HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Understanding the Holocaust, as Jews

by Ann Nachbar Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

In response to the challenge Chazan identified (p. 28), Nachbar presents a way to redesign a class on Shoah education so that students understand the victims not just as “sheep to the slaughter.”

Many American schools, Jewish and secular, teach the Holocaust. Curricula tend to present the terrible story more or less in chronological order, providing background information on anti-Semitism and the rise of Hitler, moving on to Nazi anti-Jewish legislation and Kristallnacht. The scene then shifts to Poland, where, in orderly progression, the Jews move into ghettos, deportation trains and death camps (usually focusing on Auschwitz). Classes move on to lessons on resistance (especially the Warsaw ghetto uprising), righteous Gentiles, liberation, and perhaps the war crimes trials after the war ended. Heart-rending survivor testimony is usually excerpted, in print and/or video, to illustrate the horror of particular moments. The victim list is commonly broadened to include homosexuals and Roma, and more recent genocides are referenced as evidence that studying the Holocaust has relevance to understanding today’s world. Most curricula, as well as various American Holocaust museums, aim to teach the evils of genocide and to inspire students to stand up for other victims of discrimination and hatred. The lessons can be powerful, and all American students surely benefit from them.

This basic format has drawbacks, however, in that it distorts the Jewish experience during the Holocaust and does not forcefully make one of the central lessons that we, as Jews, ought to draw from the Holocaust.

Distortions of the Jewish Experience

For the 9.5 million individual Jews living in Europe before World War II, the Holocaust (for which they had no name at the time) was utter chaos. It was a long time before large numbers of Jews realized that the Germans intended to murder every last one of them, and that the ghettos, trains, and “resettlement camps” were successive steps in a total annihilation process. Yet the chaos, terror and disorientation that characterized the Jewish experience are not adequately communicated when that experience is taught in the orderly historical context of Nazi Germany’s rise and Germany’s efficient design of the Final Solution. By giving the impression that the Holocaust was in any way “orderly,” curricula fundamentally distort the Jewish experience, for the Holocaust was “orderly” only for the Germans—not for the Jews.

Moreover, the focus on the murder process can sometimes overshadow teaching how hard and how continuously the victims struggled to stay alive. In order to understand why Jews made the decisions they made, our students—who have always lived in a free country, and who have never faced starvation, let alone gas chambers or firing squads—must understand the pressures that ordinary Jews were under, the information they had and the resources they lacked in the winter of 1942-43. Above all, European Jews strove to live. Though it is certainly important to explain how two-thirds of them failed, we distort their experience if we fail to adequately teach their manifold efforts to survive.

Finally, we must take care in our lesson planning to avoid reducing the immense sweep of the Holocaust to the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz. Important as they were, they were not where the overwhelming majority of European Jews lived or perished. The Nazis established over 1,000 ghettos and over 22,000 camps; more Jews were murdered in the Einsatzgruppen massacres and Operation Reinhard camps than in Auschwitz. Though it is, as a practical matter, impossible to study every local permutation, we can at least avoid giving the impression that one or two places constituted, in effect, a “ground zero” for the Shoah.

Selective use of oral histories offers a good, but only partial fix. A better remedy would be restructuring the curriculum, so that it is founded on a succession of well-chosen memoirs, supplemented by other historical materials.

A Day School Approach

Since Jewish day schools have more time to devote to the subject than do secular and synagogue schools, they have an opportunity to address these curricular shortcomings. Even more importantly, perhaps, day schools have an opportunity to adjust the pedagogical goal; in addition to teaching the evils of genocide, Jewish day schools can guide Jewish students to understand a central lesson of the Holocaust for Jews—namely, that Jews must never again be powerless. By coordinating Holocaust history lessons with lessons in Jewish texts and secular disciplines, day schools can offer their students special depth in understanding the catastrophe inflicted upon European Jewry.

The first step is to untangle the Jewish and German experiences. Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia, has modified the conventional approach by, in effect, teaching the Holocaust three times: first from the perspective of the Jews, again from the perspective of non-Jews/non-Germans, and finally, from the perspective of the Germans.

The Jewish Perspective

Gesher’s 8th graders learn about the Jewish Shoah experience by tracing the fates of two carefully chosen families: one from Stanislawow, in eastern Poland (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine), and the other from Hungary.

Beginning in 1941, the three-generation Polish family confronted abductions for forced labor, orders to surrender valuables, Einsatzgruppen massacres, ghetto struggles for shelter, food, fuel and medical care, round-ups and deportations. The father served on the third Stanislawow Judenrat. The family sought “good” jobs supporting the German war effort and arranged ghetto hiding places for family members unable to obtain such jobs. After mass shootings or deportations, they checked whether loved ones were still there; they wondered where the “resettlement” trains went; they only eventually realized that the Germans intended murder them all. Urgently, the lone family survivor brainstormed feasible strategies for evading the ever-tightening German net.

Five family members landed in Belzec Death Camp—a place no one had ever heard of or imagined. Rudolf Reider, the only survivor of Belzec, recorded in his memoir exactly what happened to the Jews arriving there, and so it is possible for students now to follow the unsuspecting Jews into those gas chambers…and afterward.

The class then shifts its attention to the two-generation Hungarian family. Students follow them from their round-up, to the Hungarian ghetto, onto the cattle cars, landing finally in Auschwitz Birkenau. Selection: the confusion, the family suddenly separated after struggling so hard to stay together. The German officer’s stick cleaves two sisters, separating the 9-year old from the 13-year old, sending them in different directions, to different fates. The disbelief. The shock. The barracks. The 13-year old is assigned to sort the mountain of clothes that had once belonged to the Jews—and she finds her own mother’s white dress. Sustaining hope in that setting; losing hope in that setting. Death march. Again and again, the powerlessness of the Jews to save themselves and their loved ones is made searingly clear.

Building upon the foundation of these two families, the curriculum zooms out to the experiences of Jews elsewhere. Thus, from an Einsatzgruppen massacre in Stanislawow, the class discovers ongoing massacres in neighboring towns, and then in more distant places like Kovno and Babi Yar. An account of the quest for food in Stanislawow is paired with excerpts from Ringelblum and from the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle about food shortages in Warsaw and Lodz ghettos. Study of the Stanislawow Judenrat’s response to a German demand to hand over Jews for shooting is followed by examination of how the Lodz, Warsaw and Vilna Judenrate heads responded to similar demands. After zooming in on the Hungarian family at Auschwitz, the discussion zooms out to Auschwitz in general—the death camp, the labor camp, etc.

Along the way, students pause to consider questions of resistance: in a situation of abject powerlessness, facing an enemy intent upon genocide, what options are there for resistance, and what do armed and passive resistance offer?

Ideally, many of these lessons would be accompanied by with class discussions of Jewish texts: Rabbi Akiva on distributing inadequate life-sustaining resources; Maimonides on handing a Jew over to an enemy for execution; Unetanneh Tokef and the Einsatzgruppen massacres; the Akeidah and the no-win choices that Judenräte faced during the war; Yocheved entrusting Moses to Pharaoh’s daughter and Jews entrusting their children to righteous Gentiles; Job and the suffering of innocent victims, etc. At the same time, art classes can look at some of the Holocaust memorials that have been created, while music classes can listen to some of the songs written during and after the Shoah. Literature classes can read selections written by victims and survivors. By integrating their curricula, Jewish day schools can give their students a nuanced, multi-faceted Jewish understanding of the tragedy.

Non-Jews/ Non-Germans and the Allied Powers

Gesher JDS students then turn to what non-Jews knew and did between 1941 and 1945. If the Jews lacked power to save themselves, then who had sufficient power to save at least some Jews?

Since the murders overwhelmingly took place in Polish, Baltic and Soviet territory, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Russians– all Christians—had front row seats for the horrors visited upon the Jews. Even if they did not know every detail of the gas chamber operations, they all certainly knew that Jews were being shot, starved and deported to their deaths. After acknowledging the immense pressures they too were under, Gesher students grapple with what led some to collaborate with the SS, what led others to attempt to save Jews, and what led most to simply stand by, watching Germany murder their own neighbors and turn their backyards into the greatest killing fields in history.

At this point, the class considers what the Allied Powers knew and when they knew it—what they did and what they could have done—and how much difference they realistically could have made.

The Germans

Now that they know what the Germans did to the Jews and knows how little effort was made by others to save them, the class examines how and why the Germans did it. In order to grasp how such a catastrophe was possible, Gesher students look at the Holocaust one last time—from the perspective of the Germans. How did Nazi anti-Semitism differ from previous forms of anti-Semitism? Why was it necessary to murder the Jews in order to achieve their objective? What kinds of backgrounds did Nazi leaders have?

The Final Solution was so successful because, in addition to being utterly savage, it was so efficiently organized: the German bureaucracy and economy were thoroughly dedicated to its prosecution. Students examine train schedules and other original documents to assess how Germany allocated resources between its war against the Allies and its war against the Jews. What was the trial-and-error process by which the Germans ultimately designed their continent-wide murder machine? What happened to all of those gold teeth, the hair, the shoes? What happened to the necklaces, the fur hats, the paintings, the musical instruments? How profitable was the Final Solution? Now, at last, the organization of the murder/robbery process is fully revealed. Now it becomes evident what the unarmed, isolated, powerless Jews were up against.

What We Can Offer Our Students

With a thorough understanding of the Holocaust, day school students will not only then empathize with powerless Armenians, Bosnians, Tutsis and Sudanese; they will not only be ready to stand up for future genocide victims. Our students will also be ready to appreciate the importance to them as Jews, of the freedoms and powers guaranteed by the US Constitution. Our students will be ready to grasp why Israel is so vital. Our students will understand how terribly dangerous it can be for Jews to be powerless. ¿

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