Perspectives on Teaching the Holocaust: Bearing Witness

By Marietta D’Alessandro, a recently retired Catholic School social studies teacher who taught the Holocaust to 8th graders for seventeen years.

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A note from Julia Gaetano, Intern at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh:

These lovely images are from my middle school years, circa 2012. They were taken by my mother to capture history projects that were fairly infamous among both students and parents for their complexity and detailed specifications. I am now finishing up my first year of college, and they are still sitting on a shelf in my garage, as it felt like a crime to throw out the carefully crafted paper-mache. These projects were assigned by my tiny K-8 school’s middle school social studies teacher, Mrs. D. She was known for projects with intricate instructions, along with her high expectations of students and a tough curriculum. She was also known for the passionate effort she put into every 6th, 7th, and 8th grade class. She expected so much from us but gave even more in return, leaving a large impact on me and many others. Her lessons on the Holocaust were the most poignant, and I still think of them when I am working at the Holocaust Center. She often lamented that for many of us it would be the only time we were taught about the Holocaust in school, and for many it was. During those lessons, I recognized how important it is for us bear witness to this part of history, to remember those who were treated in ways that no human should be. This is the first in a series of blog posts seeking to explore the perspectives of the critically important educators who teach about the Holocaust. In starting this series, my mind naturally went to Mrs. D, who had such a profound impact on my education and my perspective. Mrs. D, thank you for your dedication to your students and for contributing to this project with the same enthusiasm you brought to the classroom everyday.

I first became acquainted with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh in 2003 when a small group of 8th graders visited the Squirrel Hill facility for research as part of an online competition entitled: Voices of the Past: The Holocaust. The students chose this particular subject because of its impact on history in the past, present, and future. Our visit included examining the research books available and taking pictures of the exhibitions featuring small-scale concentration camps and actual camp uniforms worn by many of those who were incarcerated. A few of our 8th graders also entered the Arts and Writing Competition sponsored by the Center that year. One student created a suitcase packed with children’s items that brought tears to my eyes; she won honorable mention. It was through the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh that survivors like Jack Sittsamer came to visit our school to speak to the students about his life in numerous German concentration camps. His undeniable expression of faith, hope, and love left long-lasting impressions on our students as well as me.

I started teaching the 8th grade in 2001 after holding a fifth-grade teaching position for five years. When an opportunity arose in 2004 through the Anti-Defamation League for teachers to attend a week-long summer seminar in Washington, D.C. entitled Bearing Witness: Anti-Semitism, The Holocaust, and Contemporary Issues, I immediately applied for the scholarship and was accepted.

It was during this seventh year of intense workshops for Catholic school teachers, which included a trip to the Holocaust Museum and synagogue, where I truly learned how to teach The Shoah. The guest speakers were extremely knowledgeable on many aspects regarding the history of anti-Semitism, the role of the Catholic Church or lack of it during Hitler’s reign of terror, the past and present reparations between the Catholic Church and Jewish leaders and rabbis, as well as the German viewpoint of the tragic ordeal. I consider it one of the best seminars I attended during my teaching career.

I left our nation’s capital equipped with profound teaching tools and strategies that were implemented the following years when teaching WWII curriculum.

To teach The Holocaust, educators should first provide students with the history of anti-Semitism and eugenics before delving into the seriousness of Hitler’s terror. If students are provided specific examples of anti-Semitism dating as far back as the Bible, to the Middle Ages when they were blamed for blood-letting and poisoning the wells causing the Black Plague, to Hitler’s false belief the Jews were responsible for their loss in WWI, they are able to see the gradual progression of discrimination. These unjust tactics festered in Hitler’s mind, starting with his writing of Mein Kampf, until he came to power in 1933 to implement his revenge.

The dictator was fully cognizant of the Eugenics Movement here in the United States and other countries. His skewed belief that those who were not suited for society because of mental, emotional, or physical disabilities played a vital role in his demented plan to eliminate six million Jews plus five million more individuals who did not fit into his contorted, societal plan. It was a gradual progression of biased prejudice that accumulated over decades and years. This progression needs to be shown so students obtain the larger picture of the entire circumstances surrounding the Holocaust and Final Solution.

Middle schoolers should also learn how Hitler amassed his followers after the loss of WWI once he came to power. Educators can provide specific examples of how the German youth were brainwashed into his savage regime at such a young age by joining the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls. How the burning of books prevented anyone from knowing information other than Hitler’s agenda. The profound impact of the “Heil Hitler” salute on the youth. If a dictator has a strong desire to control a nation, educating the youth from a young age so they have no knowledge of an outside world is the ideal method to accomplish that goal. Students can learn how the Holocaust was perpetrated by many by offering them a list of everyone involved, from those who were regimented into the Schutzstaffel from a young age, to their parents who allowed it to happen, to silent Germans who saw and heard but did nothing, to finally, the people responsible for turning on the showers in the gas chambers.

Genocide, the intentional killing of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, unfortunately occurs to this day in other nations. This can spark thought-provoking discussions on how so many people can turn their backs on other fellow human beings simply because of their race, belief, etc.

There are a plethora of research materials available to further acquaint students and educators with the atrocities of the concentration and death camps. As each year passes, we lose more and more survivors, making it only more difficult for students to hear their stories.

I have utilized books like The Wave which described how a California high school teacher in the 60s was able to control the students using methods similar to Hitler’s. Number the Stars in a lower grade, possibly sixth, could entice the students to learn more about the history of The Shoah. Eighth grade students especially enjoy Elie Wiesel’s Night, which illustrates what life was like in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the end of the war. (This could be arranged integrated curriculum with the language arts teacher at the same time when facts are being learned in social studies.) The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, although fictional, is the heart-wrenching story of two young boys from different backgrounds developing an unusual friendship. Although Schindler’s List is a favorite, The Pianist also conveys an excellent message of friendship and hope between two individuals destined for different outcomes. Both of the latter would require parental permission to view in the classroom due to their “R” rating.

Bearing Witness must be continued with educators and children of survivors so current day prejudice and discrimination can be recognized and changed. It is a difficult journey, and one I hope middle and high school teachers can implement into their history curriculum. I truly believe the students in my classes had a higher understanding of the systematic methods used by Hitler prior to the start of WWII, during the years of the war, and the aftermath of his actions.

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