By Jess Burnquist
Current events in our nation are sounding alarms and reminder bells as to why we need to teach the Holocaust. On Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, the New York Times published the findings of a survey that found many adults don’t know basic details of the Holocaust.
As noted in the article, “Holocaust Is Fading from Memory, Survey Finds,” “Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.”
This is reason enough to increase awareness, but in case you need further prompting, we point to the Nazis who have earned front-runner seats in midterm elections across the United States. For example, in California, neo-Nazi Patrick Little is running against incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Little’s supporters released anti-Semitic robocalls praising him and referring to Feinstein as a “traitorous Jew.” Little later praised the robocalls. In Illinois, American Nazi Party member Arthur Jones won a place on the Republican ballot in the 3rd Congressional District. This, in spite of the Republican Party denouncing his candidacy.
Clearly, there is a need to teach the Holocaust. As history has proven over and over, it does tend to repeat itself. Education is the greatest defense against the undercurrents of hatred that are gaining momentum in this country. If you believe you’ve noticed an increase in hate speech or violence in your educational community over the last year or so, you’re probably not wrong. In 2016, immediately following the presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance published a piece called The Trump Effect: The Impact of the 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools. Here are the highlights from their findings:
- Nine out of 10 educators who responded have seen a negative impact on students’ mood and behavior following the election; most of them worry about the continuing impact for the remainder of the school year.
- Eight in 10 report heightened anxiety on the part of marginalized students, including immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans and LGBT students.
- Four in 10 have heard derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants and people based on gender or sexual orientation.
- Although two-thirds report that administrators have been “responsive,” four out of 10 don’t think their schools have action plans to respond to incidents of hate and bias.
- Over 2,500 educators described specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric. These incidents include graffiti (including swastikas), assaults on students and teachers, property damage, fights and threats of violence.
- Because of the heightened emotion, half are hesitant to discuss the election in class. Some principals have told teachers to refrain from discussing or addressing the election in any way.
As educators, we are well aware of the content that we are expected to deliver. Sometimes, though, it is what gets brushed over or left out entirely that we are called upon to truly teach. We acknowledge that the Holocaust is one facet of history in which erasure appears to be occurring in the classroom. For the purposes of this post, however, we will focus on the Holocaust with the belief that other examples of erasure (e.g., the African slave trade, the displacement of American indigenous cultures) deserve their own space, and with the understanding that periods of pain should not be compared unless it is the behaviors or complicity of others that lead to such pain.
Many districts limit Holocaust studies or whittle a unit down to the reading of The Diary of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel’s novel Night. These books are well worth the read and help to personalize the Holocaust via narrative. And imagine the impact that excellent Holocaust literature AND an in-person narrative might have.
In an era when significant attention is beginning to be given to social-emotional learning, it seems natural to teach a period in history in which empathy went underground or missing entirely. I have found that reading poetry and literature about the Holocaust after introducing historical context evokes some of the best classroom discussions during the year. After reading samples of poetry by Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, as well as excerpts from Holocaust survivor testimonies, students tap into what I consider to be one of the most important questions one should ask in a lifetime: How can people allow such events to happen?
This discussion breaks the world wide open in terms of current events, hotspot areas where human rights are, or are at risk of, being violated, and the history of human nature. Such reading and discussion enable my students to begin to seek answers and increase awareness about the dangers of stereotyping and complicity in the face of abuse. Equally important is the need to amplify the voices that remain of those who experienced its horrors firsthand (this is something that Tricia has done in her classroom).
By Tricia Baldes
I have been honored to hear the testimony of four Holocaust survivors, two of whom I have heard speak more than once. Their stories are seared into my head and my heart, as is the charge that they all gave to everyone present. This is the charge to share their stories, to bear witness to their experiences and to make sure the world does not forget the atrocities they endured.
I heard Rena Finder speak via the Facing History and Ourselves course “The Holocaust and Human Behavior,” one of the most impactful professional development opportunities I have participated in during my 18 years teaching. While thinking about this post, I looked back at the writings I did for the course, and came across the reflection I wrote for Rena after hearing her speak. In the reflection, I wrote:
There is something so powerful about hearing a person tell their own story—I know that even if I transcribed everything you said and shared that with my students, it would not have the same impact as hearing you speak. I found myself nodding in agreement when you talked about how you have spoken in front of so many audiences, and when you speak they are so silent and still. Yes —I thought—I get this. The only reason I was not still was that I was trying to capture so much of what you were saying in writing.
Soundbites that I will cherish:
“Forgetting is dangerous.”
“You have power—you can make a difference.”
“You are important. You make choices and can make the world better for yourself and others.”
“There is always something you can do.”
“Hate is the worst emotion a person can have—when you hate, you are blind and deaf.”
“I believed in angels.”
Rereading this, I am reminded that we should make every effort possible to have our students hear survivor testimony firsthand. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a great place to get started. Its Survivor Speakers Bureau offers a network of survivors and information for arranging for a speaker.
We can bring survivor testimony into our classrooms with little effort given the tremendous resources available online. The Shoah Foundation has an extensive collection of full-length testimonies and clips in its Visual History Archives.
There are so many videos of survivors speaking on YouTube as well. I was able to find this video of Rena Finder speaking in 2017, and I encourage you to make time to hear her story.
Call to teachers:
We would love to know if and how you teach the Holocaust to your students. Please share your experiences and recommended resources here. Let us know if you have been to a Holocaust museum with your students. Also, tell us about any experiences you have had bringing in Holocaust survivors to address your student body.
Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Baldes has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time.com, NPR.org, and various online and print journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award. She teaches high school English, creative writing and AP Literature in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is the Director of Rock Your World. Her poetry chapbook You May Feel Your Way Past Me was published in 2017 Dancing Girl Press.
For more resources on teaching the Holocaust, view the Holocaust Remembrance collection.