Education Funding

Shoah Foundation Offers Holocaust Lessons

By Catherine Gewertz — November 15, 2000 7 min read
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As more states conclude that students must learn about the Holocaust, teachers wrestling with how best to convey such complex and emotionally explosive material are finding help in an unlikely place: Hollywood.

Director Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which built an archive of the videotaped oral histories of 50,000 Holocaust survivors and eyewitnesses, has produced a CD-ROM and 32-page curriculum guide and is piloting the materials in five districts.

Teachers from Chicago; Fairfax County, Va.; Long Beach, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Sarasota, Fla., are in various stages of teaching curricula they wrote after spending three days at the foundation’s Los Angeles facility last June. The 41 teachers talked with survivors and historians and learned how to use the interactive technology. As part of the three-year pilot, the foundation is hosting monthly conference calls so the districts can share how their instruction is going in selected classes of middle and high school students.

Holocaust education increasingly is viewed as integral to a complete education. As many as 18 states either require or recommend study of the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of more than 6 million European Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II.

Some experts warn, however, that educators may encounter many emotional and academic minefields along the way to the subject’s appropriate teaching. Districts that take on the material are delicately picking their way among those obstacles as they seek to use the lessons of history.

Turning to the Classroom

The Shoah Foundation, which is housed in a group of trailers on the Universal Studios lot, was criticized when it began its archiving work in 1994 for what some saw as an attempt to tackle history with too little expertise and too much emotion. It responded by bringing aboard respected historians.

Last year, the foundation began customizing its resources for use in schools, with the hope that the five pilot districts’ experiences would yield lessons about effective ways of teaching Holocaust history. The CD-ROM and accompanying guide are in use in many schools not involved in the pilot; more than 14,000 copies have been sold to schools and the public at large since January 1999, according to foundation officials.

Mr. Spielberg himself—whose 1993 film “Schindler’s List” helped fuel the growing interest in Holocaust studies—has high hopes for what the wrenching stories of survivors might accomplish with young audiences. Announcing the pilot program in March at a meeting of its co-sponsor, the American Association of School Administrators, the director said he hoped to help “build a more tolerant and a more humane generation.”

In response to state guidelines, many educators have begun to use the prism of the atrocity to teach the importance of respecting people’s differences.

Inclusion of survivors’ oral histories in those curricula is invaluable, said Rositta Kenigsberg, the executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center at Florida International University in North Miami and the author of her state’s law mandating Holocaust education. Such an approach, she said, “brings the lessons of the Holocaust alive and allows it to be more of a personal learning experience, rather than just reading something out of a book.”

Teachers using the Shoah Foundation’s materials report that students are excited and engaged by the CD-ROM, with its live-action film clips and period music.

Lisa Rybicki, a resource teacher in the 150,000-student Palm Beach County schools in West Palm Beach, Fla., said students there like the way they can interact with the survivors’ stories by clicking on timelines, historical overviews, maps of areas where key events took place, or simply following each survivor’s story to its end. They also connect strongly with the narrators, Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Winona Ryder, she said.

Teachers in the pilot districts are using the materials mostly in history and English classes. The foundation provides the training and materials, and the districts cover the remaining expenses.

At one middle school in Virginia’s suburban Fairfax County, 7th grade history students next semester will use the CD-ROM during a six-day unit on World War II to learn about the Holocaust and to explore such questions as why prejudice is dangerous, said Bernadette Glaze, a specialist in advanced academic programs who is coordinating the pilot program for the 161,000-student district.

In 7th grade English, students will use the CD-ROM in a unit on prejudice and fairness that will also include reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and discussing how they see themselves and how others view them, Ms. Glaze said.

In 8th grade history, Fairfax County teachers will use the materials to launch an examination of those who played rescuing roles during the Holocaust, she said, and to explore the responsibilities of citizens and government.

“Using these materials is getting us to look at the study of the Holocaust in a more humanistic vein,” Ms. Glaze said. “Not just ‘this happened,’ but, ‘what does this tell us about being human, and what does it tell us about tolerance?’”

In Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, one middle school and one high school are piloting the materials. The middle-grades students in a character education class will use them to study what characteristics enhance a person’s ability to be empathetic toward others, said Laurie Shaw, the director of private-sector initiatives and charter schools for the 92,000-student district.

In 8th grade U.S. history, she said, Long Beach students will use the materials for study in the design of a magazine about various types of oppression, including American slavery and racial segregation, religious intolerance in Colonial America, and the internment of Japanese- Americans during World War II.

High school world-history students will use them in a four-day Holocaust unit exploring the experience from the points of view of victim, bystander, rescuer, and perpetrator. The students will act out those roles, imagining the motivations of each, and will reflect in their journals and in discussion on their own identities and the prejudices they might harbor toward others, Ms. Shaw said.

“If teachers are just teaching the facts, kids might not understand what it means to be intolerant and prejudiced,” Ms. Shaw said. “The teachers that help kids process it and tie it in to their personal lives, make those personal connections—those kids are really understanding what it means.”

Training Essential

As Holocaust education is brought into increasing numbers of classrooms, some curriculum experts worry that teachers are not being adequately trained to teach such complex and sensitive subject matter.

Irene G. Shur, the director of the Holocaust/Genocide Education Center at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, which trains teachers in Holocaust education, was dismayed at a recent Florida conference when teachers told her they felt unprepared for their roles as Holocaust educators.

Supervisors who make the subject part of the curriculum, and teachers who teach it, shouldn’t do so without at least six months’ training in the pertinent strains of psychology, sociology, and history necessary to understand the Holocaust, Ms. Shur advised.

“Before you go swimming, you have to immerse yourself in the water,” she said.

Samuel Totten, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas’ college of education in Fayetteville and a co-author of the teachers’ guidelines for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, has studied Holocaust curricula around the country.

He says he became concerned that too many lessons concentrate on the “what and where” of the Holocaust, rather than exploring the complex forces and motivations that drove it, including anti- Semitism, racism, extreme nationalism, and Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I.

“Teachers need to help students complicate history in the best sense of the word,” he said. “There is not a single reason for most actions.”

While many educators see the value of using the Holocaust to teach students the importance of tolerance, such an approach, ironically, also risks “relativizing” the atrocity “by comparing it to the hazing of girls with red hair,” said Marshall Breger, a professor at Catholic University of America’s Columbia School of Law in Washington, who has written extensively on the Holocaust.

Teachers using the Shoah Foundation’s materials say they recognize the difficulties of handling the subject well and are focusing intently on creating the best curriculum they can. The survivors’ testimonies, they say, make a compelling lesson even more powerful.

Said Ms. Shaw: “The materials give us an ability to bring the understanding of tolerance and prejudice to a deeper level.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Shoah Foundation Offers Holocaust Lessons


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