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Teaching the Holocaust – Sharing Best Practices

In a world where Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are on the rise, it is imperative to educate future generations on the dark realities of the Holocaust … so they may learn the lessons from a past where man’s inhumanity reigned unchecked, causing unimaginable pain, suffering and destruction. When teaching about the Holocaust, my goals are twofold: to teach about the history of the Holocaust and to promote character building and/ or development in the young people I come in contact with… with the hope they may effect change in the future. The challenge is how to connect and motivate students who are poor readers, are usually apathetic and, in general, are poor students. I teach about the Holocaust “Through the Eyes of a Child” because, through the years, I have found students tend to connect or empathize with the experiences of other children. I use those experiences as a springboard to teaching the historical content of the Holocaust, within a moral framework; the step by step perversion of the law and inverted morality that Nazis and their collaborators engaged in to achieve their objectives. Students eventually realize that there is no moral justification for the Holocaust … or any other genocide. 

In General I use a variety of media to tell the history of the Holocaust. In class, we use children’s diary excerpts, documentaries, movies, children’s poems and art, personal stories through books and survivor presentations and interviews (survivor testimonies – video and personal interviews.) Students also access other resources from different bona fide, well known, Holocaust related websites, such as USHMM, Yad Vashem, ADL, and former concentration camp archives, for educational research. I expose my students to such a wide array of materials and media because individuals react differently to them; some have a stronger emotional reaction to a diary excerpt, others to a more visual display as in a drawing from one of the children held at Terezin, others might react to the documentary more. In other words, I try to use as many tools as there are available in order to reach all my students and get them interested in the history of the Holocaust. There is no doubt though, that for my students, personally meeting a survivor is the height of the  educational unit and an experience they will never forget. In addition, the materials reflect different reading levels, so all students may experience success when working on the lessons. There are plenty of visuals accompanying text. Students
engage in small group projects as an active part of the pedagogy for this unit. All students participate; everyone has something to research, make comments on, and contribute. Each group is assigned either a topic or a geographical region to research. (i.e. the Sinti/Roma; or the Nuremberg Laws; France; or the Balkans, etc.) Students then become the experts in their particular topic, as it relates to the Holocaust, and share their area of expertise with their peers. (Jigsaw puzzle type fashion – within the timeline for Nazi occupation of Europe and the unfolding of the Holocaust).

Specifically:

  • Choose a wide assortment of Holocaust materials which include text, visuals, art, photos, literature including poems, biographies and autobiographies; recreations of artifacts, documentaries and movies based on historical events – to name a few. (I am attaching a list of free on-line resources at the end)
  • Provide the historical background – including the history of anti-Semitism (political and religious), the eugenics movement, and the socio-economic atmosphere of the early 20th century through short narrated documentaries to students. (Front loading necessary information.) Teachers may find excellent short videos under educational resources on the USHMM website.
  • Have students actively participate to create a project using pictures from Holocaust related websites, where they connect with a Jewish child or children in pre-Holocaust Europe – how do they look? the same or do they look different? What types of activities did these children engage in as per the photographs, what types of activities do youngsters engage in today, etc.? There are some short videos on the Centropa and Yad Vashem websites that could be used to build this connection. There is a model lesson on the USHMM website, with directions for teachers, and directions on how to implement it.
  • After frontloading initial information and developing the child-to-child connection, begin by reading a short excerpt of a diary from a Jewish teenager or child in Germany, as the Nazis rose to power. (Or watch a short video clip on a Jewish person who was a child in Germany during the early 1930’s) Discuss the emotions expressed; was it a foreshadowing of things to come? Why yes, or why not. What was happening that made this youngster feel this way?
  • Show short video-documentaries or clips about the different subtopics covered in class, as students read the diary excerpts. (Children in the Holocaust and World War II – their secret diaries, edited by Laurel Holliday and published by Washington Square Press, and Through Our Eyes, edited by Itzhak B. Tatelbaum, published by the Yad Vashem School for Holocaust Studies, are great resources for diary excerpts.)
  • Divide students into small groups and assign topic or regional area to research.(Have students take ownership of the material.) At the same time continue to show documentaries, read poems and/or diary excerpts, and discuss in class: How does the author feel? What is he/ she describing? What is happening around him/her? Build a mental picture of how the Nazis and their collaborators implemented a reign of terror and genocide. How did people respond? Jews and non-Jews.
  • Create a visual timeline from 1933 until 1945. You may choose to hang the timeline around the classroom or on the hallway walls, and as students move through the chronology in the study of the Holocaust, they should insert significant events into the timeline, where appropriate.(In both words and visuals)
  • The teaching of the Holocaust should include the definition of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust; the topics of Nazi ideology, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, indoctrination and propaganda, Nazification of Germany and Austria, the Nuremberg Laws; Kristallnacht; perpetrators, victims, bystanders and rescuers; life in the ghettos; the final solution (Wansee Conference); Einzatsgruppen; forced labor, concentration and killing camps; resistance and righteous gentiles.
  • I usually end the unit with the topic of children in the resistance and stories of children as they remember and/ or honor righteous gentiles who saved them. (The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation and the Yad Vashem websites have great resources for this section.)

Why do I choose to teach about the Holocaust through the eyes of a child?

Because our students all have siblings or cousins or younger friends; because our students tend to empathize and protect the little ones; because teenagers tend to be idealists; because teenagers tend to be risk takers and so it is easier for them to understand how teenagers – in the past, became the caretakers for their parents and younger siblings, the doers and shakers, the ones who “buckled” the system in order to try to survive the
Holocaust. It is the emotional hook which will get our students interested in specific people, and what they went through, during the Holocaust. Thus, I teach the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, and through personal experiences, and then charge my students to be future leaders in the fight against prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism.

The State of Florida, in the USA, has a mandate for educators to teach the Holocaust; this mandate does not specify a time requirement. Social Studies teachers are required to teach it – period. Many begin to touch upon the subject during the Middle School Years, in grades 6 through 8. At many schools, History teachers have cross-curricular units in conjunction with Language Arts teachers. They have integrated the teaching of the
Holocaust through novels and diaries – The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night being extremely popular at the 8th and 10th grade respectively. Personally, as a 10th grade Remedial Reading Teacher, I developed a Holocaust Unit which lasted for nine weeks. Students read articles, diary excerpts, completed research and projects as described above … while practicing their reading comprehension skills. I developed specific reading
comprehension activities and worksheets, applying state and district curriculum benchmarks, to go along with whatever aspect of the Holocaust we were learning and reading about. I was thus able to justify the teaching of the Holocaust in my Intensive Reading classes.

As a Social Studies teacher, when I taught 9th grade World History, I wove the history of anti-Semitism throughout the millennia and, as we reached the history of the twentieth c e n t u r y , devoted a couple of weeks to Holocaust education. Today, I teach dual enrollment classes in Psychology at the high school; I weave in the teaching of the Holocaust through the chapter on Social Psychology. The Holocaust is such an all encompassing human event that anyone can introduce the topic and teach about it through any of its facets, be it through history classes, literature, art, or any of the social studies disciplines. The area of Holocaust education is so vast that once you, as an educator, begin to delve into it, you will find yourself brimming with new ideas from year to year. The ideal is to find what you want to say, how do you want to say it, and what is it you wish for your students to internalize from those lessons.

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Esther Sterental
About Esther Sterental (1 Articles)
A native of Lima, Peru, Esther came to the USA in 1979, to attend the University of Miami, where she received a BS and an MS in Education. She is a high school teacher with the Miami Dade County Public Schools and a college adjunct professor. Esther is a graduate of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Education Teacher Training Program, having attended several Teacher Institutes and an Advanced Teacher Training Seminar in Jerusalem, Israel. She also presented at Yad Vashem’s 8th International Conference on Holocaust Education, in Jerusalem, in 2012. In addition, Esther was one of a selected group of Florida professionals invited, by the National Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, to attend the USHMM Regional Education Summit in 2012. Besides working as a teacher and a department chair at Miami Killian Senior High, Esther works very closely with the MDCPS Holocaust Education Specialist, conducting teacher trainings and sharing best practices with teachers in the county. Esther received a proclamation in her honor from the MDCPS School Board and was named the “2012 Florida State Holocaust Education Teacher of the Year” - an award recognized by the Florida DOE Commissioner’s Task Force on Holocaust Education.

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