3 Mistakes We Make Teaching the Holocaust

Pupils from Rumkowski High School in the Lodz Ghetto with teacher and principal Stella Rein on a field trip to Marysin, the ghetto's agricultural area, 1941-1942. Source: Yad Vashem
Pupils from Rumkowski High School in the Lodz Ghetto with teacher and principal Stella Rein on a field trip to Marysin, the ghetto's agricultural area, 1941-1942. Source: Yad Vashem

When we teach the Holocaust, we want our students to ask questions like “How could this happen?” and “What can we do to prevent this from happening again?” Too often, what students ask about the Holocaust is “Why do I have to learn this?”

If students resist learning about the Holocaust, then we need to reconsider how we are teaching this very difficult material.

There are three critical mistakes many teachers make when teaching the Holocaust:

1) Teaching through tears and trauma;

2) Teaching through role play; and

3) Waiting until middle school to even start discussing the Holocaust.

Teaching the Holocaust in these ways causes students to shut down rather than to learn. It causes them to ask “Why do I have to learn this?” rather than “Why did this happen?”

Each of these mistakes is a big topic, so let’s tackle them one at a time.

Week I: The Mistake of Teaching through Tears

The Holocaust was a traumatic event, full of difficult, traumatic stories. Teachers and parents often feel they need to convey that horror to the kids. They feel that lessons must end in tears or the kids have not truly understood.

We see this desire to convey the trauma of the Holocaust in the parent who objected that the book being read in her 4th grader’s class failed to adequately convey the true horror of the Jewish experience of the Holocaust.1 This mother therefore sat her ten-year-old down and filled in the missing pieces of “shops being burned and people beaten to death in the streets,” as well as Jews “murdered by the millions.” “These things are very upsetting,” she said. “These things should be very upsetting.”

I do not know how her 4th grader reacted, but my 4th grader would have learned from this to associate Jewish studies with tears and fear. We will discuss how to make lessons age-appropriate in two weeks. For now, I want to simply point out that this technique of teaching-by-trauma often backfires. When we present trauma for trauma’s sake, we can turn our kids off from learning. This approach also does a disservice to the victims of the Holocaust by burying their individuality in anonymous piles of bodies.

More than a generation of teaching-by-trauma and teaching-through-tears has led to a generation who do their best to avoid the subject of the Holocaust. Another parent, in asking that her children be exempted from Holocaust lessons, told me, “Children should not grow up with such heaviness in their hearts, which only leads to insecurities and resentment.”

What should we do instead?

We need to focus Holocaust education on what we are trying to teach. Let’s start with the most basic question, “Why is it important for us to learn about the Holocaust?” Holocaust education is more than wanting people to understand the horrible things that happened to us. We want people to understand the Holocaust so they can understand not only how bad things can get but also what good people can do.

For this deeper understanding, we need a more nuanced story. We need more than broad generalizations about millions of dead bodies. What do millions of dead bodies teach us? That “human beings can be awful cruel to one another”?2 Much of history and literature teaches us this.

The Holocaust teaches us something more.

As we discussed last week, if we are to learn from this history, then we must understand not only how evil people can be but also how good people can be. If all we teach is the evil, then we feel only that “heaviness in [our] hearts” that tells us people are horrible and there is nothing we can do about it. If we also teach the good, then we begin to understand that we can do something about the evil in the world. We learn that in addition to the millions being murdered, millions were saved because people helped them. We begin to appreciate why we need to understand the Holocaust and what it can teach us about the power of action.

One way to see this balanced narrative is to teach the Holocaust from the stories of individual survivors. Survivor memoirs tell both sides of the story. They talk about how bad it got, how people suffered, and how people died. They also talk about how they lived, how they held onto life with all their strength, and how people helped them. There are many terrific, age-appropriate books that tell the true stories of survivors (see www.TeachTheShoah.org/Lesson-Plans for some suggestions).

We have used these stories in our religious schools and find that students come out of these lessons eager for more information. They understand that horrible, evil things happened, but they also begin to ask the right questions. They ask why it happened. They ask what could have been done. They wonder what they should do if they find themselves in similar situations. These are the lessons we want to learn from the Holocaust.

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

Next week: The Mistake of Teaching through Role Play

1 Alina Adams, www.kveller.com/number-the-stars-does-more-harm-than-good-when-it-comes-to-holocaust-education

2 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, chapter 33.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas.
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