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Coming to Grips With Teaching the Holocaust
COMING TO GRIPS WITH TEACHING THE HOLOCAUST
by Mark Weitzman
Adapted from Momentum: Journal of the National Catholic Educational Association, February, 1988.

Teaching the Holocaust is a challenge of awesome proportions. Few if any events in recent history have had its impact or implications. Perhaps the most important lesson of the Holocaust is to move away from the perception that it is important only to Jews. Jews were victims, but the crimes were committed by persons raised in European cultures that were in great measure shaped by Christianity. This teaches us that any society can descend to that level unless safeguards are put into place; and, one of the most important places to begin is in the classroom. The Holocaust must be brought into the classroom so that students can learn to analyze the hatred and bigotry that can lead to genocide. Any remembrance or teaching of the Holocaust, whether secular or religious, must aim at preventing its recurrence.

The following guidelines were developed from our experiences and from the relevant literature. Obviously, each educational situation is unique and these suggestions should be adapted accordingly. The basic elements of the list, however, should be maintained for a balanced unit of study.

Allow ample time for students to explore and reflect upon the subject.
The Holocaust impacts upon theological, historical, legal, social, psychological, ethical, philosophical, literary, artistic, medical and political issues. The Holocaust can help increase the student's knowledge of the moral and religious implications of human action in these (and other) areas.

Explore the context within which the Holocaust occurred.
Discuss the rise of Hitler and Nazi ideology as well as the historical, racial, social and religious roots of anti-Semitism. Also, explore Jewish life and culture before the Holocaust to gain a sense of the living community which was destroyed. Any presentation that omits this crucial background will reinforce stereotypes of Jews as aliens, or as victims who somehow deserve punishment.

Invite survivors of the Holocaust to discuss their experiences with your students.
The exchange of questions and answers will personalize the tragedy. Stalin is reputed to have said that the murder of one is a crime, but the murder of millions is just a statistic. For its lesson to be appreciated, the Holocaust has to be raised from statistics to individual tragedies.

There is another urgent reason for the participation of survivors in the classroom. There are those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Eyewitness testimony is an answer to this claim.

As the generation of survivors dies out, their message takes on greater urgency and requires greater exposure. However, not every survivor is ready to discuss his or her experiences or is capable of maximizing their educational value. The best place to find a qualified survivor is through a Holocaust or Jewish institution. Discuss with its representative your students' backgrounds, familiarity with the Holocaust, grade levels and other relevant issues. If you feel it necessary, ask for the names of schools where the survivor has already spoken.

If it is impossible to have a survivor speak in person, explore the possibility of showing one of the videotape survivor testimonies that can be obtained through the same local or national institutions.

Utilize a variety of resources.
Numerous films and videos deal with the Holocaust, both as fiction and as documentary. Avoid films which sensationalize the topic. Wherever possible, use primary sources. Just as there is nothing more poignant than the actual accounts of those who went through the holocaust, there is nothing more damning than the words of the Nazis themselves. Also use the numerous photographic records of the Holocaust.

Avoid the use of Nazi terminology.
This terminology is aimed at viewing the Jew as an object, not a person, and treating him/her as such. For example, do not use the Nazi term "extermination." commonly associated with vermin, to describe the mass murder of Jews.

Include a unit on Jewish resistance, both physical and spiritual, to the Nazis.
A presentation of Jews only as victims conforms to a negative stereotype. The classes and services which took place in the ghettos and camps affirmed Jewish life and self-definition. They too were acts of resistance.

Do not omit non-Jewish victims of the Nazis.
These include Gypsies, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses among others. Be careful, however, not to lose the particularity of the Nazi genocide of Jews in a broad universality.

Invite liberators to the classroom.
American soldiers were among the first to reach the concentration camps and death camps. Their eyewitness testimony, combined with their American background can remove some of the aura of "foreignness" often associated with the Holocaust.

Examine as role models the non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.
These people affirmed their ethical and religious beliefs. Conversely, the roles of those who acquiesced or collaborated in genocide must be examined.

Be cautious when comparing the Holocaust to other events.
Easy comparisons to other events, such as the mass murders of Armenians in the early 20th century or the contemporary issue of abortion, without historical reference, are demeaning to both the victims and opponents of Nazism.

Recognize the current implications of the Holocaust.
Some deny it ever happened; others view it as a propaganda tool; still others would like to see it forgotten. Also, now that genocide has occurred, the next step, with the advent of nuclear technology, could be omnicide, the destruction of the entire world.

Explore the post-war Jewish reactions to the Holocaust.
These include both political (Zionist) and religious responses. This will help to explain the background of many current events. The lessons of the Holocaust are vital. As Richard von Weizsacker, the former president of Germany, said quoting a Hasidic master, "The secret of redemption lies in remembrance."

 

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