Teaching the Holocaust

April 1, 2006
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Jan Darsa

Why do we teach the Holocaust? How old should students be when they first begin a serious study of this history? What context is necessary, and how should we frame the history? How do we avoid traumatizing students or paralyzing them with overwhelming content? The first time I taught a course on the Holocaust at a synagogue, I didn’t know how to approach the subject. While the students were initially curious, I soon learned that holding their interest was a greater challenge than enticing them to sign up for the course. I realized that teaching this history as a linear historical event did not capture their attention. They may have wanted to see the graphic footage and try to figure out what made Hitler so evil; the materials, though, didn’t lend themselves to questions about what this history might teach them or where it intersected with their lives. And soon it was just another factual history class where the notes of the teacher became the notes of the students without troubling the minds of either very much.

At that time, I was also teaching at a public high school where I discovered Facing History and Ourselves, an organization and program that helps teachers integrate the subject of the Holocaust into public, private, and parochial schools. As I began to organize my classes according to the methodology of Facing History, my students responded by becoming deeply engaged in class and sharing ideas at home with their parents. Some parents asked if they could take the same course in the evening as part of the adult education program. It impacted the community as well, and other teachers began to grapple with the history and wanted an in-service course at the school.

What was different about this approach to teaching the Holocaust? Teaching history thematically, starting with an exploration of oneself, helps students understand the connection between their lives and an historical event. Having students think about how their identity is formed, their core values, and the factors that push them off their moral centers are questions with which adolescents are grappling. When teens contemplate the moral decision-making of that period – by looking at the roles of victim, bystander, perpetrator, rescuer, and resister – they begin to see themselves as players in a historical process, and they understand their role and responsibility as citizens in the society in which they live. When students understand that the Holocaust involved ordinary people making decisions and everyday choices, they can reflect on the consequences of their own actions.

How we frame questions for our students can help tap that moral philosopher that sits within each of them. Recently a head of school asked me how I responded when students asked why the Holocaust happened. I don’t answer that question; any attempt to do so would imply there was a justification, a theological explanation. Instead, we can examine when, how, and where it happened and let the why question remain unanswered. Many of the questions are more important than the answers anyway. And this history begs profound questions that should be raised by our students:

  • Why does a neighbor turn against another neighbor?
  • What fractures a society and a community, and what brings it together?
  • How do people we think of as moral barometers in society – doctors, teachers, religious leaders, and judges – become instruments in a process of mass murder?
  • How does a democracy turn into a dictatorship and ultimately a genocidal state?
  • What motivates human beings to obey authority figures, and what motivates others to take risks and help those in need?

The study of the Holocaust is an important part of a student’s education not only because it happened, but because it is a watershed event in modern history. It allows us to think about the fact that Germany was a democracy when Hitler came to power and observe the consequences of the failure of democracy. The study of this history can lead our students to an understanding of the danger of indifference and what unfolds when prejudices and stereotypes are used to demean others. It happened in the heart of modern Europe where much of the population became obedient ghosts while others stood by unquestioningly.

Education alone will not prevent acts of cruelty and barbarism, but perhaps by examining a society that murdered some of its citizens and led others down a path of brutality and immorality, we can empower our students to become change agents and help them understand the importance of raising their voices in the face of injustice. Perhaps we might create students who care more deeply about their fellow humans and about protecting the societies in which they live.

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Jan Darsa is Director of Jewish Education at Facing History and Ourselves, where she facilitates workshops, institutes, and other professional development programs for teachers across the United States and develops curricula materials designed for educators in Jewish day and supplementary schools. She has taught Holocaust studies in high schools as well as at Tufts University, HUC, JTS, Hebrew College, and The University of Judaism. The author of numerous articles, she co-wrote The Jews of Poland.

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