Holocaust Education Round Table

April 1, 2006
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Shira Deener: While teaching the Holocaust clearly falls under the rubric of history, Holocaust studies can be expanded into other curriculum areas as well. If the class spends time studying Jewish life before the war, they explore the complex nature of what it meant to be Jewish and questions of Jewish identity then and now. At Facing History we have borrowed a term from Helen Fein, a sociologist, called “Universe of Obligation,” where we think about the people to whom we feel responsible. And perhaps a course on Jewish identity would be a good place to have the students think about who is within their Universe of Obligation, who do they feel responsible toward, and how their Jewish identity informs that sense of obligation. And certainly art, civics, and literature are places to bring Holocaust studies.

Svi Shapiro: I would begin with the centrality of tikkun olam, how Holocaust studies fit into the broader history of human brutality. I also believe that the subject should extend into a consideration of the moral climate of the school one attends — the social and moral values that shape the institution, how individuals relate to, or treat, one another. Is it a caring and compassionate environment, or a callous and competitive one? Such reflection becomes a reference point for questioning a host of broader ethical issues and social situations.

Judy Bolton-Fasman: I think that it’s very important to involve parents in teaching the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a very unique occurrence in history, a rupture in history. When my daughter heard about gas chambers for the first time, she came home and asked me if I knew about them, because she was so absolutely incredulous. Holocaust education should really be a family affair; parents should be integrated into the learning process.

Rena Finder: As a survivor, I feel my time is running short, and I’m very concerned with sharing stories with students so that the Holocaust will not be forgotten; survivors don’t speak only for ourselves, but also for those who perished. In public schools, it’s usually part of the history or social studies curriculum. Facing History usually likes to have a course for at least six weeks, and that’s being cut down. But I feel that when the survivors share their stories, they can also make the students aware that, while the Holocaust is unique, what has happened in the years since — in Kosovo, in Rwanda, in Somalia — one cannot stand by and do nothing. When the world stood by without reacting to the slaughter of the Jews, people thought it was okay.

Shana Penn: Learning about the Holocaust enables students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to explore questions about why the Holocaust happened and how the student might have acted had he or she lived in Germany when Hitler came to power. These questions, whether taught in a history, religion, or civics class, have great educational value because they help shape a student’s sense of identity, of their civic and communal responsibility, and of their place in the world. Students learn about racism, how genocide occurs, and what happens when democratic values and practices are not protected.

Svi: In one of my classes we showed the film Paper Clips. Afterward, we discussed whether this is a lesson only about Jewish history and Jewish experience, or is it related to broader questions: Can we use the Holocaust as a very powerful vehicle for teaching connection with and concern for what’s going on in the world? How can educators break through the sense of disconnection that people often feel for the horrors that are taking place in our world now? In addition to teaching awareness and connection, we want to teach students to become critical thinkers, to not simply go along and conform. To be able to question deeply what they hear, what they’re being told, the dehumanizing myths that get peddled. Thinking critically is woefully shortchanged in our schools; we’ve emphasized issues of conformity and following rules. We must also inculcate a sense of compassion for people who may not be like us — to have a sense of what it means to suffer if you appear or hold beliefs that are different.

Judy: Paper Clips brought home the enormity of how many people were lost in the Nazi genocide. Caroline Forché, a poet who is not Jewish, several years ago edited a collection called Witness, poetry of witness. One of the poems contains fragments of words and notes that were found on the walls of homes and concentration camps or in people’s pockets on death marches. Paper Clips and anthologies like Witness bring the Holocaust to a human level that our children can understand.

Shira: We need to give our students a vocabulary with which to talk about the important factors that led to the Holocaust. We must teach this history as not inevitable, but a series of choices people made. We look at issues such as the relationship between the individual and society, or, more specifically, factors that promote stereotypes and prejudices, or what makes people obey authority figures, and what motivates some people to help those in need and others to turn an eye. We explore how hatred is passed along and how people succeed in dehumanizing and how people in power gain power by turning neighbor against neighbor. These are the deep questions and issues that we raise by looking at history and exploring memory. Hopefully prevention will be the byproduct of digging deeply at these questions.

Rena: When we go to schools, we want students to know they have the power to make a difference. I share my story about surviving because Oskar Schindler was brave enough and cared enough to do something against all odds and save over 1,000 Jews. If I am talking to children in the fifth grade, I don’t tell them everything that happened, but give them examples: if they see somebody being bullied and they’re afraid and want to run away, they can run away and get help; they don’t have to just ignore it. And when they’re older, in high school, and see kids being ostracized, there’s always something to do; that empowers them to help.

Svi: As teachers, we need to challenge ourselves, our students, and their parents to look at things that are not so easy to look at, to disturb the comfortable consensus on what happens around us.

Rena: It took a long time for Holocaust education to get started. I remember going for the first time to a middle school where the teachers, principal, and parents were very worried about how to teach it; one mother said she didn’t want her child to be upset.

Shira: We need to provide context and background. Without having students explore the human factors, the choices, the behaviors, we paralyze them; we’ve given them something that’s so horrifying. But if we contextualize, by the time we talk about gas chambers, we’ve already taken the students on a journey that has forced them to think about issues of identity and responsibility. We have explored up-stander behavior versus bystander behavior and the perpetrators versus the victims.

Rena: Unfortunately, many schools don’t give enough time for all that. And the teachers are having a very hard time with it.

Judy: When my daughter came home in fifth grade and asked me about gas chambers, I was very angry that the school discussed this without my permission and without context. Holocaust education should really be a family affair. Parents should be told about what’s going to happen on Yom HaShoah. Parents need to be educated almost as much as our children; we need to learn an appropriate vocabulary, and it has to be grounded in context, history — in the pieces of poetry that were in people’s pockets on the death march.

Svi: When we think about teaching younger children, we’re not teaching the Holocaust as an historical event with all of its particular experiences, but we are addressing and raising more general questions of human cruelty, hateful behavior, discriminatory behavior, bullying, and so on. We’re teaching more foundational human issues; later those issues will feed into a discussion about the horrors of the Holocaust itself.

Shira: We begin by asking students to think about themselves. What is the story behind their names? What are some of the societal and familial influences that help contribute to who they are? These questions help lay a foundation for a more in-depth study later, which I would not start until middle school.

Shana: I agree. Eventually, students can learn and identify the Jewish values of prewar Europe reflected in the ways Jews responded to Nazi oppression, whether it is the mother who refused to separate from her children in a concentration camp, or the historian who kept a diary of the persecution of Jews in a work camp, or the rabbis who advised Jews how to survive in the ghetto and maintain religious practices in the absence of matzah during Passover. The students can begin to wrestle with how Jews remained human and Jewish when the Nazis were dehumanizing and deJudaizing whole populations of Jews.

Svi: The war in Iraq jogged something in me. We don’t see the bodies coming back. We are seeing on television and in the news a sanitized version of human suffering and loss. We aren’t seeing the thousands of people coming home wounded and maimed and mentally affected by the war. Similar to teaching about the Holocaust, we need to break through the desensitization that happens when our children don’t really take in or feel what’s going on in their world. With older students, how do we convey the barbarism that took place in the Holocaust and now takes place in Darfur?

Shira: Yom HaShoah, the day commemorating the Holocaust, can be an important opportunity for a collective experience within a school. Even kindergarten children could take part in pieces of a school-wide commemoration, as long as the school deliberately and thoughtfully scaffolded information for each participating age group. However, there is a deep tension between communal experience and age appropriateness. In any school-wide Holocaust commemoration, there is the possibility of leaving a young child with many questions. Why did we just light six candles? Why were people crying? What happened that makes people so sad? We as educators have to be prepared to answer these kinds of questions appropriately. Also, if schools use Yom Hashoah as the time to teach about the Holocaust, it’s really problematic. Ceremonies are meant to be deep emotional moments, not opportunities for in-depth study.

Rena: Yom Hashoah is a day of memory. It is the day when we stop and remember what happened. All the children should attend the school’s memorial service, but an explanation needs to be given to the younger children. And you can’t really give them all the answers. That’s how I started with my children when they were young. The children would ask me why we didn’t have a grandpa and why their dad didn’t have a sister, and I would say that they died during the war. And not until the children got older could we tell them what really happened. Yom HaShoah is a day of memory, to remember those who perished; children will accept that.

Judy: I like to see the day more organically woven into the curriculum — Yom Hashoah as a culmination of study.

Svi: In what sense is Yom Hashoah also a day of healing? To what extent can it be a day of healing and forgiveness? Not to forget, of course, but to find a way to look to future possibilities. Can that be done? We see again and again the scars of suffering passed from generation to generation and the dangers of intergenerational hostility and anger.

Rena: Forgiveness is not ours to give, but those born after the War are not guilty for the crimes of their parents and grandparents.

Svi: My overall critique of education is that it lacks purpose and direction. So, Holocaust education should be viewed in the context of an overarching structure of meaning, a seismic event in our history that can be employed, in part, to teach tikkun olam , the quest for a socially just world. Teaching the Holocaust can be an enormously powerful dimension of the larger project of teaching children to be compassionate human beings. The Holocaust should not be an abstract event. It’s a seminal human experience that can focus and intensify the overall moral structure of our education.

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Born in London, England, Svi Shapiro grew up in an Orthodox home, was active in the Zionist youth movement Habonim, and made aliyah . He did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University. He has been at the University of North Carolina for over 20 years, where he teaches the philosophy and sociology of education, and has been director and teacher in the doctoral program concerned with the moral, social, and philosophical dimensions of education. His most recent book is Losing Heart: The Moral and Spiritual Miseducation of America's Children.

Judy Bolton-Fasman , founding editor of JBooks.com, is currently writing a memoir about her year saying kaddish for her father. She is a board member of her synagogue, Temple Emanuel, and the Solomon Schechter Day School, both of Newton, Mass.

Rena Finder , born in Krakow, was on Schindler's list and is a survivor of the Holocaust. Her husband is also a survivor. They travel and speak about the Holocaust to schools across New England. Rena is on the Advisory board of Facing History.

Shira Deener is a program associate in the Jewish Education program of Facing History. She has been a history teacher and has worked in a variety of informal Jewish educational settings.

Shana Penn directs the Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland at the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture in San Francisco and is a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union's Center for Jewish Studies in Berkeley. Her most recent book, Solidarity's Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland was awarded the 2005 Heldt Prize for Best Book in Slavic/East European/Women's Studies. Our discussants spoke recently about teaching the Holocaust and how it fits into a school setting.

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