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March 1996 - Issue No. #22 (p. 16)

Teaching about the Holocaust

by Kip Cates

Tottori University

For many of us who have been to Nazi concentration camps in Europe, visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC or seen the film Schindler's List, the Holocaust is a powerful topic for thematic language teaching involving global issues such as prejudice, human rights, social responsibility and genocide. Here, we present a variety of ideas, activities and resources for teaching about the Holocaust. Please write us with any comments and send in any lessons or activities you've developed on this topic.

What was the Holocaust?

The Holocaust refers to the systematic annihilation of six million Jews and of millions of non-Jews (Poles, Soviet POWs, communists, gypsies, homosexuals and others) by the Nazi regime and its collaborators from 1933 to 1945.

Why Teach the Holocaust?

Ruth Cooper, in her high school holocaust curriculum, describes the goal of teaching about the holocaust as being "to inspire the present generation of youth to help build a world in which genocide shall not happen again". Her teaching objectives are to:

  1. develop an awareness of prejudice, apathy, indifference, and become knowledgeable about the consequences of these actions

  2. understand the systematic genocide of the Holocaust and of Hitler's "Final Solution"

  3. learn about the many forms of resistance during the Holocaust and about the actions of those who helped the Jews

  4. relate the lessons of the Holocaust to contemporary world situations.

Teaching Guidelines

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum lists the following as key guidelines for teachers:

  1. Avoid simple answers to complex history

  2. Show that just because the holocaust happened doesn't mean it was inevitable

  3. Avoid generalizations and stereotypes

  4. Have students distinguish types of sources

  5. Contextualize the history you teach

  6. Translate statistics into people

  7. Be sensitive to appropriate content

  8. Strive for a balance of perspectives

  9. Select appropriate learning materials

  10. Ensure a strong opening and closing

Classroom Approaches

Fifty years have passed since the Holocaust, yet young people can learn valuable lessons from studying this period and applying the lessons to personal and world situations today.

Students can learn how the Nazis misused education and applied their knowledge, skills and technology for genocidal purposes. They can learn about tremendous acts of bravery and about those who saved Jews from the Nazis. Above all, they can become aware of the dangers of prejudice, apathy and indifference.

There is no one way to teach the Holocaust. However, students learn best when they can connect concepts to their own lives. There are many selections in Holocaust literature by and about young people that deal with moral issues to which our students can relate. By building an emotional bond with characters their own age, such as Anne Frank, the Holocaust can then become meaningful in their own lives.

The Holocaust can be taught through history, literature, or as an interdisciplinary unit with English, social studies and math.

Survivors of the Holocaust are powerful tools for teaching who can personalize history and raise statistics to an individual tragedy. American soldiers who liberated the concentration camps can also be invited to share their eye-witness testimony. If it is impossible to have a survivor or a liberator speak to the class in person, there are videotapes available to tell the stories.

Book reports can introduce students to other stories of the Holocaust. Project work (such as doing interviews, creating timelines or making concentration camp models or posters) can also help students become actively involved.

"In the Holocaust there are many messages about human and social behavior. These should be brought into classrooms so that our youth can learn of the hatred and bigotry that can lead to genocide. The Holocaust can be a precedent or it can be a warning. This is why we must teach the Holocaust." - Ruth Cooper (1992)

Holocaust Quotes

First, they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then, they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then, they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then, they came for me, but no one was left to speak up. - Martin Niemoller

The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
- Edmund Burke

Where one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people.
- Heinrich Heine

Resources for Learning and Teaching About the Holocaust

Berenbaum, M. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust As Told in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (1993). New York: Little Brown and Co. $19.95 ISBN 0-316-09134-0

Cooper, R. et al. (1992) From Holocaust to Hope: A Middle School Teaching Guide for a Holocaust Unit. Tulsa Public Schools, Oklahoma, USA.

Nicholson, M. & Winner, D. (1990) People Who Have Helped the World Series: Raoul Wallenberg. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA: Morehouse Publishing Co. ISBN 0-8192-1525-2

US Holocaust Memorial Museum (1993) Holocaust Teaching Pack (3 booklets). Address: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW, Washington DC 20024-2150 USA Tel: (202) 488-0400 Fax: (202) 488-2695

Zornberg, I. (1983) Classroom Strategies for Teaching the Holocaust. NY: Anti-Defamation League.

Holocaust education catalogs are available from Social Studies School Service and the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai Brith.


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
E-mail: Work Tel/Fax: 0857-31-5650