By Jackie Shimshoni

Last week we had two teacher trainings about using the arts to teach about the Holocaust. There are two major reasons why I was excited leading up to these trainings:

  1. Here at the Holocaust Center, we know firsthand how impactful the arts can be in telling stories and touching students. Whether it’s our CHUTZ-POW! Series or our various musical or film programs, I never hear such emotional, positive feedback as when we have arts-centric programming.
  2. This is my background! My bachelor’s is in arts education and my master’s is in arts management. I’ve built my entire academic and professional career around the theory that the arts–both the consumption and the act of creation–are the key to impactful, multidisciplinary learning environments. Don’t get me started or this blog will turn in to my thesis.

As with every piece of programming we produce, I was not disappointed (I say that as humbly and objectively as possible!).

We had three fantastic educators leading the teacher trainings: Dr. Esther Raizen, who spoke about visual arts; Elena Alexandratos, who spoke about theater; and Flavio Chamis, who spoke about music. I learned so much from all of them, and in today’s blog would like to share some of the information and resources they discussed.

Dr. Esther Raizen


Esther’s talk was intellectually stimulating and highly academic, with lots of food for thought and no one intended takeaway. I preface with that so that it’s clear that my summary reflects only my takeaway of certain, more easily summable portions. Her talk took us down many avenues that I’m sure the teachers who were in attendance will continue to mull over for a long time afterward.

What struck me most about Esther’s training was reflecting on the way in which depictions of the Holocaust have evolved over time. Most examples she shared were from the 1970s, which is apparently when a significant number of books and shows were published to help educate about the Holocaust.

In the 1970s, even when there was death, there was some sort of a “but”–someone survives, something good happens, there is a happy or bittersweet ending. In more modern depictions for children, the realities are shown more harshly.

This was illustrated by showing two drawings imagining how Anne Frank and her sister would have looked sick with typhus during their time in the camps, one from the seventies and one from the nineties. While neither was as fully gruesome as the reality undoubtedly was, the one from the seventies showed two girls who looked mostly tired and a little drawn, while the one from the nineties got a bit closer to the gaunt, sick appearances that were found in reality.

Even in the 1970s, writers spoke about how the world had changed since the 1950s, and with it the idea of what was appropriate or allowed in work meant for young people. More current readings reflected on the acceleration of genocide in the late 20th century and a collective trauma that can and should be addressed by more realistic, accurate representation of what happened that transforms the memory of genocide into action.

The way this balance can be struck thoughtfully and effectively was shown with an HBO short documentary “The Number on Great Grandpa’s Arm”, a largely illustrated film narrated by the 10-year-old great-grandson of a Holocaust survivor. It was age appropriate, yet did not hold back from reality–and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room after we watched it.

Resources Mentioned:

1970’s examples
Last Road to Safety, by Peggy Mann and illustrated by George Stavrinos
I Was There by Hans Peter Reichter
Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting
Holocaust miniseries
1990’s-2000’s examples
A Picture Book of Anne Frank by David Adler and illustrated by Karen Ritz
The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm

Elena Alexandratos


Elena, an experienced actress and educator, really lit up the room with energy. Much of what she did with us was theater exercises, which a summary here cannot do any justice; some of the exercises I can name, like “Zip-Zap-Zop”, but others I can only describe like “this one calming-down thing where she had us touch and close our eyes and count together”

Elena’s talk centered around the play The Diary of Anne Frank. Much of what she focused on had to do with getting students in to the mindset of what a teenager during that time would have liked, felt and experienced. What were the popular movies, music, and fashion of that time? Depending on time allowances, she encouraged the idea immersing students in popular culture of the time and then having them create vision boards of what they would love and emulate had they been alive in 1942.

Next, we talked about how a student could be pulled in to the play itself as an actor. She had us break off in to acting groups where we had to assess each character’s objectives and relationship with everyone else, and then we came back to discuss who in the scene had the strongest objective. The exercise, which originally makes one think in terms of a character in a play, then goes a level deeper when the connection is made about these being real, living people who were killed.

Resources Mentioned:

Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin

Flavio Chamis


Flavio’s talk centered around Nazi censorship and suppressed artists in Nazi Germany. He emphasized Germany as the epicenter of music, the home of Brahms, Mozart, and Bach. He then spoke about how this tradition of modernity was eroded by the Nazis, citing the infamous “Degenerate Art” Exhibit, which was meant to condemn much of modern art as contrary to Nazi/German values.

He showed the extremity of propaganda, such as the image below, which condemned jazz music by using a racist illustration of a black man wearing a Jewish star. The connections made between racism against black people and Jewish artists made a profound impression on the teachers in attendance, who were struck by just how broadly the Nazi racism extended and the personal connection this could make with many non-Jewish students.

Cover of an anti-black and antisemitic Nazi propaganda brochure. Duesseldorf, Germany, 1938.
— Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz

After setting the stage of Nazi censorship and racism, he then began to propose meaningful materials to share in the classroom: that is, the very art that the Nazis sought to eradicate. As a conductor, his focus was largely on music, and he played many masterful works that they had almost done away with. The teachers were visibly moved by listening to the pieces and hearing the stories of suppression, and at the end he provided us with a few sites (below) that they could use to find more suppressed musicians.

Resources Mentioned:

The Orel Foundation

Next we are gearing up for our Summer Institute, a week-long intensive which will feature an array of topics taught by experts. The Institute will take place July 16-20, 2018. Registration opens soon, so stay tuned!


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