By guest blogger Ellen Wexler
A few weeks ago, we received a letter from Holocaust survivor Peter Fischl, who has spent the last 18 years sharing his history and working to promote Holocaust education. We looked through Teaching Now and realized that it hadn’t included coverage on Holocaust education before, so we decided to give Fischl a call.
Fischl took some time to speak with me about his past work and the new Holocaust education resource he just designed. The education kit, called “Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” is Fischl’s most recent project and somewhat of a summation of his efforts over the years.
In 1970, Fischl wrote a poem about a photograph he had seen in Life Magazine of a child in the Warsaw ghetto. He called it “To the Little Polish Boy Standing with His Arms Up,” and didn’t consider distributing it publicly. However, in 1994, he saw the movie “Schindler’s List,” which inspired him to finally publish his poem—two decades after he’d written it.
Fischl started advocating for Holocaust education and traveling to classrooms to speak about his story. His poem garnered notable attention, receiving praise from names like Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg, and Pope John Paul II. Five years ago, Globalist Films made a Holocaust documentary on his life. In the film, Fischl travels to Hungary, where he hid during the Holocaust, and to Auschwitz.
Finally, Fischl decided to compile all of these materials into a resource for teachers, and he asked writer and educator Nancy Gorrell to write a lesson plan. “She asks the students to study the picture of the little Polish boy standing with his arms up and write a poem,” Fischl said. “It’s a sensational way to teach [the] Holocaust.”
The finalized kit includes the lesson plan, the DVD documentary, a copy of the poem, and the Life Magazine article where he first saw the photograph of the little Polish boy. The DVD also includes a speech by Fischl, which he proudly told me was “the best speech I have ever made in my life.” Fischl’s kit is available at the Museum of Tolerance and the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
When visiting schools, Fischl explains how he survived by hiding in a Catholic school. Children are often curious about this, he told me, because they’ve heard of Anne Frank and how her hiding place was discovered. He tells the students about counterfeit birth certificates, getting food on the black market, and a general ability to stay focused. He also speaks about his father, who managed to telephone his son before he was captured and instruct him to be good to his mother and sister.
While Fischl’s materials focus on teaching the Holocaust through a first-person account, teachers can also find a list of more general teaching resources on the Holocaust Memorial Museum website. This list includes information such as essential topics to cover, online and onsite teacher training workshops, and common questions students may ask (i.e., How could Hitler make the Holocaust happen by himself? Why wasn’t there more resistance?).
Over the years, Fischl has answered such questions time and time again, and after so many classroom speeches he has developed some of his own teaching methods.
In Fischl’s opinion, the best time to teach the Holocaust is when children are over 12, and the best way to teach the Holocaust is to be direct. "[When Hitler] wanted to make a point, he screamed and raised his hand,” he said. “I speak normally ... so I have credibility. The students know from my answers that I tell them as it is.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.