How to teach the Holocaust

How to teach the Holocaust

Moriah teacher returns from Israel with ideas from Yad Vashem

Rachel Schwartz, at right, stands with Holocaust survivor Yehudit Kleinman, who originally was from Italy. Ephraim Kaye, the director of the International Seminars for Educators department at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, stands behind them. (Courtesy of Rachel Schwartz)
Rachel Schwartz, at right, stands with Holocaust survivor Yehudit Kleinman, who originally was from Italy. Ephraim Kaye, the director of the International Seminars for Educators department at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, stands behind them. (Courtesy of Rachel Schwartz)

“Names, Not Numbers” is a copyrighted curriculum that teaches Jewish middle-schoolers about the Holocaust with an emphasis on the oral testimony of survivors, which the children immortalize on film.

Focusing on individuals rather than numbers also is the approach encouraged by the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

“The Holocaust is about the murder of a Jewish person. Unfortunately, this happened six million times. And each person had a life story that should be told,” said Rachel Schwartz, chair of the English department at Englewood’s Moriah School and teacher of the afterschool Names, Not Numbers elective for eighth-graders.

Ms. Schwartz recently returned home with 62 pages of notes she took during an educators’ seminar at Yad Vashem, an experience she called “life-altering.”

“The philosophy of Yad Vashem is to bring the children into the study of the Holocaust safely and take them out safely as well,” she said. “Teaching about the Final Solution is too massive for the children to understand, so you start and end with the voice of one person who survived, and you try to impart what was lost.”

In addition to learning about — and learning how to teach about — 19th and 20th century anti-Semitism, Nazi ideology, Jewish life before the war, and Jewish resistance during the war, the July 19-28 seminar for 30 teachers from across the United States included meetings with five survivors: Daniel Gold, from Lithuania; Yehudit Kleinman, from Italy; Tibi Ram, from Slovakia; Yitzchak Arad, from Poland, and Hannah Pick, a childhood friend of Anne Frank who lived in both Germany and Holland.

It was these encounters that especially moved the Moriah teacher. “I am the granddaughter of survivors, and I felt that the people I met resembled my grandparents,” Ms. Schwartz said.

Dr. Arad, former chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, fought with the partisans as a teenager and was among approximately 1,200 Jews saved from the Nazis by German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who employed as many as he could in his factories in order to keep them out of concentration camps.

“By the time he was 16, everyone in his family was dead, and he went to fight because there was no other choice,” Ms. Schwartz said. “He told us again and again that Jews only killed and went on the offensive when they knew that otherwise they’d be dead. Every other time, they had a little hope that they would get through it, that next year would be better.”

Participants were introduced to a Yad Vashem curriculum called “How Was It Humanly Possible?” which introduces strategies for teaching middle-schoolers about the complexities of human behavior during the Holocaust by looking at perpetrators and bystanders and the personal choices they made.

Ms. Schwartz said that Shulamit Imber, Yad Vashem’s pedagogical director, “started us thinking of moral and ethical dilemmas during the Holocaust. We had an exploration of spiritual and cultural resistance — what it meant to have faith, what it meant to meet a righteous gentile.”

An understanding of prewar Jewish life and norms, especially in heavily Jewish areas of Poland and Germany, is vital to helping children make some sense of the enormity of the Nazi effect on European Jewry, the Yad Vashem educators emphasized.

“Let the children see thriving Jewish communities, culture, and art, and see what was lost,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Let them understand that these were people who went to school, had jobs, celebrated Pesach. The whole Jewish culture was destroyed.”

Reading or hearing about something isn’t as vivid as seeing it. One session that brought this point home was “Everyday Life of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Using the New Yad Vashem Video Toolbox,” which introduced the teachers to an educational unit built on photographs taken by a German soldier in September 1941, combined with diary entries by three Warsaw Ghetto residents — Mary Berg, Chaim Kaplan, and Emanuel Ringelblum — in order to emphasize the individual struggle to survive.

Participants also were introduced to a Yad Vashem educational unit called “Circles,” meant for primary and middle school grades. It highlights Jewish religious traditions, rituals, and holidays that Jews struggled to maintain during the Holocaust.

Another session analyzed the fraught question of whether fictionalized Holocaust-related films, such as “Inglorious Basterds,” “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” can be used responsibly to teach the Holocaust.

Ms. Schwartz said that in addition to the weekly Names, Not Numbers elective, in which 54 Moriah eighth-graders participated last year, Holocaust literature is taught to all Moriah middle-schoolers in their English classes. The sixth grade reads “The Island on Bird Street” by Uri Orlev, the seventh grade reads “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and eighth-graders read “Maus” by Art Spiegelman.

“I’ll be meeting with the teachers to discuss how to enhance the teaching of these books,” said Ms. Schwartz, who teaches sixth-grade English. “I believe our program was already in line with the Yad Vashem approach, and now I can enhance it. I want to implement the Yad Vashem pedagogy in the entire program.”

Moriah’s head of school, Rabbi Daniel Alter, said he feels it is “critical that a program of such gravitas as Names, Not Numbers be run by a teacher who has a strong sense of adolescent development, is a master teacher, and is able to connect students emotionally to the content they are studying.

“Rachel Schwartz possesses all of these skills. The opportunity to deepen her own learning about the Holocaust will enable her to give our students an even more powerful educational experience.”

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