Teaching the Holocaust

7th grade English teacher, Larry Sandomir, teaches the Holocaust to his students each year. In his piece below, Larry describes how delving into this tragedy through literature expands the emotional intelligence of his students just as they are beginning to question the world around them and challenge the status quo. 

The Holocaust always has and always will matter because of itself and itself alone. It is a singular event in history, one that must be remembered, even more so today because the last generation to experience its horrors will no longer be here at some point in the near future.  The call of “Never Again” continues to be significant as well, because as humans, we still don’t get it in terms of causing massive destruction to groups of people who are targeted for persecution and then genocide. The more we learn about that period of time, from 1932-1945, the more complex we realize it to be, and its ramifications go beyond even this crucial call and eternal remembrance. It has to do with teaching and learning.

The Holocaust has, in a variety of ways, become a staple of my seventh grade English classroom. It has, because, as it turns out, this is the age that young people are ready to be introduced to this subject in greater detail. They are asking questions at this time in their lives, because the world has suddenly been thrust upon them in ways that it has not before and they are thinking about what it all means. This occurs because around age 12, their view of the world changes and they see things in ways that are no longer black and white and answers, at least ones that make sense to them, aren’t easy to come by.  So they ask questions, which is what they are supposed to do. And they wonder about why the world is in the state it is in – and then they discover that it always has been and they don’t like it. As well, they have access to more information than any other generation in history, so we can either be part of that quest and help them frame what they find or they can satisfy their curiosities in ways that, more than likely, will leave them with far more questions than answers, and certainly less hope.

They look into a figurative mirror and have to concede that in the right circumstances, with the right person in power, this could happen again unless they fight actively against the kind of thinking and behavior that can spawn such horror.

Perhaps as much as any other period of study or literature reading, the Holocaust provides their five senses with material that shocks, frightens, creates wonder, causes tears, respects, admires, despises, confuses, and simply makes them shake their heads. Young people understand why nations go to war (though they think it all could have been and can be avoided), but they have a terribly difficult time wrapping their heads and hearts around Hitler and the Nazis. And so they thrust their collective humanity in its direction and get as inside the subject as is possible without having experienced it. Because of the distance in time and the singular nature of Nazi genocide, students (at least those without a familial connection) are willing to look into this period and believe it’s not about them. There is that initial safety factor they have, despite the horror of the subject. However, once they are involved, and it doesn’t take long, they see how anyone can be drawn into such a web of hate and once the humanity of those selected by Hitler for extermination is established, their entire perspective takes on different, meaningful, and enduring complexities they are compelled to explore.

Book cover of Night by Elie Wiesel

The numbers numb. Except we don’t say six million Jews were killed. We ask the students to imagine individual persons killed six million different times, so the numbers don’t anesthetize their feelings with statistics. They have to imagine the faces because they must never lose sight of the humanity that was destroyed. And they hold that tightly. They hold it when they watch Elie Wiesel walk through snow upon what he calls the largest cemetery in the world at Auschwitz. They hold it when they see exhibits of hair, shoes, and glasses, seemingly miles of each, and every piece telling a story. They hold it when speakers come and, in person, explain the breaking and strengthening of hearts. They hold it when they stand in a cattle car at the Holocaust Museum and the echoes (they swear they hear them) of those taken to the camps still reverberate. They hold it because they know how important this subject is and that it is a sacred responsibility they have to treat it that way. And they are changed.

They view The Wave, study the Pyramid of Hate, and learn about both the Milgram Experiment and Jane Elliot’s Blue/Brown Eyes Experiment in order to recognize how easy it is to change people’s behavior all too quickly. They are embarrassed when some invariably ask me to do what Ron Jones did with his students in The Wave and when they are caught practicing the Wave salute (which is almost identical to the Nazi one). They look into a figurative mirror and have to concede that in the right circumstances, with the right person in power, this could happen again unless they fight actively against the kind of thinking and behavior that can spawn such horror.

However, more than anything else, they read. We challenge our seventh graders to read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Elie Wiesel’s Night at the same time, together, in class.  They begin earlier with Mr. Zusak’s book because it is so much longer, and then, later, when they are in the deepest parts of The Book Thief, we introduce Night, which we read together, book in front of them, listening to the audiotape. Each book presents a particular point of view for the kids to consider and, when done, they are both exhausted and far more thoughtful than they ever believed they could be. 

They see their responsibility for a future that could be changed because the adults haven’t come through and they believe they can do better. They have to, because if they don’t, there is no future – so they do.

The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal

The Holocaust, with its extraordinary evil staring students directly in their eyes, also allows them to see both degraded and exceptional humanity. They are broken by the horrors that Hitler and the Nazis brought upon the Jews, as their primary targets, but also among blacks, gypsies, gays, and communists. However, they are partly healed when they read of even small acts of rebellion in the concentration camps. They are empowered by responses of partisans and rebels, like those who organized and executed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  They are heartened by stories of righteous gentiles, like Raoul Wallenberg and Miep Gies.  They audibly sigh in relief when they discover that not every German went to the dark side – there were those who helped Jews to leave the country or hide.

They wonder about forgiveness and whether it’s possible by reflecting on Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Given the situation described in his book, where he, as a Jewish prisoner, was brought before a dying Nazi soldier who wanted forgiveness for his terrible acts, students are put in a position of considering Mr. Wiesenthal’s decision, which was to walk out without a word, and wonder about the choice. They work hard to suspend judgment, because they are not in his place and they cannot possibly make real sense of what he was confronted with, but they can talk about it, mull over what the consequences of his act might have been, and think about the nature of forgiveness, what it means, and how it is reflected through the prism of life’s various experiences.

They consider the subjects of war and peace, how prevalent the former is and how rare is the existence of the latter. They are realists too, though, and many speak not of peace, but of hope, of accepting the fact that things don’t always work out but we don’t have to kill each other over it. They talk of differences and how they are okay and wonder why grownups simply don’t get it. They think most politicians are self-absorbed and weak. They don’t look for heroes, but they’d love to find a mensch or two. They reflect often on what it takes to be an upstander and understand that sometimes all of us are bystanders.

This subject changes people. It makes them consider their lives and what they are doing with it that matters. They are kinder, often, to one another. They ask more considered questions. They write with depth and wisdom that simply flows, like rivers, without pause, to give us all something to hold onto that might even change us old folks. They commit themselves to being better than they were, better than the adults today, and they put their broken selves back together and look for ways to both think and act.

These young people take on the characteristics of more mature thinkers. In Louis Cozolino’s The Social Neuroscience of Education, he lists these traits:

  • increased recognition of complexity and an ability to incorporate opposites
  • an understanding that not all of the important information is apparent
  • an increased openness to unconscious processes
  • more realistic expectations and forgiveness of others
  • more information gathering
  • less concern about being in control
  • an ability to tolerate personal limitations and ignorance
  • increased empathy and maintained connectedness

They look more to reach out, to be kind, to pay it forward, and to make the effort to stand in someone else’s shoes, even if only for small periods of time at the start.

Having read, thought, and considered this period of time, when the center of the world fell apart, when they searched for morality in a place where morals were completely subverted, when the ability to describe what happened in language was obliterated because there were no words to explain it, they begin to look to themselves in ways they hadn’t considered before. They see their responsibility for a future that could be changed because the adults haven’t come through and they believe they can do better. They have to, because if they don’t, there is no future – so they do. The Pyramid of Hate, which they looked at seriously before but needed a concrete place to put it, now begins to make sense to them because they see where the bottom (the foundation) eventually becomes the top (genocide) if we/they are not careful. They recognize that the bottom doesn’t have to become a foundation because it doesn’t have to exist. The behavior that creates a firmer footing for everything to grow doesn’t necessarily have to become reality. The fact that it always has just means the challenge is a little more daunting, but not impossible. They know there are limitations and reality can be a never-ending traffic jam, but they are content to know they can move on the road in a way their predecessors may not have considered before.

What this experience creates for these newly minted teenagers is the deepening and expansion of their emotional intelligence. Because they begin to consider problems outside their daily lives, outside their comfort zones, they look to create ways to solve problems and make decisions that can affect those they know directly and buy into the idea of exponential change from the individual on outward. They consider the roles of bystanders and upstanders even more closely, what it takes to be each, when it’s right or not to be one and how challenging it is to be the other. They look more to reach out, to be kind, to pay it forward, and to make the effort to stand in someone else’s shoes, even if only for small periods of time at the start.

It’s the emotional intelligence that will change their approaches to life. It’s not their academic knowledge, except as it informs their abilities to apply their emotional intelligence. Studying the various permutations of the Holocaust, in its complexities and humanities/inhumanities is like a palette of behavior for growing people, a way of looking at the most extreme kinds of actions, seeing where people who rightly shouldn’t have been able to fight back actually did, even by, as Elie Wiesel has often noted, an act not usually considered to be such a response – waking up every morning, and then reflecting on ways to create something better from it. In that way, in a manner different from only considering the sad fact that this generation of survivors is the last, is the key way in which we, as human beings, will never forget.