Role play is a traditional learning tool, but in Holocaust education, it only leads to tears and to a lack of learning.

When I went to Yad Vashem’s How to Teach the Holocaust seminar, everyone said, “bring lots of tissues.” I never needed them, because a good Holocaust education does not teach through tears, as we discussed last week.

There was, however, one moment where I almost broke down. We were in the museum, discussing the Łódź Ghetto. The Jewish commandant of the ghetto, having been told to select people for death, insisted that parents give him their young children so those who could work would survive. When they refused, he ripped the children out of their parents’ arms and took them anyway. All I could think of was my youngest daughter, seven years old at the time. I imagined myself clinging to my daughter in hiding, in terror, and…I shut down completely. I am sure other interesting things were said about the Łódź Ghetto, but I heard none of them. All I could do was desperately try to prevent myself from thinking this unthinkable thought. Even now, years later, I can barely write this paragraph without tears.

This brings us to the second of our three critical mistakes that teachers often make in teaching the Holocaust: Teaching through role play.

Mistake #2: Teaching through Role Play.

Role play is a powerful teaching tool for many classes. Having students imagine themselves experiencing life through other people’s eyes is a great way to build empathy and to expand their understanding of the world. We’ve used it with great success in our religious school to illuminate the experience of immigrants moving to both the US and Israel.

In a Holocaust setting, role play is a recipe for trauma.

The victims of the Holocaust experienced horrors that no one should ever have to experience. These experiences left the survivors scarred for life. Imagining ourselves in their position does not increase our understanding of their experiences; it is merely terrifying. It was terrifying for them; should we expect it to be less terrifying for us? Trying to imagine losing your home, your parents, your children, your freedom, or your life does not facilitate learning, or even empathy. It only puts you in a terrifying place where you do not want to be. It causes students to shut down and to decide they wish to avoid even thinking about the Holocaust.

An exercise in trying to understand how it felt “to be there” is fundamentally futile. Our students cannot fathom what it means to be hungry. “Starving” to them means it’s been three hours since breakfast and, oh, lunch isn’t for another ten minutes! Most of us, thank G-d, cannot really understand what it was like to be in these situations.

What should we do instead?

We can use the stories told by survivors to understand the depth and complexity of the Holocaust. We can use letters, diaries, memoirs, and survivor testimony. When we discuss these stories, we do not ask, “How would you feel?” Instead, we ask, “How do you think they felt?” By taking the “you” out of the question, we allow the students to empathize without being traumatized.

We can give our students the safety of distance. Even with distance, they will still empathize with the victims, they will still understand the depth of what happened. Distance means they will have enough objectivity to be able to learn from the very difficult and traumatic story they are hearing.

There are many ways to engage students that allow them to maintain that safe distance.

  • Don’t ask what you might pack in a suitcase if you had to leave home forever.
    Instead, ask what the little girl in the picture packed.
  • Don’t ask students to stand inside a cattle car and imagine what it would have been like to ride that car to a concentration camp.
    Instead, ask students to look at the cattle car and remember the stories we have read from people who rode in it.
  • Don’t ritually separate children from their parents to symbolize millions of murdered children, as one Yom HaShoah commemoration did.
    Instead, tell the stories of some of those children.

Teaching the Holocaust is different from teaching most other subjects. The stories of the Holocaust have their own emotional power. Students will be drawn into these stories naturally, as I was in the Łódź Ghetto. Avoid role playing when teaching the Holocaust. Give your students enough distance to actually learn from the stories.

You can find out more about teaching the Holocaust from in a non-traumatic way at www.TeachTheShoah.org.

Additional Resources:

From the ADL, bhecinfo.org/wp-content/uploads/nosimulations.jpg.pdf

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org/educators/teaching-about-the-holocaust/general-teaching-guidelines#methodology

Next week: Teaching the Holocaust in Elementary School