she, her husband, and her father experienced the DP camps before they were allowed to immigrate to the United States. She described her experiences clearly, directly, and openly.

Sonia’s experiences touch on many themes: loss of family, being in hiding, resistance, survival, partisan activities and struggles, love, retribution, generosity. She has chance encounters with so many others whose stories are also fascinating to research including:

Rabbi David Baruch, who participated in the one rally for rescue in the nation’s capital;

Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited the DP camp where Sonia and her family were living (select Sonia Orbuch)

Sara and Hayim Fershko, musicians who suffered horrifically in the hands of the Nazis—they were befriended in New York City by Sonia’s husband.

Sonia’s story (using the entire book or specific sections) would give students a view into one survivor’s partisan activities and would help answer questions on Jewish resistance.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Scope and Sequence over multiple grades

For the first time I am teaching two courses in which I will teach about the Holocaust. You're probably thinking how great this must be. I'm thinking how complicated this could be. The complication arises from the fact that the 10th grade Advanced Studies World History class is a feeder class for IB History. So in 12th grade I will probably have many of these same students. For years I have taught the Holocaust to just the 12th grade IB History students. For this group I avoid teaching a general history of the Holocaust. Instead I tend to focus on a few specific topics as well as let their questions dictate some of the lesson planning. My assumption has been that these students have been taught the general history of the Holocaust in earlier grades.

With my 10th grade Advanced Studies World History students I have the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time (maybe a whole 2 weeks!) teaching the Holocaust. This means that I will most likely touch on some of the same topics as the 12th grade IB History students cover. I'm struggling with how to approach these topics. The dilemma is how to teach these topics in 10th grade then vary the lessons enough in 12th grade so as not to turn them off to the study of the Holocaust. For the first step I will be surveying my 10th graders about what they know (or think they know) and what they have been taught about the Holocaust. Hopefully that will give me the direction that I need to plan the lessons.