This month we asked members of our educator community to share the stories that have inspired them to teach about the Holocaust. The common thread that binds their reflections is the power of the individual story. Although often born from tragic events, such stories can contribute to building empathy and a strong sense of human connection across generations, countries, faiths, and experiences. What stories have moved you to examine the events of this past? What lessons can be learned from these narratives?
George Bevington is a 9th & 11th Grade English teacher at Holy Innocents' Episcopal School in Atlanta, Georgia.
One of my favorite accounts of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust is the memoir of Hermann Wygoda, In the Shadow of the Swastika. This story appeals to me because of the coolness and poise Wygoda displayed under the extreme threat of getting caught. Because he could speak both Polish and German, Wygoda was able to pass as a Volksdeutscher and circumvent the suspicion of the Nazis. He also never gave up and continued to fight on in the face of terrible odds.
I have felt compelled to delve deeper into Wygoda’s story because of his resilience to continue fighting, but also to fulfilling his duty as a parent after the war when he started a family. Although he settled down to a quiet life in Chattanooga, TN, he carried this bloody, horrific, but ultimately triumphant story around with him for the rest of his life, while living in the midst of his neighbors who had no knowledge of his experiences.
I was inspired by Wygoda’s story and other partisan’s accounts to create a lesson that details his experiences as well as the experiences of the Bielski brothers during World War II. My students are quite astonished that the literature about these partisans comes from eyewitness accounts and personal diaries. In particular, Wygoda’s interactions with other partisan groups inspires a lot of discussion with my students. They often reflect on how although many of these groups may not have been on good terms, or even outright enemies, during peace time, the common enemy in the German Army pulled them together. My students are surprised that resistance was not only possible, but in some cases, led to freedom despite terrible odds and the might of the German Army.
What hooks the students’ attention the most is the bravery of these fighters, and the irony of the decision they made to fight back, given the alternative. Throughout the unit and especially near the end, as the outcome of the war becomes inevitable, the students’ enthusiasm grows daily for Wygoda and the Bielskis’ triumphs over the Nazi Army. Fascinating stories with a lot of suspense!
 Nazi term, literally meaning "German-folk," used to refer to ethnic Germans living outside of Germany.
Rachel Herman is the Content Specialist for Education at USC Shoah Foundation - The Institute for Visual History and Education and is the Institute’s Echoes & Reflections partner lead. Rachel was the Holocaust Educator at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh from 2013 – 2017.
In the United States, Clara Barton is remembered for her work as a nurse during the Civil War and for establishing the American Red Cross. In Armenia, Clara is remembered for a relief effort that saved over 50,000 Armenians. Clara Barton Our Angel, Too, tells her story in a clear, concise narrative—with text in Armenian and in English—and through colorful illustrations. My favorite quote from the book is, “Even though the Armenian people lived far from the United States, Americans understood that all people share a common humanity.” This idea of common humanity is woven throughout the story, and this book is a great way to get students to focus on the importance of empathy, acceptance, and altruism. I would have loved this book as a child!
Reading this book, I was reminded of a quote by Pastor Andre Trocme, a rescuer during the Holocaust, who said, “I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.” Clara didn’t know Armenians, she knew human beings. She heard about people in need and did what she could to help them. Having empathy and seeing people as human beings, full stop, is what I aspire to do. As the Echoes & Reflections Partner lead for USC Shoah Foundation, the testimony I work with on a daily basis helps me empathize with and learn from people of all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. I am grateful for this opportunity and for the resources we have available that constantly expand my worldview.
Dunreith Kelly Lowenstein is an Echoes & Reflections facilitator, a former English/History teacher, and a Fulbright Specialist with the U.S Department of State.
In July 2003, I was invited to attend a presentation by Ava Kadishson Schieber, a Holocaust survivor from the former Yugoslavia. I had no idea when I accepted the invitation that it would lead to an ongoing relationship with the speaker. Ava spent four long years hiding in an unheated shed between the chickens and the pigs on a farm outside of Belgrade. Her experiences during the years prior to, during, and immediately after World War II were harrowing and challenging. But growing up in a loving, multi-generational family greatly contributed to her positive outlook on life and subsequent ability to survive, and even thrive, in the face of the odds she frequently encountered. Her resilience and physical and mental strength were obvious as she spoke. Completely mesmerized, I introduced myself after the talk to express my gratitude to her for sharing her story. She gave me her calling card with one of her line drawings and address and invited me to visit her home.
I immediately read her book Soundless Roar; Stories, Poems and Drawings, a work which includes stories about her life before the war, and could see how wonderful it would have been to use during my twelve years of teaching English/History to middle and high school students. (I had recently left the classroom and begun a career in professional development).
I have since had the pleasure of accompanying Ava dozens of times as she speaks to middle and high school students, in university classrooms, and at the professional development seminars I facilitate. (I have made it a practice to provide teachers with a copy of her book).
We have developed an enduring friendship, and I learn from her every time we meet. Ava has regaled me with many tales ranging from light and whimsical memories of growing up in Novi Sad; desperate times looking for her father, grandmother, sister and mother after the war; leaving for Israel with her mother in 1949 and building a life there; her decision to begin again in Chicago over thirty years ago after falling in love a second time in her 50s. Now 92, Ava has decided to permanently return to Israel this fall to be with her family. I am relieved to know her voice will continue to inspire others through the availability of her testimony that is part of the USC Shoah Foundation archive.
Patrick Nolan is a Holocaust educator at Sandalwood High School/Florida and State College at Jacksonville, South Campus, Jacksonville, Florida.
I have been studying the history of the Holocaust for more than thirty years; in that time I am sure I have read hundreds of books, articles, journal entries, or other pieces of writing related to the Holocaust. Several stand out and have served as inspiration for the lessons I teach. One in particular has always haunted me, and I use excerpts from this text to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust in general—particularly in the ghettos—and the impact the Holocaust had on a single human being to whom my students can relate.
The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, while certainly not as well known or widely-read as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, is a stunning exploration into how human depravity impacted the lives of so many young, vibrant, innocent people in places like Lodz, Warsaw, Lublin, and other ghettos. When the attack on Poland commenced on September 1, 1939, the young Dawid Sierakowiak writes about it with what can only be described as a sense of exhilaration. He seems to mock the older women who scream and cry at the sound of bombs exploding and airplanes flying overhead, largely because to him this is an exciting moment in his life—he has no memory of war, and therefore, like other teenagers, there is no sense of the reality of what is happening to his country and to his fellow Poles. It doesn’t take long in the narrative for Sierakowiak’s demeanor to change, and when his mother is taken away—to the east for resettlement?—he cannot muster tears to cry for her and for his own loss. Sierakowiak’s diary ends abruptly, as did the lives of millions of people during the Holocaust. We have Sierakowiak’s words as testimony to what he endured, but we do not have Sierakowiak himself to embrace and to reassure. Such a young life, snuffed out in its prime, should serve as a reminder of the tenuous connection all humanity has to the whims of those who would conquer and control us. My students are moved by Sierakowiak’s story, as am I. I will continue to tell his story in his own words so that my students, who are his age now, will better understand and appreciate both what they have and what was taken away from so many others.
The day I began teaching eighth grade, I was handed a copy of Anne Frank, the Diary of a Young Girl. I was asked to teach it. The problem was…I had never read this book. It took me a few hours to get to know Anne, but once I did, I was hooked, but I also realized that the “it” I was being asked to teach came with an enormous responsibility. Where would I begin? How would I teach about the Holocaust in a way that had meaning for young teenagers?
I have been teaching Holocaust literature now for ten years. I have studied and become familiar with the resources available from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Echoes & Reflections, which provide me with a sound pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust. Still, given recent events that have rocketed the ideology of hate and intolerance onto the front page, I am once again struggling to find the path forward to incorporate the lessons of the Holocaust with the world my students are facing and the news that surrounds them.
As we prepare to remember the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, I find that the material from the Echoes & Reflections lesson, Kristallnacht: “Night of Broken Glass” in the Studying the Holocaust Unit provides me with an excellent entry point. In this lesson, Holocaust survivor Kurt Messerschmidt provides his first-person account of Kristallnacht. Although I am not a history teacher, I find his story compelling, and unfortunately, still timely. Kurt speaks of the silence he witnessed in response to that day and there is much to be learned from his testimony. Learning about Kristallnacht as a turning point in Holocaust history provides important context and offers an essential question we discover time and again in the Holocaust literature, “Would I have been a bystander, hiding behind silence?”
Unfortunately, my students see hate and the consequences of hate on television and in social media every day. When Kurt says, “Their disapproval [of Nazi actions] was only silence, and silence was what did the harm,” I challenge my students to consider if they are allies or silent bystanders in their own lives. We look at events, not only in the United States, but around the world, that are a result of hate and intolerance and consider appropriate actions.
My students and I explore a wide variety of Holocaust literature throughout my unit, and the students use the lesson about Kristallnacht and Mr. Messerschmidt as a year-long theme. We examine the results of inaction. What would those two Nazis at the cigar shop have done if the crowd of forty or fifty bystanders would have all started picking up the glass? I ask them to consider the ways that they can pick up the symbolic shards of glass that litter the landscape of our schools, communities, and beyond. We address silence in the context of World War II and the Holocaust, but I also show and discuss how it can be translated to current events. This year, I will also show the remarks of Holocaust survivor Sonia Klein to CNN after the events in Charlottesville, when she stated, "Silence is the first thing after hate that is dangerous because if you are silent, it is an approval of what's going on." I will show Sonia alongside Mr. Messerschmidt’s testimony to bridge the gap of decades between World War II and today.
This theme is also integrated into my advanced English classes when we read Elie Wiesel’s Night, and consider what Wiesel meant, when in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he stated, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We also consider Anne Frank’s excruciating words when she wrote, "Sleep makes the silence and the terrible fear go by more quickly, helps pass the time, since it's impossible to kill.” At this point, silence has taken on a new meaning for my students. Anne Frank could not have been anything but silent, as she was in hiding, yet the power and bravery of her writing gave her a voice that continues to inspire millions.
Expanding on the theme this year, I will also implement the concept of “silence” into our poetry unit. The lyrics of the 1964 Simon and Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence” will be introduced for student interpretation. I am excited to see how my students will translate the theme into poetry.
Teaching students about Kristallnacht is an opportunity for students to critically examine pivotal moments in history and to consider how their own actions or silence in the times in which they live will have far-reaching implications. As I have grown as an educator, inspired by the words of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Kurt Messerschmidt, and others, I am gratified to have discovered the many ways that this history can be approached in my curriculum, and to have seen how this teaching not only promotes my students’ academic learning, but also their emotional and moral development as citizens of the world.
About the Author: Kristy Rush is an 8th grade English Language Arts educator at Pine Richland Middle School. She lives in Wexford, PA.
Turning sixty-five can be a time to think back on one’s career while also considering whether it might not be time to retire and get to that mountain of books that have been gathering on the nightstand and spend more time with the grandchildren. For me, receiving my Medicare card has also been a time to reflect on the important people who have shaped my journey as an educator and as a person. There are many, of course, but two are at the heart of my story. One, Anne Frank, I met only through her Diary; the other Ms. Riley, was the English teacher who introduced me to Anne’s Diary, and who was instrumental in my becoming an educator.
Ms. Riley introduced me and my 7th grade classmates to The Diary of a Young Girl in 1964, the year that was to become known as “the year that changed America.” I remember vividly the race riots in major US cities; three Civil Rights workers being murdered in Mississippi; President Johnson declaring a “war on poverty”; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being signed into law; the US contemplating entering a war that a year later one of my brothers would be drafted to fight in; and the murder of Kitty Genovese prompting inquiries into what became known as the “bystander effect.” All of this was taking place to the soundtrack from a new group out of England—The Beatles. In her Diary, Anne writes, “I live in a crazy time.” Looking back, I guess I could say I did too. It was with this backdrop that I read the Diary of a Young Girl and began to think about many of the questions that would follow me into adulthood.
I can’t say that I remember reading Anne’s Diary and thinking very deeply (if at all) about her being Jewish or that the terrible events that caused her to go into hiding were the result of a systematic assault against Jews. I didn’t know anything about Jews, or Judaism, or antisemitism. The Diary certainly wasn’t presented in the historical context of Nazi ideology, the Holocaust, or WWII. It was taught as a diary written by a young girl who was facing a very difficult situation and chronicling her thoughts and feelings. This is not a criticism of Ms. Riley’s teaching; in fact, as Professor Jessica Landfried writes, “When the Diary was published in 1952, there seemed to be a response that universalized Anne into a non-Jewish person that could represent all victims of racism. However, in the 1990s Anne reemerged as a Jewish victim and became the symbol of the Holocaust” (Landfried, 2002).
I remember the classroom discussions about Anne Frank and her Diary even though they were over fifty years ago. Ms. Riley, a young teacher, sitting on the edge of her desk, encouraged us to think about difficult topics like fear, and loneliness, and fairness. Perhaps it was the times in which we were having these discussion that has made them all the more memorable; perhaps it was just the fact that middle school students are often trying to make sense of the world in which they live and have a strong, if not idealistic, sense of fairness in human relationships. The most memorable discussions were the ones that focused on those who helped the Franks and the others in hiding. Ms. Riley asked us to think about what makes a person help another even at great risk. On January 28, 1944, Anne writes, “The best example of this is our own helpers, who have managed to pull us through so far and will hopefully bring us safely to shore, because otherwise they'll find themselves sharing the fate of those they're trying to protect. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be, never have they complained that we're too much trouble. ..That's something we should never forget: while others display their heroism in battle or against the Germans, our helpers prove theirs every day by their good spirits and affection.”
These discussions had a great impact on me in two ways. One, I wanted to be just like Ms. Riley and teach great pieces of literature and have students discuss complex themes and grapple with questions like the ones Anne’s Diary posed. My journey to becoming an educator began in 1964. The second is more complicated. At the end of reading The Diary of Anne Frank, Ms. Riley challenged us to ask ourselves if we would have helped Anne Frank. A sound pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust does not ask students to imagine what they might have done, as no one can ever truly answer such a question from the comfort of the present, but this was 1964, and there was no “pedagogy for teaching about the Holocaust.” There was just a young, idealistic teacher asking soon-to-be teenagers to think about the kind of people they wanted to be. I carried that question with me throughout my life. At various stages I thought I knew the answer but then something in my life would change and I would have to admit to myself that I was back to not knowing. The most memorable was when I had my own children and realized that my answer was “No, I would not help Anne Frank if it meant putting my daughters at risk.” And then my daughters became adults and I thought, “Yes, I would help Anne Frank.” And, round and round for over 50 years I struggled with the question Ms. Riley had posed to us.
Not long ago, I came across a quote that is attributed to Anne Frank, and even though I am unable to verify she was the author, I like to believe she was. The quote, “Our lives are fashioned by our choices. First we make our choices. Then our choices make us,” helped me understand what Ms. Riley had been asking us. I believe the question she asked was not meant to be literal, but symbolic; it was an opportunity to begin to explore what it means to be a good person, a fair person, a person who takes risks, and a person who refuses to be a bystander. She was also impressing upon us that the choices we make as young people begin to guide our lives, as one good (or bad) choice leads to another and another until they have simply become who we are.
My choice to become an educator resulted in working with thousands of students and hopefully helping them love literature, to think deeply about what they were reading and the human relationships that literature helps readers explore. Working with students led me to other choices in the education field including working closely with teachers and developing curricula, including Echoes and Reflections. My choice to keep the story of the Holocaust relevant for generations to come and to keep Anne Frank’s story alive was a choice that was borne out of a deep respect for a young girl who, in one of her last diary entries before being arrested by the Nazis, wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” At every juncture of my personal and professional journey, I have made choices and over time those choices have made me.
As for teaching about the Holocaust, I have been in big cities and small towns in every region of the country. In some places teaching the history is mandated and in other places teachers are taking a risk to teach this content—some of their students are hearing that the Holocaust never happened from social media or even in their own homes. These teachers have made a choice and over time that choice has made them.
Your students live in their own “crazy time,” and are trying to make sense of their world. Let’s do all that we can to help them make brave and caring choices—choices that will eventually make them brave and caring people.
Join the conversation! We invite you to share about a teacher or book that had an impact on your life, or specifically, share what Anne Frank has meant to you.
Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005.
According to the late David Bowie, “We can be heroes, just for one day.” In countries all over the world, social studies curricula have used the past to create and highlight heroes, models of civic duty and individual sacrifice to inspire a nation. Some heroes may even become significant sources of identification, moral formation, and identity development for students (Yair, 2014).
Reading a personal, emotional story–albeit sad–can often resonate with people of all ages, especially the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Echoes and Reflections content does not focus on heroism per se, though after watching featured video testimonies and reading primary source documents, we often see some students identify and/or begin to empathize with Holocaust victims. Though never will you hear survivors refer to themselves as heroes, some students may be inspired by Holocaust survivors who managed to rebuild their lives, often against all odds.
Over the past decade, Scholastic Inc., a long-standing reading hub of ongoing popularity, has published two Holocaust-related books by Mara Bovsun and Allan Zullo: Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust and Heroes of the Holocaust: True Stories of Rescues by Teens. These books focus on the personal stories of Holocaust survivors and/or non-Jewish teenagers who dared to help Jews during this period.
Echoes and Reflections content can offer a bridge of understanding and context to those themes raised in Bovsun and Zullo’s books. For example, in Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust, students are introduced to George and Ursula Levy. In Chapter 7, Ursula shares her experience hiding in a Dutch orphanage. The Levy children’s story in this book highlights many difficult dilemmas and may be of special interest to students after studying material in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance and Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators.
Zullo and Bovsun’s books have been widely reviewed on the Internet by young readers, as well as by adults who are interested in this genre. In the opening notes to both books, the authors express their hope that readers will “Find the stories in the book inspiring and that they help you to understand how important it is to keep recalling the past… so no one ever forgets.”
On the Goodreads website, two students reviewed Heroes of the Holocaust: True Stories of Rescues by Teens as follows:
"I rated this book as five stars because I was very fascinated by it. I can’t believe how brave these teenagers were. It was very touching. Bad things can sure bring out the best in people. This book was also very motivating. It’s good to do what’s right."
Another wrote, "I thought it was amazing to read about teenagers who were caught doing good [sic], instead of bad, for once. These teenagers, by simply choosing to do what they knew was right, saved a lot of people. Because of what they did, and by hearing their stories, I honor them as heroes. It's great to know that anybody can change the world for others."
In the eyes of these two students, and perhaps those of their peer group, heroes are driven by a moral compass, trying in essence “to do what’s right.” These two students openly state that they were inspired by the stories researched and written by Bovsun and Zullo.
The dilemmas that people faced during the Holocaust are powerful stories that can be inspirational for some students, yet the gray zones of human behavior raise questions more often than they provide clear answers. As outlined in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance and Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders, most people were apathetic bystanders during the Holocaust and elected not to help many Jewish people. We also know that while people may be considered heroes for their so-called brave actions on one day during the Holocaust, they may have collaborated with perpetrators the following day. Recalling again the chorus of David Bowie, some people really were heroes – just for one day.
As educators, it is our mission to encourage the use of primary sources and critical thinking so that our students can study this paradigmatic event in world history as the complex event that it was. Teachers should introduce their students to the history of antisemitism in Lesson 2 so that they can gain a better understanding of the power of propaganda and the roots of antisemitic legislation in the Third Reich and other European countries during this period. Students should also learn more about the stages of the “Final Solution” in Lesson 5 so that they begin to grasp how and why Nazi Germany developed an extermination camp system. By learning more about the historical context, students may begin to better understand that the people whom they perceive as “heroes of the Holocaust” did not always “do what’s right,” either by virtue of circumstances or as a result of decisions they made at the time.
Echoes and Reflections can help us teach our students about the past as we strive to shape a better future. By gaining more knowledge about how human beings failed to respond to antisemitism and hatred in their midst, we hope our students will internalize the words of the German-Jewish essayist Kurt Tucholsky: “A country is not just what it does, it is also what it tolerates.”
Richelle Budd Caplan has served as the Director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem since 2009, and has been working at Yad Vashem since 1993.
Over the past ten years, I have had the honor of delivering Echoes and Reflections professional development programs to thousands of educators across the United States. During that time, I have seen the differences from state to state with respect to when and how the Holocaust is covered in school or district curriculum; however, my experiences have also taught me that the similarities greatly outweigh the differences. Educators care deeply about teaching the Holocaust and feel a profound responsibility to provide accurate, authentic, and sensitive instruction―instruction that honors the memory of the victims and provides an opportunity for students to think critically about what the Holocaust can teach us about the moral and ethical choices people make and the impact of those choices.
Another striking similarity is the selection of texts that teachers across the country have told me they use in their classrooms―namely, The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The first two titles have been part of the canon of Holocaust literature for decades, and while there are certainly cautions for how to use these texts effectively, they are the words of those who experienced the events about which they write and show respect for the survivors and the victims. But, let’s talk about that third title.*
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas calls itself a fable―a story of two young boys who meet in a place that most readers understand to be Auschwitz but that the characters do not know as anything other than where they are at a particular moment in time. In fact, the word “Auschwitz” never appears in the text. Soon after the book was published in 2006, Boyne shared in an interview that he was well aware of the complexity of writing about a topic like the Holocaust and was therefore careful not to portray the storyline as anything other than fiction, changing certain aspects of concentration camp history in order to serve the story. Like any fable, there is no expectation that this story be factually accurate; the purpose is to convey universal “truths” and moral lessons. Boyne hoped that his fable would challenge readers―especially young readers―to think about the “fences” that divide groups of people and be inspired to work to dismantle them whenever and wherever possible.
The question that must be asked, however, is whether students are clear that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fable when they begin reading it? This is particularly important when students have an opportunity to self-select texts for independent reading, a practice used in many language arts classrooms. Without adequate framing, students may believe that they are reading a novel based on fact, and walk away with historical inaccuracies in terms of time, place, and events that result in gross misinformation about the Holocaust in general, and Auschwitz specifically.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas can leave students thinking that being in Auschwitz wasn’t that “bad”―after all, the inmates who walk around in pajamas seem “fine,” and children move around freely and have clandestine meetings at a fence that is not electrified and even allows for crawling underneath. Boyne’s book never reveals or even hints at the constant presence of death that permeated Auschwitz, nor the forced labor, starvation, brutal beatings, and dehumanization. The author’s portrayal of young Bruno’s innocence and naiveté about what was happening in the camp his father directed yards from his home allows the myth that those who were not directly involved can claim innocence.
One can argue that works of fiction set during the Holocaust do not present themselves as attempting to tell the history of the Holocaust; however, a topic as sensitive and tragic as the Holocaust if not presented carefully can disrespect the truth of the experience, lead students to doubt the facts of the Holocaust, or cause confusion. Often when romanticized events compete with factual information, it is the romanticized events that will be remembered. For me, this has been reinforced when adults that I have spoken to do not realize that Chelmno extermination camp had an almost zero survival rate and cite Jane Yolen’s fictional Briar Rose as their source of understanding about this camp. In lieu of historical knowledge, the romanticized story of a young female protagonist escaping from Chelmno became what readers knew (or believed they knew) about the camp. It is critical for readers of Holocaust fiction to have accurate historical knowledge so that they are not confused by the historical inaccuracies often found in fictional accounts of the Holocaust.
It is for all these reasons that at Echoes and Reflections, we do not recommend using this text in teaching. Instead, we encourage teachers to select authentic memoirs or diaries that can resonate with teenage readers while giving them accurate information about the Holocaust.
That being said, I have discussed The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with teachers who use it. They often respond that this is a book that resonates for their students; they are thrilled that students are interested in the story and express empathy toward Bruno and Shmuel. While it is true that we can never truly understand what the victims or survivors experienced or felt, Holocaust fiction can appeal to certain readers whose empathy can be aroused from efforts to imagine themselves in the plot.
In my conversations with teachers, I have asked them how they deconstruct these responses with their students. While all good teachers hope to foster empathy in their students, what exactly can students learn from stepping into the fable-like world of two young boys that leads them to think they understand what happened at Auschwitz? Why does the book engender so much empathy for Bruno? Are students able to consider how they would have felt at the end of the book if only Shmuel had died? Does the story of Bruno and Shmuel add to their understanding of this tragic time in human history? If Elie Wiesel’s Night honors how Jews fought for survival in Auschwitz and The Diary of Anne Frank is a testament to the human spirit, does The Boy in the Striped Pajamas honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust? Such questioning allows students to think more deeply about the text―how and what they are feeling and for whom.
If educators do ultimately make the choice to teach The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with students, it should be done with the greatest care and preparation. Using primary sources including visual history testimony should always be the first choice of teaching materials as they help students be clear about what happened historically and what did not and could not have happened. In response to queries from teachers about use of the text, Echoes and Reflections recommends that students study the material in our Teacher’s Resource Guide Lesson 5: The “Final Solution.” This will allow students to raise issues and questions about the narrative based on accurate historical knowledge. An activity for helping students analyze fiction about the Holocaust is outlined in Making Connections.
Let’s have a discussion! We invite you to share your experience with this text or others: What literature do you use with students and why? How do you prepare students for reading these texts, and how do you encourage critical analysis of what they have read?
* The focus here is on the text, not the film, even though the commentary here can apply to the film as well. Depiction of the Holocaust in film is a topic that warrants its own discussion.
Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005.
In a recent article by Corey L. Harbaugh on the professional development of US teachers in the field of Holocaust education, the author notes that according to data collected for his research, "82.9% of students are introduced to, or experience [Holocaust] content during the years considered to be middle school in the United States... " (Harbaugh, 2015, p. 381). Moreover, students in US schools are “much more likely to encounter Holocaust content in an English class than in a history class" (Ibid, p. 380).
Harbaugh's findings appear to correlate with the long-standing popularity of Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, a children’s historical fiction book focusing on the rescue of the majority of the Danish-Jewish community in the fall of 1943. Because this book is typically read in middle school, US educators who are trained in using Echoes and Reflections in their classrooms can capitalize on its popularity when students reach high school, and build upon what their students remember about the Holocaust from reading Number the Stars.
Number the Stars is a story about the friendship of two ten-year-old girls, Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen, who are living in Copenhagen, occupied by German forces during the Second World War. Rosen’s family, together with other Jewish families in Denmark, are warned that they will be deported. The Johansen’s, including their friends and family members, decide to hide Ellen and her parents as well as to actively participate in the operation to send Danish Jews to safety in Sweden.
Although this Newberry Award winning book was published over twenty-five years ago, it remains a widely read book by elementary school students across the United States. According to Publisher's Weekly, Lowry's book was the 82nd best-selling book of all time in the United States with sales above two million as of 2001 (the book was first published in 1989). The book continues to be purchased even after multiple editions, though this story can now be read gratis online. Moreover, students who wish to hear this book aloud (chapter by chapter) will also easily find it on YouTube.
According to Scholastic, the reading level of Number the Stars is geared for grades 4-6, yet clearly younger and older students are reading the book as well. According to Harbaugh, almost fifty percent of respondents in his study indicated that, "They asked students to produce a personal paper as an end-of-unit assessment strategy" (Harbaugh, 2015, p. 387). In addition to writing book reports, some students (who are clearly in elementary schools) reading Number the Stars are also creating "book trailers" or short films that are later uploaded on School Tube (URLs) and other sites.
What does this all mean for our growing network who have been trained to use Echoes and Reflections in their respective classrooms? Although some organizations and institutions discourage the introduction of the Holocaust in elementary schools, de facto Holocaust-related books like Number the Stars are being widely taught in English language arts. It would not be surprising therefore that teachers using the Teacher's Resource Guide in eighth grade or in high school would encounter students who recall reading Number the Stars at an earlier age.
In light of this reality, educators in the US may choose to build upon what their students remember from Lowry's story, such as assigning the student handout in Lesson 7, "Rescue in Denmark." This handout may provide additional historical context for students to deepen their knowledge about this topic, connecting it with their previous encounter when reading Number the Stars in younger grades. Witness testimonies, such as that of Leslie Banos highlighted in Lesson 7: Rescue and Non-Jewish Resistance will also buttress the students' understanding, enabling them to gain a wider context of the Holocaust. In addition, the testimony of Leslie Banos will encourage eighth graders and up to think about dilemmas that real people faced during the Holocaust period as well as the choices that witnesses made during that difficult time.
All in all, Number the Stars has become an entry point for elementary school age children to begin learning more about the Holocaust through the friendship of two young Danish girls. It is hoped that the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide will help US educators create a spiral educational process so that their junior and high school students will add layers of knowledge based on their encounters via English language arts curricula in US elementary schools.
Richelle Budd Caplan has served as the Director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem since 2009, and has been working at Yad Vashem since 1993.
In recognition of the 55th anniversary of the publication of Night by Elie Wiesel, Echoes and Reflections’ Deborah Batiste, Project Director for the Anti-Defamation League, and Shani Lourie, Director of the Pedagogical Division of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, share their expert strategies for teaching this memoir.
With years of classroom teaching, educator training, and curriculum development experience, Batiste and Lourie highlight elements of the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide that support students’ contextual and historical understanding of Night.
Providing Context with Echoes and Reflections Resources
“I recommend getting a sense of what students already know prior to reading Night, and use Echoes and Reflections resources to help fill in the gaps,” Batiste says. “Whenever possible the teacher can then add necessary context.”
Night, which begins in 1941, portrays a town where life was continuing much as it always had, relatively undisturbed by the Holocaust or the war, which had begun two years prior with the German invasion of Poland. “In March of 1944, when Hungary was invaded and Wiesel’s experiences began, the war was actually almost over and approximately 5 million Jews had already been murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators,” Batiste says. “Yet, when the Jews of Sighet are round up it is a shock.” Batiste recommends using the Echoes and Reflections timeline to help students understand the chronology of events. She adds that such an understanding gives deeper meaning to Wiesel’s words, “The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were now left behind in the wagon and, with them, finally our illusions.”
Lourie agrees with the importance of providing context. “Early in the book Wiesel talks about Jews being targeted, being sent to the ghettos, being sent away… We have to raise the question of ‘Why? What was it like in the world at the time?” Both Batiste and Lurie highlight Echoes and Reflections Lesson 2: Antisemitism, which is designed to help teachers translate abstract ideas (e.g., antisemitism, propaganda, stereotypes, scapegoating) into active learning experiences. This context offers students the tools to create a framework for processing and organizing difficult information. In particular, the Summary of Antisemitism helps introduce a basic understanding of the context and ideology behind the Holocaust. “The memoir offers Wiesel’s account. It is also important to have a broad sense of what happened,” Lourie says.
Later in the text, Wiesel describes his experience in the spring of 1944 when his parents’ home was absorbed into the ghetto in Sighet and extended family members came to live with them. Building on the exploration of antisemitism and Nazi racial policies, Lesson 4: The Ghettos, offers educators resources to discuss the larger context of the “Ghettos in Europe” and offers a comparison with the larger ghettos in Lodz and Warsaw that were in existence for longer.
In addition, Batiste recommends utilizing Reflect and Respond to encourage student to consider the way ghettos marked the end of freedom for Jews. Integrating testimony offers additional insight. She highlights Joseph Morton who describes the experience of living in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, and shares that in the several years he spent in Lodz, he lived in a constant state of fear.
The “Final Solution” and Auschwitz
“Night raises profound questions for students,” Batiste notes. “I dig deeply into Lesson 5: The “Final Solution” with educators and together we think through how it connects with Night. Teachers always have wonderful ideas about how these resources can enhance their teaching and encourage students to think in complex ways about the ideas presented.”
Lesson 5: The “Final Solution” offers historical information and personal stories from survivors of the Nazi extermination camps. An excerpt from Night and the accompanying resources in the Teacher’s Resource Guide, ask students to consider why families were forcibly separated. Testimony from survivors offer additional insight and include Ellis Lewin, who describes his arrival at Auschwitz, and Abraham Bomba, who describes his first moments in Treblinka.
“I always show the Auschwitz Album,” Batiste notes. The photographs provide a visual reference for the selection process that Wiesel describes in Night. In his book, Wiesel says, “I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes,” to which his father responds, “The world? The world is not interested in us…”
Lourie recommends doing a deep read of this passage and supporting students in considering how the world responded and the idea of responsibility as discussed in Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders. “What made it possible for people to live?” she asks, “In 1944 what did the world know? What did the world do? I have found that art, like Thou Shall Not Kill, is helpful in deepening students learning and promotes critical thinking. Consider moral questions: What is the foundation of morals? What the artist is saying in this piece is everything is crushed. If the Holocaust crushed it, what is left?”
“The book ends when Elie sees himself in the mirror. What happens after? How does one reconstruct life?” Lourie asks. She recommends referencing Lesson 8: Survivors and Liberators and discussing returning to life and what it means to be a survivor with students. Batiste emphasizes Anton Mason’s testimony as a powerful conclusion for a lesson on Night. Also a survivor from Sighet, Mason describes the day he was liberated and that the first person he talked to was Elie Wiesel. In his testimony he says, “We are free but how will we live our lives without our families?”
Preparing to Teach Night?
Register for an Echoes and Reflections professional development program that focuses on materials and instructional strategies that prepare teachers to effectively teach Elie Wiesel’s Night. Our Night programs also provide additional background on the memoir that teachers can integrate into their instruction.
Deborah Batiste is the Echoes and Reflections Project Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). She resides in Ocean Pines, MD and has facilitated professional development programs for Echoes and Reflections across the United States since 2005. Shani Lourie has been at Yad Vashem since 2002 and is currently the Director of the Pedagogical Division of the International School for Holocaust Studies.
Anne Frank’s wartime diary, The Diary of a Young Girl, documents her thoughts, feelings, and experiences between 1942 and 1944 while hiding with her family during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Friends of the family, Miep Gies and her husband Jan, Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, and Bep Voskuijl, and her father Johannes Hendrik Voskuijl, helped the Franks and the others to survive for the two years they were in hiding. June 12, 2015 would have been Anne Frank’s 86th birthday.
Carol Martin and Sarah Brown are Echoes and Reflections educators with years of experience teaching about Anne Frank in their classrooms. As a central component of their curriculum, they have developed sound strategies for teaching Anne Frank, which they share below.
They emphasize the importance of providing context, understanding what it means to be a bystander, and providing a safe space to ask questions. “My students love it,” Brown says. “They get so much out of it and years later they tell me that the Anne Frank unit is what they remember most from 8th grade.” Martin adds, “I feel strongly that I have to help my students really understand what it must have been like for her. These were peoples’ lives.”
Preparation and Providing Context
Martin starts with a timeline. “It is like a KWL chart. I do this activity with photos from 1933-1945 and ask my students to put them in order. Then we rate the events from most significant to least significant. I find that using photos of people help students make the connection that these were peoples’ lives and the events we are learning about happened to them. I want to help my students connect on a personal level and pictures work well.”
Martin also emphasizes the importance of framing the historical context. “I provide an introduction to Nazi Germany where we start with the Treaty of Versailles and then move forward.” Helpful resources from Echoes and Reflections Lesson 3: Nazi Germany include - The Weimer Republic and the Rise of the Nazi Party, Europe before 1919, and Europe after 1919. “It is helpful to understand that Otto Frank chose the Netherlands because during World War I it had remained neutral and he thought they would be safe. He chose it strategically. Echoes and Reflections is great because you can pull the resources you need and the procedures organize it all for you step by step.”
Brown adds, “I like to show an excellent documentary called Anne Frank Remembered. It incorporates survivor testimony and gives a lot of background information about what it was like in Germany and what motivated the Frank family to leave and go to the Netherlands. It addresses Hitler’s invasion of the Netherlands and the integration of the Nuremberg Laws.”
In addition to helping students understand the political conditions that gave rise to fascism in Germany, both educators highlight the importance of helping students understand antisemitism. Brown shares, “It is really a study of racism and intolerance… Here in our rural district in upstate New York, I might be the first Jewish person my students have ever met so we get started with the basics.”
Both educators utilize Echoes and Reflections Lesson 2: Antisemitism resources including the Antisemitism Definition and Summary, and the map of Jewish Communities in Europe. Martin notes that she also references the illustrations from this lesson to demonstrate the use of propaganda. “I try and explain what the time period was like and help students consider what it might be like to hear antisemitic messages your whole life.”
Teaching Anne Frank: A Lesson in Taking Action
Building on the historical context, both Martin and Brown introduce their students to Anne Frank, a thirteen-year-old girl who is roughly the same age as their students, by teaching the stage adaptation of the book. They find it better captures students’ attention and creates more opportunities for engagement.
Brown prints copies for all of her students and encourages them to take copious notes and write all over it as they work through the text together. “As we read it we emphasize the interaction between the people in hiding and that they could not have survived without Miep Gies. The people who helped the Frank family chose not to be bystanders. They chose to help because they believed that it was the right thing to do. We talk about this and contrast it to the majority of people during this time that chose to go along with the demands of the regime. What makes a person do what they do or don’t do? What was it in Miep’s values that caused her do what she thought was right and put herself at risk?”
To answer these questions, Brown and Martin utilize Echoes and Reflections Lesson 7: Rescuers and Non-Jewish Resistance. In an article adapted from a speech given by Miep Gies after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Anti-Defamation League she talks about Anne Frank’s Legacy.
Martin highlights that she likes to emphasize the lessons in Anne Frank’s story as having a lot to do with the choices people make. She uses Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders directly from the Echoes and Reflections Teacher’s Resource Guide and Salitter’s Report in which he talks about the deportation of Jews. “This ties back to the end when Anne gets deported. As a class, we go back and talk about it. We also do a lot of collaborative work. I put my students in groups and have them talk things through with each other. Echoes and Reflections does a nice job of setting it all up for me and making these connections.”
Questions and Discussions
Martin shares that as an educator in a Catholic school her students often want to know more about the role of the church during the Holocaust. “Students always ask, ‘What did Pope Pius XII say and what was the Catholic response?’ It can be really hard to answer some of these questions and help students work through this material.”
Her students often ask personal questions about Anne Frank as well. They want to know how her hiding place was revealed, what happened to her afterwards when they got to Auschwitz, and how she died. “These are hard to answer because for a lot of them we don’t really know. We talk about Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and what that must have been like. I use Echoes and Reflections Lesson 5: The “Final Solution” to help answer some of these inquiries.”
She said that in her classroom they have started using an anonymous comment box. “This is a great way to make sure all the students questions are answered and gives me a chance to think through how I can best prepare a strong answer to those tough questions.”
Brown says, “My students have a lot of questions like, ‘Why did they kill the Jews? Why did they target them?’ In some ways, our course on Anne Frank and the Holocaust is an introduction to what human nature can be. I try to minimize the atrocities of it in class and put emphasis on what we can learn and what these lessons mean for our role in society today.”
After years of teaching the Holocaust, Martin shares that she has found it helpful to start by having a meeting with parents. Engaging parents as partners in the process of teaching this difficult material helps them prepare for some of the tough questions their children might have. “I tell them everything that we will be doing, reading, learning, and suggest that if their children have questions to please write them down and I’ll be happy to answer them in class.”
As an additional complement to this unit, Martin encourages her students to apply to the Chapman University Art and Writing Contest every year, which focuses on themes central to both the Holocaust and to ethical decision making.
Sarah Brown has taught 7-12th grade in the AuSable Valley Central School District for 25 years and currently teaches 8th grade. Carol Martin is a 6th-8th grade English and History teacher at Our Lady of Fatima Parish School in San Clemente, CA. She has been teaching about the Holocaust for 12 years.
Since 2009, I have been using Echoes and Reflections as an essential resource with English/language arts and history/social studies teachers to help their students understand the literature (fiction and non-fiction) of the Holocaust. Using the well-crafted lessons, powerful visual testimonies, and carefully selected primary documents in Echoes and Reflections, I help teachers learn compelling content and effective strategies that deepen students’ engagement and analysis of Holocaust literary and historical texts. By integrating these texts into Echoes and Reflections, teachers and students personalize the history of the Holocaust; reflect on the role of individual responsibility, and learn to act on behalf of social justice for all.
A lesson that I have found to be particularly effective is a lesson that I developed for use with in-service and preservice teachers using Lesson 4: The Ghettos and We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust (Jacob Boas, Scholastic, 1995).
Below is an outline of the lesson “Integrating Holocaust Non-fiction into Echoes and Reflections.”
- Write the word “ghetto” on the board and ask students to write their images and thoughts about the word in a journal.
- Introduce Ellis Lewin and Joseph Morton to the group using their Biographical Profiles and then show their testimonies from Lesson 4. Have students compare their original images and thoughts about the word “ghetto” to what they learned from these survivors.
- Distribute primary source materials in Echoes and Reflections to enhance students’ understanding of the ghettos.
- After an introduction to the teenagers in We Are Witnesses, have students divide into groups by teenage author and then read about their chosen teenager as a group.
- Initiate a jigsaw exercise, asking students to move into new groups with at least one representative from each diary. Have students discuss their teenagers and perceptions of life in the ghettos.
- Share testimony from additional survivors featured in Lesson 4: Leo Berkenwald, Milton Belfer, George Shainfarber, and Eva Safferman to provide students with additional perspectives of ghetto life.
- Ask students to consider what they learned about the ghettos from the diary entries and visual history testimonies shown in class using the following questions to guide the discussion:
- What did the young people you learned about do to survive in the ghettos?
- How did the people you read about or listened to maintain hope?
Lesson 4: The Ghettos addresses Common Core State Standards and the NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts with its focus on citing textual evidence, analyzing multiple mediums, and referencing texts.
Beverly Ann Chin is Professor of English, Director of the English Teaching Program, and former Director of the Montana Writing Project at the University of Montana in Missoula.