Facing History

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You would think that the man hurling himself from the witness stand and crumpling to the courtroom floor was having some kind of seizure. Knowing the circumstances--that the man had been personally selected by Adolf Eichmann to be sent to Auschwitz, and that in this television footage he stands witness at the Nazi war criminal's trial--you would think his reaction was triggered by some awful memory. By the sight of the renowned mass murderer. By the thought of millions killed.

But the 35 teachers who sit in the darkened room watching a videotape of "The Devil Is a Gentleman," a "60 Minutes" production that aired in 1983, learn that the convulsions were prompted by an even more terrifying realization.

"It's not a God!" the Holocaust survivor says, remembering his post-war confrontation with Eichmann. "It's not a Hitler! It's not Adolf Eichmann! It's me!"

The man collapses, the narrator explains, on realizing that "the Eichmann who stood before him at the trial was not the godlike army officer who had sent millions to their death. This Eichmann was an ordinary man, an unremarkable man. And if this Eichmann was so ordinary, so human," the narrator continues, then what Eichmann had done, "any man could be capable of doing."

When the lights come on, tensions run high. The teachers in the room are halfway into a weeklong summer institute that uses lessons from history to explore the consequences of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism.

One of the teachers half-jokes that the program is "relentless." A discussion ensues over whether some people are innately cruel. Or crazy.

But surely insanity couldn't explain the behavior of the hundreds of people who contributed to the Holocaust, says a staff member at the institute. "Do you buy into this," she asks the teachers, "about Eichmann being in all of us?"

Most teachers raise their hands.

"All of you? 100 percent?" she presses.

A few teachers dissent.

And if you're the guy who forced Jews onto cattle cars to transport them to concentration camps, "are you an Eichmann?" someone asks.

"What about the guy sitting in the office, making the train schedules?" another prods.

"I think I could be a bystander," one teacher ventures. "But could I be an Eichmann? I don't know."

Facing History

The discussion comes at the end of a long day for participants in this teacher training institute, one of many run each year by the nonprofit foundation Facing History and Ourselves.

Through its staff-development initiatives and other outreach efforts, the nationally acclaimed effort reaches more than 10,000 teachers and, through them, more than half a million middle and high school students a year.

Its mission: to prepare teachers to help students think critically about human behavior, history, and the power of people to shape its course.

At one of this summer's institutes, teachers from all over the country traveled here to do just that. By the fourth day of the program--the day of the Eichmann discussion--they were heavily into the Holocaust.

Teachers began the day with a lesson on "The Stages of Mass Murder." Then came a break in the intensity to discuss different ways of incorporating literature and art into a study of social responsibility. Some of the teachers, put in the role of students, broke down into groups and created a moving series of skits based on a reading.

Later, Sonia Weitz, a Holocaust educator and survivor of five Nazi concentration camps, spoke to the teachers about her experiences and read from her poetry.

Just before the Eichmann video, teachers had broken down into new groups to read and discuss selections from the diaries of Nazi party members.

Small Steps to Catastrophe

But while the program focuses on the Holocaust as a means to get students to think about the moral choices they must confront in their own lives, Facing History is not out to "paralyze students"--or teachers--by shocking them with gruesome atrocities, says Marc Skvirsky, the program director. "In an eight-week course," he says, a teacher "might spend two to three days on the Holocaust."

Most of the time, he says, is spent examining the small steps that can lead to such a catastrophe: "How people become bystanders, how people become perpetrators, how neighbors turn against neighbors."

The training institutes take teachers through a whirlwind Facing History course that might start with discussions of identity, stereotyping, and conformity, and wind down with lessons on caring and taking a stand in one's own community.

Early lectures at this particular workshop, for example, covered journal writing, the power of propaganda, the religious roots of intolerance, "Racial Identity Development," and the "Forgotten History of the American Eugenics Movement." On the last evening, teachers relaxed, watching slides of famous monuments, constructing their own out of clay, and talking about what goes into memorializing a person or an event.

Facing History held 13 such institutes this summer and two during the school year, in addition to many shorter, introductory workshops and special events geared toward students and the community outside the classroom.

Founded by two Brookline, Mass., middle school teachers 17 years ago, Facing History now has regional offices in Chicago, Memphis, and New York, and major initiatives in Baltimore and Los Angeles. Its outreach efforts span the country and have even traveled as far as Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and Britain. It currently has a $3 million annual operating budget.

It has also linked up with such school-reform initiatives as the U.S. Education Department's National Diffusion Network, the Violence Prevention Network, the New American Schools Development Corporation, and the National Urban Alliance.

Scaling Up

What distinguishes Facing History from many other staff-development efforts is the continuing support teachers receive after the seminars end. During the year, a Facing History staff member regularly consults with teachers, helping them develop and sustain a program that's appropriate for adolescents. "There's a lot of hand-holding," Skvirsky says.

In fact, if three days go by and Carol Resnek hasn't spoken to her Facing History staff contact, "we're calling each other," the Chelsea (Mass.) High School teacher says.

Resnek, who teaches community-service learning in the ethnically diverse Boston suburb, uses Facing History materials for about one-third of her instructional time.

"Facing History helped me build community in my classroom," says Resnek, who relied heavily last year on Choosing to Participate, a book that continues the last chapter of the Facing History and Ourselves Resource Book. The class also watched videos from the organization's extensive library, went to see "Schindler's List," and, as preparation for a field trip to listen to Holocaust survivor Weitz, read her book of poetry and testimony, I Promised I Would Tell.

Several days after the class visited Weitz, the teacher says, "Some kids have told me that they're still thinking about her, and that they're getting along a lot better with their brothers and sisters. And you know, that kind of thing comes and goes, but I think that someday, somewhere, when they need it most, it will come back to them."

While some of the teachers here, like Resnek, have been using Facing History in their classrooms, others are just being introduced to the program's many possibilities.

Michael Sullivan, a psychology teacher from Hudson High School outside Worcester, Mass., has come to the seminar with two of his colleagues who plan to integrate Facing History into a new, required course in civics.

Why the Holocaust?

Sullivan anticipates that Facing History will be easily applied at Hudson High, which has a large Portuguese-American population.

But he also expects that not all teachers and parents will understand the program's value.

"One of the arguments I've heard from some of the teachers is, 'Why the Holocaust? Why not something closer to home?' " says Sullivan.

Twice in 1987 and again in 1988, U.S. Education Department officials asked that same question, and denied funding to Facing History and Ourselves under the National Diffusion Network, a program that makes exemplary instructional programs on a variety of subjects available to school districts.

One member of a panel chosen to review the program in 1987 complained that Facing History failed to represent the views of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Critics of the panel then charged that political conservatives had formed the panel to deny funding to programs they opposed. After another scuffle over funding, in 1989 Facing History finally received a grant of $59,367 a year--renewable for four years--to support its dissemination efforts.

Since that time, a number of states, namely California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and, most recently, New York, have mandated that schools teach about the Holocaust. But most of those states don't give any guidance on how to treat such a topic, and it's important to do so responsibly, program officials say.

Also, "There's a difference between teaching the Holocaust in a way that simply memorializes it and in a way that empowers students to make a difference in their own lives," says Ted Scott, the regional director of Facing History.

Participants agree that the Holocaust is an ideal case study, particularly for schools serving disadvantaged populations.

"People tend to think black people are not interested in this, but there's a commonality to suffering," says Renee Gordon, a coordinator of the arts and humanities at John Bartram High School in Philadelphia. "You would have thought that Germany in 1928 was America in 1994--not just for blacks but for all minorities. So the Holocaust is a mirror."

It sounds absurd, for example, that in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt was urging other nations to open their doors to Jewish immigrants, while at the same time closing U.S. doors. But it also sounds a whole lot like U.S. policy toward Haiti today, the teachers point out.

It seems unfathomable, moreover, that the world could stand by and allow the Holocaust to happen. "But where was the public outcry about Rwanda?" one teacher asks.

And what about the genocide in Bosnia today, others question, and the violence in our own communities?

"Facing History tries to help kids understand that in every situation they have choices," says Jennifer Clarke, a program associate. "Sometimes they're not good choices, and each individual choice has a lot of possible consequences. But for a lot of kids, that in itself is empowerment."

Margot Stern Strom, the executive director and one of Facing History's founders, cites another reason for the program's continued success.

"It's compelling. It's relevant. It's timely," she says. "And kids remember it."

A monument to the dead

During the summer institute, a program staff member showed slides of some student-made monuments to the Holocaust and read the students' descriptions of their works. Below is one 8th grader's description.

"My monument is to the dead. I spent this entire unit trying to put myself in the situations of different people. A bystander, a Jew, a Nazi. Now, I decided to make a monument to the group of people that no one can argue about. The group that is easy to understand. The dead. No matter what you say, the result of the Holocaust is the dead. So I wanted to make a monument to something no one can argue with. I want people to think of all the dead and be just a little scared. I tried to make my monument scary. It's also messy. That's the way everyone died, in a mess. I made a pile with figures on it to say that they were part of the earth, and they were not treated any better. The messiness of my monument and the abstractions are my main messages. I don't want this monument to be in a field, or some place where it's alone. I want it right in the center of downtown Boston ... on the steps of the State House. So that it's in the way. So people will notice it. I want people to be annoyed by my monument. I want them to think it's so messy that people will try to fix it. Which is what everyone should have done in the Holocaust."

Vol. 14, Issue 03

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