Teaching the Holocaust

I’ve recently worked on some rewrites for a play of mine called Shoelaces, which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. In Shoelaces, the elderly, yet feisty, character of Ruby (based off my paternal grandmother with a little of my maternal grandmother as well) discusses her belief that there is no such thing as coincidence. I share this belief with Ruby most of the time. I sometimes experience things that seem completely uncanny, and I have to take a step back, take a breath, and take a moment to consider if it’s just a fluke or if there is some something beyond it. Today has been one of those days.

Today (April 12, 2018) is Holocaust Remembrance Day. I didn’t realize this until I logged onto Facebook after coming home from school and eating dinner. I saw a post from the Human Rights Campaign commemorating this day and after following the link, I eventually found a page explaining how the date of Holocaust Remembrance Day is determined every year based on the Hebrew calendar. Based on the dates for upcoming years, it looks like it typically falls around the end of April and sometimes in the beginning of May. This year, it was April 12. After the experience I had in my 8th period freshman English class today, I had to take a moment to step back and re-examine my non-belief in coincidence when I saw this post.

I started teaching my unit on the Holocaust and the memoir Night by Eli Wiesel on Tuesday of this week. Last school year, I started with this unit in the fall, but this year I decided to move it to the spring. Again, not being aware of the date of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I didn’t have any specific intentions in moving this unit to the end of the year; that’s just how it worked out. I re-recycled some of my introductory lesson from last year, as some of last year’s lesson was recycled from my student teaching when I taught the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank, and I spent a good amount of time this week making this lesson better for this year’s unit.

All three years that I’ve taught on the Holocaust, I’ve started out with an activity where I have broken up a photograph into four quadrants. I show the quadrants one at a time in a specific order and the students describe what they see in each quadrant, making predictions about the rest of the photograph. The photograph, posted below, is one of the more well-known photographs from this era.

Warsaw

My goal with this aspect of the lesson is not only to introduce the students to the fear, confusion, pain, and a myriad of other emotions and experiences the victims endured, but to get their minds going with making predictions and inferences while paying attention to specific details that will later inform their reading of Night.

I really stepped up the amount of historical context in this year’s introductory lesson, evidenced by the six pages of guided notes I gave to my students following the photograph portion. I told them that even though it might not seem like it, this is a brief overview of the Holocaust. I continued, saying there is so much information out there on the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler and World War II that we could probably spend an entire semester, if not an entire year, on it.

I began my historical overview with information about Adolf Hitler and how he rose to power, followed by an overview of his beliefs, Nazi Racism, and the idea of the superior Aryan race consisting of people who were tall with blond hair and blue eyes. I discussed how the Jewish people were the primary target, but other groups including Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, gypsies, disabled people, and political opponents such as communists and socialists were also targeted. I explained ghettos, the term “Final Solution,” The Nuremburg Laws, Kristallnacht… all leading up to our discussion on deportation, concentration camps, killing centers, and ultimately Auschwitz.

I stopped at various points to put some things into perspective for my students. For instance, when discussing the Aryan race, I asked students with blond hair and blue eyes to raise their hands. Out of around 22-24 students in each of my three Freshman English classes, there weren’t any more than three or four per class. When discussing the fact that 6 million out of the 9 million Jewish people in Europe were killed (around 2/3), I counted how many people were in the room and pointed out what number of us made up 2/3. When discussing the 11 million total people who died, I pointed out that in 2017, there were 11.66 million people in the State of Ohio. But out of everything I said today, there was one question that happened about halfway through my 8th period Freshman English class that really put some things into perspective.

Among the students in this class, I have a student with an IEP who also happens to be in a wheelchair. While discussing Auschwitz and the concentration camps, I began to describe the selection process prisoners faced upon arrival. The men were separated from the women and children and an SS physician looked over each person to determine if he or she was strong enough for forced labor. After a decision was made, the prisoner was told to move to either the left or the right… either to the side of the “strong” prisoners who were chosen for work or the “weak” side who were chosen to be killed. My next bullet point on my slide read as follows… “Babies and young children, pregnant women, the elderly, the handicapped, and the sick had little chance of surviving this first selection.”

I don’t remember his exact words, but this student’s question was something like this, spoken with such earnestness…

“Mr. Jeffers? Does that mean if I were there that I would have been killed right away?”

I used to be terrified when I started teaching that I would be asked questions that I didn’t know the answer to… mostly out of the fear of embarrassment. I’ve learned how to handle that fear now when I’m asked a random question that I don’t know how to answer, and I suppose that is what prepared me to respond to this student’s question in the best way that I knew how. Honestly and realistically if we were in that time period and in that situation, the answer to his question would probably have been “Yes.” But I couldn’t say that to him. Instead, here’s how I responded. Again… I don’t remember my exact words, but it was something like this…

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think the way they thought and the way they decided who is strong and who is weak is different than the way we think today.”

I proceeded to recall the information about Hitler’s idea of the superior Aryan race comprised of people with blond hair and blue eyes and just how few people in the classroom actually fit that mold. Based off of that, I said there are a lot of us here in this room that would probably have been targets of Hitler and the Nazis and the kind of people they didn’t want around.

I really tried my best to answer his question in a way that didn’t make him upset. I really wanted to let him know that he wasn’t alone and he wasn’t the only one in the room that the Nazis would have viewed as “inferior.” But at the same time, I couldn’t lie to him and say he definitely would have survived. Maybe there is a better way I could have answered his question… one example being I could have brought up the fact that since I am a gay man, and since homosexuals were targeted, that I would most likely have been taken to a concentration camp and killed if I lived during this time period… but like most situations where I am searching for the right words, I usually think of the perfect words about ten minutes after I needed them.

I couldn’t shake the feeling I had for the rest of the class and all of 9th period. I sat at my desk during 9th period and wrote down a few things on my computer, doing my best to hold in my tears. I knew I needed to write something about this… and when I got home and scrolled through Facebook and realized today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, I really couldn’t believe it. It’s too much to have just been a coincidence.

I really enjoy teaching about the Holocaust and Night. I am able to use the word “fun” when talking about certain lessons during other units throughout the school year, but I hesitate to use it here, for obvious reasons. The Holocaust isn’t a pleasant topic to discuss… a fact that I’ve already acknowledged and will continue to acknowledge throughout this unit. But as unpleasant as it is, it is an extremely important conversation to have.

I really enjoying exposing my students to this era that they really don’t know much about, as well as a gruesome part of history that can be difficult for them to comprehend is even possible for humans to carry out. I believe the students learned some things about the Holocaust and World War II in their history class… but I’m going to assume that was primarily facts. In addition to the literature aspects of this time period, I really try my best to delve into the raw, emotional, and life changing aspects of these gruesome stories like Elie Wiesel’s story in Night.

I really enjoy evoking an emotional response out of my students. I was once told after an observation of a lesson where my students were reading Macbeth that it’s a good sign when the students are laughing, especially when they mess up because it shows they understand what is going on. Any time students laugh in regards to the lesson and the subject, it really shows they are engaged and it’s a good sign. I’m going to go to the opposite side of that coin for a moment. I noticed it last year, and I will probably notice it this year… there will be some students who tear up as we read certain portions of Night… and I will view this as a good sign; it will show they are engaged and they understand the gruesome, brutal, and atrocious things human beings are capable of. It will show that they understand the insanely cruel and horrific experiences that killed 11 million people. It will show, hopefully, that they understand that we can never forget these people and we can never let something like this ever happen again… and hopefully it emboldens them to speak up and use their voices when they see injustice against a people who only want to live their life.

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