Wednesday, January 27, 2016

International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Or: Why I Teach)

Florida has many faults, especially when it comes to education, but I am proud to work in one of five US states that has mandatory Holocaust education built into the curriculum.
From Wikipedia. Here is our very wordy "standard" for teaching the Holocaust. For once, Florida got it right.
Every January, I scrounge the news for new things to add. There's always something: an aged Nazi, discovered after all these years, that people feel conflicted about putting on trial; graffiti on a Jewish cemetery; rising anti-Semitism in Europe. There are feel-good stories, too, but only on days like today - International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I undertake this unit with the gravity it's due, and I am never disappointed in the change I see in my students afterward. This year, I had my friend Brittany (who has worked for a decade with refugees in war-torn countries and who has studied the Holocaust and visited the death camps in Poland) come speak to my students to help introduce the unit.
We walked through the timeline of events. We discussed how and why Hitler was able to obtain power. And we took our annual visit to the local Holocaust Museum. We are very lucky - old people retire to Florida, and those old people include survivors of the Holocaust. The museum was started by 7th grade students as a project, and now it's filled to bursting with genuine artifacts and photos donated by those survivors. Many of them come to speak to visiting classes.
Students listening to the toured section of their trip to the museum.
Every year, we hear at least one survivor speak. In 2014, a survivor named Abe Price shared his testimony with us (he was truly the gutsiest man I've met - his story of escape and survival is awe-inspiring), and he passed away two weeks later.

We were the last school he ever spoke to.

My students, grief-stricken, organized themselves, convinced their parents, and - without my knowledge - attended his funeral. They did it on their own. I still choke up thinking about it. They made me so proud.
You can read about Abe's story here. It's truly amazing.
This year, my kids had the chance to hear two speakers: Jacques and Sabine van Dam, who were both children in hiding at the time of the war. Jacques avoided capture; Sabine and her family were discovered and sent to a transit camp. From there, her parents were sent to Auschwitz, and then on to Bergen-Belsen, where they did not survive.
Here is Jacques's story.
And here is Sabine's.
It's hard to look at 8th grade students and know if something has impacted them. They usually initially hide any emotions with bravado and off-color jokes. The day after the trip, I gave them ten minutes to write a reflection of their visit to the Holocaust Museum, and I allotted twenty minutes to discuss questions and reactions.

In all my blocks, we spent our entire 90 minutes talking.

This is why I teach. I see the dawning realization in these young people that the world is cruel, and that they have the power and responsibility to fix it. To make it better for the future. Their absolute confusion about how people can be so ignorant and hateful is refreshing.

All of this is a lead-up to our reading Elie Wiesel's Night and watching various survivor testimonies. All of the instruction is linked to reading, but it's about so much more than that. It's about helping students to become empathetic, tolerant citizens.

I see it everyday. It makes me realize the world isn't all bad.
I know we see so many terrible things in the news these days, and we're facing a terrifying election season this year, but I truly believe our young generations are so accepting and progressive that we really do have a bright future. So the silver-lining of teaching about such a difficult, painful topic? I get the satisfaction of watching them learn and grow and think and question, and I get to see the hope for our future right in front of me every single day.

It truly is a gift.



  1. I remember reading Night... it was one of the best books I've ever read. It's really great that they do this. When I was a kid, they had a holocaust survivor come in each year to talk in class, and it was a really moving experience. Like many of the students in my classes, I am Jewish, and really felt a connection to the holocaust and the people that survived it. My grandfather was one of the soldiers that liberated the concentration camps. Unfortunately, it was always too painful for him to talk about. My mom and I are going to Poland this summer to visit Auschwitz. I imagine it will be a life changing experience.

    1. Growing up Jewish in a mostly-Jewish community, we learned about the Holocaust from a very young age. I honestly can't remember a time it wasn't part of my education, and I was devouring books about it and watching movies about it in elementary school. My students come to class with literally no knowledge - they know the name Hitler and they estimate there were "a million" deaths.

      I feel so lucky that I can coordinate survivors to come speak to them. Soon, as with Abe, our survivors will be gone, and it will be our job to keep their stories alive. As Wiesel says, to forget their stories would be akin to killing them a second time.

      How amazing that your grandfather was part of the liberating army! I can't imagine what that would have been like. I hope your trip to Auschwitz is profound. I'm hoping to go someday; I know there are Jewish organizations that help set up the trips for American Jews, but I haven't looked into it much recently due to cost.

  2. What an incredible day to have at your school. I teach in PA and we do nothing like this! I wish we would. Most kids these days (I sound like my parents) have no idea of what people went through or what it really means to go through something awful. I realize there are students that have gone through horrible things, but the majority have no idea what it means to live through something like this. I know you and I aren't from that time period, but I feel like we had grandparents who were from that era and told us about it. While we can't understand what going through the Holecaust was like, I think we have a little more perspective based on being able to know our relatives that did live through it. I'm so glad to hear you guys do this. Thank you for sharing your day with us!

    1. This is definitely my favorite unit. We take about 6 weeks to truly discuss it all and it's so rewarding. It really changes the students for the better!

  3. What a gift the students have in YOU to teach them about this. Before I got a full time music job, I spent a semester teaching 8th grade English as an emergency certified teacher- aka I was their only hope! I taught Anne Frank but looking back I did NOT do it justice. I was only 22. What the hell did I know? Not much.

    In college I took a senior synthesis class called The Rise of the Third Reich. It was interesting, to say the least. We had a Holocaust survivor come speak to our class, and how surprised was I when the man that showed up was the man that sat behind me in University Chorale. You just never know what people have overcome and what their story is.

    1. Wow, that story about the survivor being in your class gave me goosebumps. It's true, you really never DO know what someone's story is, especially when you meet someone older and you know they've been through a lot just because they've lived a long time.

      Anne Frank is REALLY hard to teach. It deals with the Holocaust in such an abstract way because she wrote the diary in hiding, so she didn't have much knowledge of it. It's such a wonderful story to help students feel connected to someone so young in that situation, but it's hard to connect it to the Holocaust and war. I'm sure you did a solid job with it!

  4. Thank you for teaching this material so thoroughly and so well. While it may be mandatory instruction in FL (and in my state, IL), that doesn't guarantee it will be taught well.

    My mother is German, and my father is half German. His German father, a naturalized US citizen (he came over as a child), fought for the US in WWII. My other grandfather died in the German army on the Russian front. I also grew up knowing about the Holocaust from an early age (I also grew up knowing about US history vis-a-vis slavery and Native Americans, that's just the way my parents are.) I am always stunned at how much people don't know, especially since our ignorance condemns us to not only risk repeating the past, but impedes us from truly living in peace. So this kind of creative teaching is so so important. Thank you.

    1. It does scare me to know that some teachers don't teach the Holocaust well. One student once told me her older sister's high school history teacher described the Holocaust as being blown out of proportion. Ugh.

      It amazes me that young people today don't grow up with the kind of background information you and I did regarding the more sordid parts of world history. I can't remember a time I didn't know about slavery, the horrible treatment of the Native Americans, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment camps...But these kids know very little, and what they do know feels like ancient history to them. You hit the nail on the head - I take this unit so seriously because I want them to grow up knowing that they can't allow history to repeat and that they must stand in the way of future genocides and world wars.

  5. How fortunate are your students to be exposed to this important event so early in their lives. I had the opportunity to visit Dachau as a young adult and felt grossly unprepared for what I saw. I was ashamed at how little I knew about the place itself and still shudder at the memory of seeing the words Arbeit Macht Frei.

    With the success of movies like Schindler's list, you come realize it's just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many MORE Schindler-type stories and other stories out there that need to be shared.

    1. I definitely delve into Schindler and the heroes - I hope my students realize that it takes an ordinary person willing to do one extraordinary act of good to create a hero, and that they can be that person.

      I hope to visit the sites of the camps in the next few years.

  6. I grew up northern NJ in a mostly jewish community, so I have always been exposed to the holocaust. It's funny though when I went to college I was surprised at how many of my fellow students didn't know that much about that time period. I hope that holocaust remembrance does become mandatory in more states. The more educate we of the difference the less likely there will be crimes of hate. Thank you for sharing

    1. It scares me that college-aged students don't know about the Holocaust. History in high school covers WWII, but I know they're rushed to cover so much that details often get overlooked.