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How To Teach The Holocaust: 5 Ways To Improve Instruction

The Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
CC0 Public Domain
The Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

There are a lot of subjects that are tough to teach, but one of the most difficult is the Holocaust. It’s an important historical event, but one that can be scary for students to hear about, and hard to understand. With a recent rise in hate crimes, activists say now especially, the history of the Holocaust and antisemitism is important for students to learn.

Echoes and Reflections creates middle and high school curriculum on the Holocaust. WWNO's education reporter Jess Clark attended their recent training at the National World War II Museum. Here are five ways to improve instruction.

1: Teach the Human Story

Dates, timelines and numbers are a part of history instruction. But, they shouldn't be the focus when teaching the Holocaust, according to Echoes and Reflections workshop facilitator Rebecca Keel.

"When you're talking about 'six million people,'  -- a student can't understand that. They need to hear an individual story," Keel said. "And if you continually talk about it from this statistical, data-driven place, then you're missing what will actually last with students - what they'll actually remember and feel."

Keel directs teachers to Keel directs teachers to video testimony of survivors.

Keel says centering teaching on individual stories of victims and survivors helps students build empathy as they’re learning about this important historical event.

2: Don't Focus on the Perpetrators

One mistake Keel says teachers often make is focusing on the perpetrators - Hitler and his rise to power for example.

"If all of your focus is on Hitler, he gets all the power in the story. He gets the narrative, and you lose the Jewish narrative," she said.

[Click here for Echoes And Reflections' nine principles for effective Holocaust instruction.]

3: Don't Use Simulations

Simulations are fairly popular engagement activities in which students pretend to be Holocaust victims or Nazis. One teacher at the training says she used to use one called "Choiceless Choices." It's an activity in which students imagine themselves as Jews trying to survive Nazi Germany, making one impossible decision after another. The goal was to help students try to give students a deeper understanding of what people went through. But Keel says to throw these activities out. Simulations can actually traumatize students, she says. And no simulation could ever capture what it was like to experience the Holocaust. In fact, they risk trivializing the event.

"We highly stress - do not use simulations. Do not use them," Keel says.

The best way to build empathy, Keels says, is to play video testimony of real survivors for students.

4: Connect the Holocaust to Recent History, and Today

Keel says teachers can make the Holocaust relevant to students by connecting it to more recent history or even today’s events. At the same time Keel says it's important to distinguish between the unique history of the Holocaust and what can be learned from this history.

For example, New Iberia Parish middle school teacher Bernadette Fruge says she includes instruction on the Holocaust each year in her class on Louisiana history. Fruge says she brings in Holocaust instruction each year in when she gets to the 1991 Louisiana governor's race between Edwin Edwards and Neo-Nazi and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. She tells the story of New Orleans resident Anne Levy, who survived the Holocaust as a child in Poland, and stood up to Duke publicly at the state capitol.

Fruge says kids immediately connect to Levy's story, and the larger story of the Holocaust.

"It's something that a kid who's not normally too much interested in school, for whatever reason, the story strikes them," Fruge says.

5: Teach the History of Antisemitism

Keel says to make sure students know antisemitism began well before the rise of Nazi Germany. Students should learn that antisemitism has ancient routes. At the same time, teachers should be careful not to make the Holocaust seem like an inevitable consequence of antisemitism. Keel says teachers should make sure students understand that the Holocaust was the result of concrete choices made by politicians, institutions and ordinary people.

Students should learn about the danger of stereotypes, and teachers can connect antisemitism to other forms of prejudice and bigotry. Teaching the long history of antisemitism is important for putting the Holocaust in context, and preparing students for their own encounters with prejudice.

"We do live in a time where antisemitism is on the rise," Keel says.

The Anti-Defamation League has recorded a large increase in antisemitic incidents since 2016, including the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg that killed 11 people. Hate crimes are on the rise against other minorities as well.

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