Holocaust Education in a Polarized Society: Importance and Resources

Holocaust Education in a Polarized Society: Importance and Resources

Brandon Haas, Plymouth State University

Hate is coming back to people who should know better. That hate is a killer that makes people deaf and blind.  -Rena Finder, Holocaust Survivor, 2018

Recent events in Charlottesville and related to immigration illustrate the divided climate in the United States, an issue that has garnered increased attention amidst the growing demonstrations emanating from the alt-right since the 2016 election. McAvoy (2016) suggests that social studies educators have an opportunity to engage with the issues of polarization for the greater good. These same events have also led to the re-emergence of the Holocaust in peoples’ stream of consciousness. Unfortunately, it is in a way that trivializes the devastation faced by millions under the Nazi regime. The constant site of Nazi flags in the media, without thoughtful discussion or analysis, normalizes the symbols of hatred in America.

McAvoy (2016) points out that this divided social and political climate is the “only political context that today’s middle and high school students have ever known” (p.31), suggesting the uphill battle for social studies educators. Salinas (2016) discusses the difficulty in conceptualizing how to “prepare an enlightened and participatory citizenry” (vii) in our work, something that many of us struggle with in the face of the media’s constant portrayal of a society wrestling with their values and identity. In response, we must stop to evaluate our pedagogical approach and rationale for difficult, yet pertinent, topics such as the Holocaust. Students today have unprecedented access to information, thereby establishing the need to infuse Noddings’ (1984) framework of care in order to further allow them to become moral philosophers. Barton and Levstik (2004) suggest that in order to have meaningful conversations regarding the historical events, students must care about them from the perspectives of those involved. Care that serves as the “mechanism for rendering history meaningful,” and “by which students…make personal connections to history” (Barton and Levstik, 2004,p. 241) thereby making connections to the affective elements.

Emphasis in Holocaust education today should focus on learning the history, while simultaneously providing for an analysis of larger issues of human behavior, choice, stereotyping, bullying, and prejudice (Haas, 2015). As students and teachers use history as a foundation for case studies on the present, students will grow in ways that meet the needs of the 21st century citizen. They will engage in controversial discussions, which Hahn (2001) points out as one of the most effective means of engaging students in the social studies, ultimately providing them with real-world opportunities for evidence-based learning and discussion. Investigating this material in the safety of a classroom community allows students to cultivate their understanding of the world and, in turn, transfer their learning about stereotyping, violence, and injustice associated with the Holocaust to a timely study of #BlackLivesMatter, Charlottesville, immigration and Standing Rock, among many other topics. Students would consequently consider actions they might pursue through civic engagement on varying levels and the role of emotion in these decisions.

We are living in dangerous times. Aviv Ovadya, chief technologist for the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility and a Knight News Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, who predicted the 2016 “fake news” crisis, contends that we are swiftly moving towards a time when “reality apathy” could become its own crisis (Warzel, 2018), suggesting that a result of the continued attack on accurate information is that the public may become less concerned about truth. Ovadya questions the consequences of information manipulation, “What happens when anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did” (Warzel, 2018)? Further, a lethargic approach to the truth may jeopardize the effectiveness of democratic governance and engaged citizenship.

Empathy and moral values are central to the the maintenance of civil society. The study of history opens the door to questioning and behavior that can develop these skills more fully. The Holocaust, for example, “provides one of the most effective subjects for examination of basic moral issues” (Parsons & Totten, 1993). If the “fake news” problem successfully erodes peoples’ demand for truth, then the foundations of what we understand, and can teach students, about the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to occur will deteriorate. The normalization of hatred and bigotry, such as what is occurring in the United States under the Trump administration, leads to a lack of understanding about the roles of government and individual choice in allowing events such as the Holocaust to occur.

In 2012, the Hungarian government unveiled its new constitution that deflects any complicity for the Holocaust away from the Hungarian people. More recently, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed legislation outlawing the linking of Poland to any responsibility for the Holocaust. Karen Murphy (2018), the Director of International Strategy for Facing History and Ourselves points out that this legislation outlaws the long-accepted term “Polish death camps,” as well as punishes anyone who suggests Polish complicity in the Holocaust (Murphy, 2018). Murphy (2018) argues that “using law and punishment to manipulate historical narratives raises troubling questions about how we remember the past”(np). Outlawing the acknowledgement of complicity in the Holocaust, in the country that was home to all six Death Camps, shifts the narrative towards Holocaust denial. The result in this disturbing trend necessitates a fresh look at the teaching of the Holocaust.

The history of Holocaust education is rooted in identity and history, but the need for drawing connections to students’ lives and society today is of growing importance due to recent events in which Nazi insignia and beliefs are often on display. Davies (2000) points out that “teachers rightly do not want to see the Holocaust only in intellectual or academic terms, and yet emotion is in itself not enough. There has to be a clear rational thought as well as an emotional response” (p. 5).

Totten and Feinberg (1995) describe the concern and provide advice for educators to consider prior to beginning a unit of study on the Holocaust. It is vital that the teacher closely analyze their rationale and resources. It is no question that one can never fully comprehend the horror that victims were put through, teachers should inspire students to “avoid simplistic explanations,” use “powerful opening and closing lessons,’ choose “appropriate sources of information,” and “personalize the Holocaust” (Totten & Feinberg, 1995). In addition, educators must strive to avoid the pitfalls such as the over-use of graphic imagery or using simulations for students to “experience” the Holocaust (Totten & Feinberg, 1995).

As the world continues down its violent and apathetic path, the importance of sound pedagogy about the Holocaust remains important as ever. Students remain interested in the complexity of the topic, yielding deeper engagement with the cognitive and affective elements of studying the Holocaust (Haas, 2015). Cowan and Maitles (2016) stress that “the Holocaust has dark connotations, and this alone explains why teachers who are not required to teach it will never engage in Holocaust education” (p.13). One of the difficulties is having an understanding of what resources and pedagogy to integrate into a responsible approach to teaching about the Holocaust, especially for teachers who are not steeped in the content of the Holocaust. This becomes more pressing with the recent surge of white nationalism and other events worldwide. Students see relevance in studying the Holocaust as events such as the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville are peppered with Nazi insignia. With varying approaches to Holocaust education, there is no single, stand-alone resource that encompasses all of the important elements of responsible Holocaust education. The following three resources provide sound pedagogy and opportunity for personalizing student learning, inquiry, and relevance. Echoes and Reflections as well as IWitness utilize testimony as a central element of the learning activities. The use of testimony provides human voice for otherwise abstract content and engages the students on an affective level and inspires them to take informed action (Haas 2015), one of the tenets of the NCSS C3 Framework. While each can be used by itself, the true potential comes in integrating all three into your unit of study. Most importantly, they bring in more nuanced elements that personalize learning for students and provide voice to the experience of those who suffered through this history, rather than learning about the Holocaust in abstract terms such as six million.

Facing History and Ourselves http://www.facinghistory.org

Facing History and Ourselves seeks to enlighten students about hatred and bigotry so that students can effect change in the future. The Facing History scope and sequence is a framework that begins with the role of identity and choice as a starting point to discuss how events such as the Holocaust unfold, continues with the historical context, legacy, and comes to fruition with a look at how students choose to participate in their communities. Facing History seeks to engage students in inquiry that is integrates academic rigor, ethical reflection, and emotional engagement (Facing History, 2018). At its foundational level, the investigation of identity provides a lens through which students can make relevant connections to content across disciplines. The recently revised flagship resource, Holocaust and Human Behavior, provides ample historical context and progression in order to provide examples of the complicated history, while giving voice to individual action. For example, students “examine choices Germans made in the 1920s and 1930s” (facinghistory.org) in their inquiry into the fragile nature of the Weimar Republic and then consider the reasons for the Nazis’ ascent to power. It is this element of choice that helps students come to the understanding that the Holocaust was not inevitable, but a human consequence. A study of the Weimar Republic provides students with depth as to the causes of the Holocaust and the rise of the Nazi party. Structured inquiry into Weimar Germany provides an avenue for students to make connections between issues that are bubbling below the surface, as well as those that are highly evident to the public, then and now. The Facing History scope and sequence actualizes care as discussed by Barton and Levstik (2004) Students begin to “care about” the people and content of the past, as well as “care that” these events occurred (p.241). As students progress to the Choosing to Participate stage in the scope and sequence, they demonstrate that they “care to” take action against issues of hatred and bigotry in their communities, local and global, and have the necessary tools to understand that one person can make a difference. The idea of students as change-agents empowers them as active citizens.

Facing History goes beyond the Holocaust with resources that address periods in United States History, teaching of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and necessary skills such as Fostering Civil Discourse. One of the greatest aspects of Facing History is that once you complete one of their professional development courses and become a Facing History Teacher, you have a direct line to continued support. Facing History Program Associates assist teachers in planning units and finding resources as part of an ongoing relationship. They offer continuous professional development webinars and courses, both online and face-to-face, that fit teachers’ schedules.

Echoes and Reflections http://www.echoesandreflections.org

Echoes and Reflections is the collaborative culmination of the expertise of the Anti-Defamation League, the USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem. Echoes and Reflections provides a curated set of primary and secondary resources in ten lessons developed to give teachers a ready-to-go, interdisciplinary resource to teach about the Holocaust. It is a masterful blend of the expertise of the three organizations. While the depth and breadth of the resources are central for an effective and responsible study of the Holocaust, it is the curated clips of testimony from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive that seamlessly integrate into each lesson that makes this resource stand out. Incorporating testimony into lessons with other rich resources provides human voice and, therefore, a unique opportunity for students to connect with a person who experienced this tragedy first-hand. This is a powerful learning experience because students can often demonstrate apathy to documents alone and graphic photos of the Holocaust do little to add value to students’ learning. Testimony, however, provides a person that students can connect with through their story, body language, and raw emotion as they share their experience.

In light of events since the 2016 election, Echoes and Reflections has released an eleventh lesson that focuses on Contemporary Antisemitism. This lesson encourages students to recognize that antisemitism did not end with the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel addresses the difficult reality of this continuing trend in saying, “Once I thought that antisemitism had ended; today it is clear to me that it probably never will” (Wiesel quoted in Echoes and Reflections, 2018). This quote and lesson uses resources that allow students to make connections between the Holocaust and contemporary events, further demonstrating the relevance of learning about the Holocaust.

In the lesson, Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders, students are confronted with the complexity of complicity. This lesson begins with students considering the meaning of the terms “guilt” and “responsibility” before engaging in inquiry to apply these terms to the Holocaust. Jan Karski, a survivor and resistance fighter who later became a professor at Georgetown University (Echoes and Reflections, 2018), discusses his memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his testimony. Students must do a close-read of Karski’s testimony clip as they consider his opinion of the President’s response to his question about what to tell the Polish people, demonstrating the importance of testimony as a primary source.

Students progress to a brief overview of the railroad system’s role in the Final Solution in order to provide context for the primary document analysis that follows. Students will analyze “Salitter’s Report,” a report from Hauptmann Salitter, an officer in charge of a transport of Jewish prisoners from Dusseldorf to Riga. Students work in small groups to analyze the document, with the knowledge that men were not forced to take jobs such as Salitter’s, which were considered prestigious. They are asked to analyze the tone and language of the report to draw conclusions regarding Salitter’s attitude towards his role, the possible reasons for some of the actions detailed in the report, such as placing children with their mothers, and to consider Salitter’s role in the murder of the train passengers in the camps.

Students’ next step is to draw up a list of people listed in the report and use a 1-4 scale to determine their level of responsibility for what happened to the Jews. This leads to small and large group discussion regarding guilt and responsibility, as well as the how and why people may have cooperated with the Nazi’s process of mass murder.

Echoes and Reflections offers professional development on teaching about the Holocaust and the use of testimony with different offerings. They are free, face-to-face workshops, webinars, and a self-paced online class. Once trained, teachers become more comfortable with integrating the resources and the effective use of testimony, which is applicable across content areas.

IWitness (USC Shoah Foundation) http://iwitness.usc.edu/SFI/

IWitness is a web resource developed by the USC Shoah Foundation-the Institute for Visual History and Education and designed for classroom implementation ranging from upper elementary grades through higher education. It is an educational medium that allows students to learn through testimony in student-directed inquiry. Haas, Berson, and Berson (2015) point out that “Students and teachers may search, watch, and interact with testimonies to construct multimedia projects in a secure, password-protected space” (p.107) as well as being accessible in single-computer classrooms. The technology makes use of the institute’s Visual History Archive that contains the testimonies of approximately 55,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses, as well as witnesses and survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, Armenia, and the Nanjing Massacre. It is important to teach about genocide beyond the Holocaust in order to make students realize that there is not one form it takes and to demonstrate that it is a problem that plagues the world. The collection of testimonies beyond the Holocaust further Totten’s (2001) argument that making other genocides part of the null curriculum is problematic.

IWitness provides a framework and space for students to develop questions and construct their own digital essays on a variety of topics. The library contains over 200 pre-built activities range that from 30-minutes to multi-day, all of which focus on information literacy, inquiry, and using evidence as support. Further, teachers can design or revise existing activities in order to meet the needs of your students. A recent initiative, entitled “Inspiring Respect” empowers students and teachers to be positive agents of change (USC Shoah Foundation, 2018). Some themes represented include: “Standing up to Indifference; Courage, Resilience, and Civic Responsibility, Countering Hatred, Intolerance, and Violent Extremism,” among others (USC Shoah Foundation, 2018). These themes demonstrate the applicable nature of studying the Holocaust as a means of promoting relevance to students’ lives and the importance of being an active citizen.

An activity entitled “Immigrants and the American Dream” is part of the Inspiring Respect initiative and, like all of the activities within this set, is especially timely given the current practice of targeting and separating immigrant families. This activity asks students to consider what they believe to be the “American Dream”. Students proceed through an inquiry into clips of testimony that discuss reasons for emigrating to America. Testimony clips come from survivors and of the Holocaust during World War II, a Tutsi survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide that ended in 1979, as well as someone who acted as a rescuer during the Holocaust. Within the activity, students reflect on one story that most resonates with them and make connections to their idea of the American dream before engaging with the work of their peers.

Like the other resources mentioned, IWitness offers professional development to strengthen educator understanding of testimony-based education. They offer regular webinars on various aspects of using testimony to deepen student learning. Teachers can create an account and add their students into a class so that they can monitor progress and provide feedback in a secure digital environment.


Each of the resources described above offer myriad opportunities for an in-depth study of the Holocaust. A strong unit could be constructed using elements from each and could fit most unit lengths. Just as the study of the Holocaust requires time to process and reflect, teachers need to give themselves time to explore these resources and to determine what their desired learning outcomes are.

We live in a time that will one day be reflected in history as a time of deep-seated division. Therefore, teachers should approach their study of history in order to facilitate meaningful learning opportunities for students to make connections between the past and present. As previously noted, the Holocaust has often been a topic that provides opportunity associate the underlying causes of the Holocaust and basic moral values (Parsons and Totten, 1993) and the need for these affiliations has become imperative in a society with an admitted Holocaust denier running for Congress in Illinois as a primary candidate for one of the major parties during the 2018 election. This disgraceful level of public acceptance is reminiscent of the period in which the Nazi regime strived to normalize their policies of hatred. Bergen (2016) discusses the period, beginning in 1934, when the Nazis sought “routinization…by passing laws to make measures look respectable” (p.90), mirroring the recent use of the legal system and ICE to separate families of immigrants. It is essential for teachers to gain an understanding of the history and the available classroom resources . Cowan and Maitles (2017) argue that “by applying an open and engaging attitude to Holocaust Education, the next generation of politicians and government officials will be better equipped than their predecessors to address topics of prejudice and genocide (p. 3).


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