Tower of Faces (the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection), U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (photo credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
In the English/Social Studies Holocaust Unit, students contemplate moral decision-making and social power
Humans are interesting creatures. They can be beautiful in one moment and heinous in the next. As students enter their teen years, they become intrigued with this polarity of behavior and wonder where they sit on the morality scale of “good” and “bad.” It’s during this time that students question their social power and recognize they have a choice in serving the role of perpetrator, bystander, or ally.
I chose to teach about the Holocaust years ago while working at an international middle school in Palo Alto. It was then that I learned how the Holocaust is taught throughout Europe to students at very young ages. I realized while teaching Elie Weisel’s work to 8th graders that reading fiction based on the Holocaust (and hearing authentic stories from this time period) not only provided young people a glimpse into history but also promoted powerful conversations focused on moral decision-making in their lives.
During a time when our nation has never felt more polarized and anti-Semitism is on the rise, teaching about the Holocaust is more important than ever. Incredible authors like Markus Zusak (The Book Thief), Robert Sharenow (The Berlin Boxing Club), Art Spiegelman (Maus), Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity), Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray), and Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See) provide excellent storylines for middle and high school students to connect past to present. These books promote taking a strong stance against hate and discriminatory behavior, and though the history is hard, students are inspired by the agency of this work.
By the time 8th graders approach our Holocaust Unit, they have spent a great deal of time learning and studying the social history of the United States through the perspective of the ongoing struggle for civil rights. From the Slave Codes of Colonial Virginia, to the Chinese Massacre of 1871, and the explicitly eugenicist language of the Johnson-Reed Act, our students are able to make sense, through thematic parallels, to events such as the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, or Nazi propaganda.
However, as we move into the subject of the Holocaust directly, our focus shifts towards the choices of individuals who experienced this history as victims, witnesses, collaborators, bystanders, perpetrators, and resistance fighters. The intent here is to make connections between how individual decisions and agency regarding right and wrong, or good and evil, help shape our world. Our study is intended to help students see history, and indeed our future, not as the result of inevitable processes but determined by meaningful action.
Education is never strictly an intellectual engagement, and our overarching goal in this unit is to help our students widen their circles of concern and develop empathy for the lived experiences of others. We use both fiction and historical resources as tools to guide students into the most inimitable experiences of others, and in doing so to develop their capacity to see other’s lives and subjectivity as every bit as deserving and valuable as our own. Teaching this painful history is not only necessary, but indeed vital, in helping to foster student’s commitments to one another and engagement in creating a more hopeful future.