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Why Teach the Holocaust?

Teachers often find the Holocaust to be an overwhelming subject to approach with their students. While the Holocaust offers important lessons to today’s students, it can be a difficult to find the appropriate amount of information to share with young learners. This article highlights the importance of the Holocaust in today’s classroom, and offers suggestions for integrating historical fiction into the unit of study.

This watershed event in history is often daunting to educators, given the complexities of the issues involved with the topic, its disturbing characteristics, the difficulty of tackling historical events whose full effects have yet to be realized, and its tendency to consume large amounts of instructional time relative to its specificity. Acknowledging these challenges, teaching the Holocaust across the curriculum could not be a more relevant subject for the classroom today than at any other point in the last century.

In spite of efforts by survivors, scholars, educators, civic leaders, and citizens to uphold the mandate “Never again!,” genocide continues to plague humanity. According to the activist agency Genocide Watch, within the lifetime of today’s graduating seniors acts of genocide or “ethnic cleansing” have been perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, East Timor, and Sudan. Additionally, high-profile Holocaust denials have made very recent headlines, issued from sources ranging from heads of state to religious leaders. The passage of time exacerbates this problem. The generation who lived through the catastrophe of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust-those who can bear most vivid witness-are passing from us. With them fade the scars of memory, but we who follow have not learned the lessons they taught. As educators, we must make this relevant for young people today.

A truism in times of war is that those in affected societies who are least involved in perpetrating the conflict are also the most vulnerable to suffer its horrors. Historically, the “most vulnerable” in wartime have been women and children, and as a collection, these five novels certainly speak to that point. However, they also present young characters that show all readers that the most vulnerable need not suffer idly. They provide voices for those like them who during the Holocaust also were not idle.

The heroine of In My Hands, Irene Gut Opdyke, is the historical touchstone for characters like Liesel Meminger (The Book Thief), Misha Pilsudski (Milkweed), Annemarie Johansen (Number the Stars), and Bruno and Schmuel (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). Each of these young characters, in ways great and small, makes some effort to cast aside their vulnerability and act for humanity in the midst of barbarity. The Holocaust provides striking examples of human resiliency in the face of the greatest adversity, particularly on the part of those who seem least likely to summon it.

In a larger sense, teaching the Holocaust also provides students with unique opportunities to learn about themselves and about the people they want to become. Examples from this catastrophe bear out the very worst human qualities, and the very best. Using the books suggested here as teaching resources provides remarkable opportunities for this level of learning. By inviting students to sharpen their focus on personal perspectives- real or fictitious-they are able to get a sense of what it is like to be an individual in the midst of landmark events, and the role each person can play in their unfolding.

Students taking up these texts face developmental challenges and are learning life skills for which the Holocaust is a particularly suitable subject. Young adults are primed to investigate themes such as identity and intolerance, family and friendship, innocence and loss, fear and courage, anger and forgiveness, and anxiety and hope. We as teachers should be emboldened by these rich concepts to develop lessons for this daunting historical subject. Utilizing these works of fiction can provide powerful insight into the spirit of the human qualities that were most essential in surviving the horrors that serve as their setting, so long as the instructor dutifully distinguishes between the literary liberties taken by their authors and the realities of the documented history. Succeeding in this important task bolsters the authenticity of work by paying due respect to the actual events of the Holocaust while maintaining the literary relevance of the work for the student and for our curricula.

Ultimately, interpersonal relationships have a far greater influence on the results of our development as individuals than larger institutional events. While the events around us often compel us to make choices, it is typically the impact that our decisions will have on ourselves and on those important to us that ultimately guides that process. Each of these books drive home that point, as their characters are defined by relationships that are created, developed, and tested by the historical processes occurring around them, their value as characters of praise or scorn is determined by their commitment to those relationships.

The Holocaust is unique as a topic of study in that we have no choice but to be awed by the ability it has to illustrate how our value as individuals has more to do with how we treat those around us than with the times in which we live. Teachers seeking an approach to introducing this complicated subject would be well served to start with the strength of character in individuals attempting to overcome adversity, and the power of their relationships with others to embolden them to succeed, even in the face of an attempt to destroy them. Even students who are most skeptical about the ability of ordinary people to make a difference can acknowledge the resolve we all have to act on behalf of friends and family. To be sure, the Holocaust is a daunting topic for instruction. However, if we effectively utilize the resources now available, we can provide students with an unparalleled learning experience. Few other subjects offer young people the chance to develop respect for the vital importance of preserving dignity and human rights as well as an appreciation of history and a love for quality literature.

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