Instructing concerning the Holocaust? Assume larger, really feel deeper
January 27, 1945 is an important day in the history of the Holocaust. On that day, Russian soldiers discovered Auschwitz and liberated the remaining prisoners who had not been herded on death marches by the SS.
Sixty years later, in 2005, International Holocaust Remembrance Day was proclaimed to commemorate the anniversary. By now, Auschwitz was deeply entrenched in the collective memory of the Holocaust—and with good reason. More than a million people, the vast majority of them Jews, perished in the vast Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. The undeniable significance of what happened helped make Auschwitz a prominent place in Holocaust education for many.
But while Auschwitz is undeniably important, it is only one part of meaningful Holocaust education. I had the opportunity and privilege to ask Elie Wiesel, a well-known writer and Auschwitz survivor, for his best teaching advice. He said to me, “Think Higher, Feel Deeper.” I incorporated this wisdom into the planning and writing of my book, Think Higher Feel Deeper: Holocaust Education in the Secondary Classroom. Knowing that so many books about the Holocaust, regardless of their content, have photos of Auschwitz on the cover, I made a single request to my publisher: “Don’t make the cover with a picture of Auschwitz.”
More than 25% of teachers have a week or less to teach about the Holocaust. With that in mind, here are some topics and resources that can easily be incorporated into an existing unit. This will help your students think higher and feel deeper when it comes to learning about the Holocaust, as Elie Wiesel put it.
Harvard University’s Religion in Public Life initiative provides excellent resources for introducing students who may not be familiar with the Jewish faith. Harvard emphasizes the internal diversity of Judaism (and other religions) and has excellent videos and case studies for teachers, as well as a summer seminar that I strongly encourage you to apply for. Learn more on the Harvard Divinity School website.
Antisemitism is on the rise in the United States, as it is around the world. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Voices on Antisemitism podcast features interviews with a wide variety of people, from NBA stars to reformed white supremacists, each with something interesting and important to say about the fight against antisemitism. Learn more on the Holocaust Museum website.
The rise of the Third Reich
Students often wonder how Hitler and the Nazis came to power in the first place. Another USHMM resource, The road to the Nazi genocide is a compelling 38-minute film that offers students and teachers alike an in-depth look at the Nazi rise to power in Germany. The film is free to stream on the USHMM website.
“Why didn’t they fight back?” is a common question young people ask and it is easy to answer: Some did. Resistance took many forms, from spiritual resistance, such as continued practice of a persecuted religion, to active defense with weapons. The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation focuses on the latter form of resistance and offers many user-friendly resources. Learn more at the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation website.
The Holocaust by Bullets
Outside of ghettos and concentration camps, unimaginable numbers of Jews were murdered by the operational groups and by locally organized militias of non-Germans. Yahad—In Unum is an organization based on the work of Father Patrick Desbois that offers teacher training nationwide, a study guide published in partnership with the Florida Holocaust Museum, and more. You can access the study guide in PDF format at the Florida Holocaust Museum. Learn more about Yahad – In Unum here.
Testimony of a survivor
The USC Shoah Foundation, Institute for Visual History and Education houses thousands of hours of recorded testimony from survivors of the Holocaust and genocides that took place throughout the 20th century. Their innovative resources and programs encourage teachers to use their materials. Learn more at the USC Shoah Foundation website.
Of course, many teachers and students make a connection from their study of the Holocaust to acts of genocide in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, as well as to ongoing acts of genocide and other atrocities in Burma, China, and elsewhere in the world. Genocide Watch, an idea by Dr. Greg Stanton, provides a framework for investigating the genocide known as the 10 Stages of Genocide, provides accounts of numerous nations and ongoing atrocities, and issues timely warnings. Genocide Watch is an excellent starting point to branch out outside of the study of the Holocaust.
What happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau between its construction on May 20, 1940 and its evacuation on January 27, 1945 marks one of the darkest and most terrifying episodes in human history. Adding a deeper understanding of the historical context and the events that made the unthinkable possible helps students understand the narrative and allows them to think more fully about the significance of those events and the practical application of the knowledge gained.
The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum, nor did it mark the end of the genocide—quite the contrary. But teachers and students have long shared a deep interest in the subject, and the more the lessons of the Holocaust are taught, the more likely it is that we will one day see a world free of such crimes.
What topic do you intend to add to your Holocaust unit? Let us know in the comments.
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