There were 937 passengers on the MS St. Louis, many of whom were Jewish refugees escaping the turmoil of Nazi, Germany. Scott Miller, a research historian, educator, and author at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, along with colleague Sarah Ogilvie, in 1995 found themselves intrigued by the question, ‘What happened to those 937 passengers?’
The St. Louis has come to symbolize American inaction and the threatening consequences of being a bystander. Asylum seekers petitioned for the right to disembark in Cuba and then were denied entry to the United States and Canada. After sailing close to the shores of Miami Beach, the St. Louis was officially turned back and passengers were forced to return to Europe, much of which was already under Nazi domination.
The story of the voyage is well documented and it had long been assumed that the majority of St. Louis passengers perished at the hands of the Nazis. Miller and Ogilvie wanted to know more and in posing the question embarked on what became a decade of research and detective work.
Miller has joined Echoes and Reflections at the Charlotte and Jacques Wolf Conference for the past eight years. This unique weeklong professional development opportunity, made possible by the generosity of Charlotte and Jacque Wolf and Dana and Yossie Hollander, brings an exclusive group of secondary educators from across the country together for an in-depth program to learn effective teaching strategies from Holocaust and genocide experts, authors of Holocaust literature, survivors, and other witnesses. Miller offers a captivating presentation in which shares the journey he and Ogilvie took in tracing the stories of the 937 St. Louis passengers inviting educators to join him in unraveling the hidden truth behind what happened to everyone that was aboard the St. Louis.
“I love it! I absolutely love the opportunity to speak with teachers,” Miller said when asked about his upcoming presentation at the Wolf Conference. “Many of the teachers are at the beginning stages of their career and everyone is so full of energy and eager to learn. Its great! We have very diverse participants and everyone is learning to teach the Holocaust.”
In focusing on the passengers and the human experience, Miller’s telling of the St. Louis story emphasizes the reality and the consequences. “It shows that there are real consequences on individual people and their lives when ships are sent back. Focusing on the individual stories brings a valuable perspective. History is about individuals and that is something that is very much a cornerstone of the work that Echoes and Reflections does and why my work fits so well with what educators are learning at the Wolf Conference. History is more than kings and government. In terms of talking with students, I would hope it’s valuable because it’s the detective work that makes history fun and more hands on. This research was about making home visits, going through cemeteries, looking at old telephone books…”
Miller’s presentation about the St. Louis at the Wolf Conference helps teachers think about these moments in history critically. “We all want to make what we teach relevant. Being that we’re in the middle of a lot of refugee crises right now across the globe and with the story of the St. Louis being so obviously about refugees, it’s a fantastic opportunity.”
Miller emphasizes, however, that his presentation is, “Not a history lecture. I tell the story of how we found out what became of them with a PowerPoint that includes photos of all the people involved... Telling the story of what happened makes the story whole again.”
Using a short video of a St. Louis passenger who survived, Miller models teaching through exploration and takes his audience on a journey. The video is of an older woman who was on the voyage with her brother, newly wed husband, and parents but at the end of the war, she was the only survivor. She talks to the camera about living through forced labor in a munitions factory where she said she sabotaged the war effort by making faulty products. “We filmed her in the US. She passed away at age 90.”
Educators attending the Wolf Conference always have a lot of questions. Miller said, “People want to know how the survivors we tracked down in the US felt about being here after knowing that the US had betrayed them the first time? The answer is not that different from most refugees, but with a bit of a bitter twist. In the end, they feel very grateful for having the chance to be here. Participants also ask what people did once they were here, what kinds of jobs they found, and whether they had families.”
“Questions always come up about Roosevelt and his relationship to the Jews. I always emphasize that things have to be looked at in context and consider the politics of the time. Roosevelt did not do enough to rescue Jews. And, just like today, in the choices our leaders are making, we consider the humanitarian interest versus the political interest. I try not to say things explicitly, which I hope is a take-away. The St. Louis is a relevant story and one of the reasons we wanted to do this detective work is because the lessons are still so applicable in our world today.”
The USC Shoah Foundation offers an IWitness Activity entitled, “The Voyage of the St. Louis: From Hope to Despair,” that features testimonies from survivors who were children on the ship and is an excellent complement to Miller’s work and Echoes and Reflections content.
Scott Miller started working with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1989, four years before it opened to the public. He was research historian for the museum’s Wexner Learning Center and then became program coordinator for its Research Institute. In 2001, he was appointed director of the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. He also taught Jewish history at the American University in Washington DC and co-edited The Nazis’ Last Victims: The Holocaust in Hungary.
In 2006, Miller coauthored a book with Sarah Ogilvie entitled, Refuge Denied — The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust. The product of ten years of research, the book traced the lives of the St. Louis passengers.
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.