Holocaust Museum Is Dedicated to Education
WASHINGTON--The publicity surrounding the opening here of the Holocaust Memorial Museum focused on the architecture of the building, the controversies swirling around it, and the emotional intensity of its exhibits.
But to Kenneth Tubertini, one of a growing number of teachers nationwide who teach about the Holocaust, such talk misses the whole point of the place: education.
"From my perspective,'' says Mr. Tubertini, who teaches at Vineland South High School in Vineland, N.J., "that's the only reason for it being there--as an educational tool.''
Nearly 13 years in development and construction, the museum was officially dedicated last Thursday. It opens to the public this week.
The museum, developed with $168 million in private donations, is dedicated to, in the words of one museum official, "telling the horrible truth'' about the Holocaust. Through photographs, artifacts, video footage, and the accounts of survivors, the museum presents the history of the six million Jews and and millions of others who became victims of Nazi tyranny from 1933 to 1945.
As much as memorializing and documenting that atrocity, however, the museum is about teaching future generations what can happen when democracy goes off the track.
"I would like to see people coming out of this museum saying, 'I never realized the extent of this and I want to know more,''' says William Parsons, the museum's education director. " 'I want them to say, 'I want to look at what's happening in the world today.'''
The museum is opening at a time when Holocaust studies are becoming increasing popular in schools nationwide, according to experts in the field.
In 1974, when educators in Mr. Tubertini's school district began planning an elective course on the Holocaust for high school students, instructional materials on the subject were difficult to find.
"The word Holocaust did not even appear in our high school textbooks,'' says Richard F. Flaim, Vineland's assistant superintendent for education and the co-author of the district's Holocaust-education course.
"And survivors at that time were not talking about their experiences,'' he adds, because the painful memories were still too fresh.
"A lot of them,'' he says, "didn't even share their experiences with their children.''
Now, thanks to such private groups as the Anti-Defamation League, there is an abundance of materials on the subject. Moreover, Mr. Parsons says, Holocaust education, or some form of it, is mandated in California and Illinois, and 15 other states recommend that it be taught.
Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based program that helped pioneer Holocaust education in the 1970's, estimates that it has 27,000 teachers on its mailing list.
"We've gone from whether to teach about the Holocaust,'' Mr. Parsons says, "to what to teach about the Holocaust.''
How To Teach
Experts disagree, however, over the best approach to the subject in the classroom. Among the many questions surrounding such studies are: Should the Holocaust be used as vehicle for teaching values, or should it stand on its own? Should educators try to make the events of 50 years past more relevant for students by linking them to racism as it exists in society today or to genocidal acts elsewhere in the world?
To help teachers tackle this difficult subject, the museum has developed an 18-page set of teaching guidelines. The guidelines warn educators against, for example, making "comparisons of pain.''
"One cannot presume that the horror of an individual, family, or community destroyed by the Nazis was any greater than [that] experienced by other victims of genocide,'' it states.
The museum's guide also cautions against the use of gimmicky classroom exercises, such as crossword puzzles, that may rob the subject of its dignity.
As part of its Congressional mandate, the museum has also developed lesson plans, poster sets, and resource packets for educators. Conferences on the Holocaust are held by museum officials throughout the year for teachers around the country, and the building's resource room is open to educators and students studying the subject.
The museum's Wexner Learning Center, which is open to the public, provides an easy means for teachers and students to enlarge upon their visit. Visitors to the center can use touch-screen computers in the center to access articles from the Macmillan Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, to hear music from the period, or to watch video footage of survivors telling their stories.
Making It Real
Perhaps the greatest educational value of the place, however, is the museum itself, educators say.
"What museums can do is give a concrete, visible basis for the subject,'' says Dennis Klein, the director of the Anti-Defamation League's Braun Center for Holocaust Studies. "People criticize monuments by themselves as being too static.''
The thousands of students who are expected to tour the museum over the next year will see a wide variety of artifacts that can make that period of history disturbingly concrete. Upon entry, visitors receive an identification card of a Holocaust victim or survivor of the same gender and approximate age. The card can be updated at two other points so that the visitor can see what happened to his or her silent companion as the Nazis gained and then lost power from 1933 to 1945.
Inside, there is the Hollerith machine, a computer used to sort between the German citizens who would live and those "unworthy of life.'' Visitors walk through a railroad boxcar used to transport people to the Treblinka prison camp. In another room, thousands of shoes belonging to concentration camp prisoners are carefully preserved.
The walls of a three-story tower in the heart of the museum are covered with 1,500 photographs of residents in the small Lithuanian village of Ejszyszki, a Jewish community for more than 900 years. Nazi killing squads shot almost all of the 3,500 people in the village in 1941.
Even the walls of the building itself,bricks girded by steel bands, are meant to evoke the ovens used by the Nazis to cremate the bodies of their victims.
Some of the exhibits may be too graphic for younger children. Museum officials advise that only children 11 years and older should tour through the main exhibit. As an added precaution, some of the more gruesome images from the death camps are barricaded by low walls that allow adults to view them but prevent children from seeing.
For children between the ages of 8 and 12, the museum offers "Daniel's Story,'' an exhibit that describes, in a gentler way, the story of a fictional German-Jewish boy. Visitors to that part of the museum can walk through Daniel's kitchen and bedroom, read in his diary about the Nazis' increasing efforts to exclude families like Daniel's from German society, and visit a replica of the Lodz ghetto, where Daniel and his family are eventually forced to live. The visit stops just outside of Auschwitz, where visitors learn the fate of Daniel and his family. (He survived, but his mother and sister died.)
Interactive devices at the end of the exhibit allow children to ask their own questions about Daniel.
"Below 6th and 7th grade, kids don't have much of a historical context to put the Holocaust in,'' Mr. Parsons says. "But you can talk about issues of prejudice, scapegoating, and peer pressure from kindergarten on.''
The educational value the museum brings to its subject matter may be sorely needed, educators say.
According to a Roper Organization poll released last week, 20 percent of 506 high school students surveyed--and a slightly higher percentage among adults--said it was possible that the Holocaust never happened.
To educators such as Mr. Tubertini, however, the benefits of studying the Holocaust may go beyond simple awareness. On a broader level, he says, the subject matter may help sensitize students to the plight of those who are persecuted or discriminated against.
In his community, where only a handful of the 57,000 residents are Jewish, up to 200 students sign up for his course, entitled "The Conscience of Man,'' each year. A handful of Holocaust survivors who live in the community visit the classes annually to share their stories.
Mr. Tubertini was visited recently by a former student from one of those classes. The young man told the teacher how he had cared for a brother dying of AIDS.
"He said, 'I had to tell you how many times I thought about our discussions about prejudice,''' says Mr. Flaim, who related the story.
"So when nobody in my family was willing to take care of my brother, I decided to do it,'' the student told Mr. Tubertini.
"I don't think students ever forget this course,'' Mr. Flaim concludes.