Social Studies

Museum Examines Onlookers’ Role in Holocaust

By Liana Loewus — January 06, 2015 7 min read
Three educators—from left to right, Carrie A. Olson of Denver, Diana Wagner of Salisbury, Md., and Carol Danks from Silver Spring, Md.—review the "Some Were Neighbors" exhibit.

As the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz concentration camp’s liberation approaches this month, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is spreading the word about a powerful yet somewhat nontraditional lens for classroom instruction on the Holocaust: the study of onlookers.

The Washington-based museum, which runs professional-development programs for preservice and practicing teachers, currently has an exhibit dedicated to looking at why Europeans who were not being targeted by the Nazis decided to act on or ignore the atrocities happening around them during that time period. What were the motivations and pressures felt by those citizens who helped the Jews, those who assisted in harming them, and those who looked away?

In a presentation at the National Council for the Social Studies’ annual conference in Boston in November, Christina E. Chavarria, a program director in the museum’s education department, explained that the framework aims to move away from the typical focus on victims and perpetrators, and emphasize the complex set of players and circumstances that contributed to the Holocaust more indirectly.

“The common notion and thinking is that if you didn’t do as [the Nazis] wanted, you yourself would have been harmed, you would have been subject to punishment and worse if you didn’t give in and follow orders,” Ms. Chavarria said in an interview. “In looking at case studies, research, and a lot of files and records, ... we found this wasn’t necessarily the case. People did have choices.”

Stories of Betrayal

The temporary exhibit, “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust,” which opened in April 2013 and will run until 2017, examines the behaviors and reactions of teachers, policemen, neighbors, students, and workers who witnessed crimes against Jews and other groups perceived as “racially inferior.”

Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum offers the following guidelines for teachers addressing the complex and often sensitive subject matter of the Holocaust:

• Define the term “Holocaust.”
• Do not teach or imply that the Holocaust was inevitable.
• Avoid simple answers to complex questions.
• Strive for precision of language.
• Strive for balance in establishing whose perspective informs your study of the Holocaust.
• Avoid comparisons of pain.
• Do not romanticize history.
• Contextualize the history.
• Translate statistics into people.
• Make responsible methodological choices.

View the entire guidelines.

When entering the exhibit, visitors walk down a long hallway, listening to the recorded voices of survivors describing moments of betrayal:

“This was a boy that grew up with me for 16 years, and he could do something like this.”

“That was my girlfriend—we used to go together, have fun together.”

“And out of that crowd came a friend of my father.”

“Some were neighbors.”

Visitors then follow a series of individual stories about the genocide’s “onlookers.” Some collaborated with the Nazis, such as the policeman who turned in a Jewish teacher, and others were arguably complicit, like the mapmaker who mapped out where Jews could be found. And still others, like the phone operator who sent her younger brother to warn a Jewish family of the Gestapo’s approach, were helpers.

The exhibit, recommended for students in middle school and above, uses “onlookers” rather than the more passive word “bystanders,” Ms. Chavarria explained to conference attendees, to signify that the onlookers did play a role. The display also illuminates the complexities behind people’s behaviors, noting, for instance, that some people who hid Jews did so not for altruistic reasons, but for payment. “The poorer you were, the more likely you were to shelter someone,” Susan D. Bachrach, the exhibit’s curator, said in an interview. “People don’t get that.”

Anthony M. Pellegrino, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., brings classes of preservice social studies and language arts teachers to the exhibit as part of their training. “If we’re teaching about the Holocaust and solely focusing on [Adolph] Hitler and his small group of cronies as the evil ones, it misses the much larger point of how the Holocaust happened,” he said in an interview. “Bringing in collaboration and complicity challenges that simplistic idea that history was inevitable.”

The museum has created an online exhibit as well, which includes photographs, documents, and a lesson plan for teachers to use in their classrooms. The lesson asks students to look at images—for example, a police officer in Paris distributing Jewish badges—and discuss the subjects’ motivations.

Textbooks often fail to include the perspectives of less-known players, focusing only on the victims and perpetrators, said Alan S. Marcus, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. “But this question of why, why did this happen, and how—to truly understand that you have to understand other people’s perspectives.”

Mr. Marcus, who is part of a corps of master teachers who help the Holocaust Museum design and implement teacher professional development nationally, clarified that does not mean “putting yourself in their shoes.” Instead, it means reflecting on the circumstances and asking, for instance, “if you were a neighbor, what are some of the reasons you might turn someone in or not turn someone in? It might be a good way to get ahead in your job to turn someone in. For others, it was about politics, others were fearful, and others had a moral justification for hiding people.”

Context Is Key

The collaboration and complicity lens, the museum representatives say, is meant to supplement instruction on the Holocaust’s events, timelines, and major players, not replace it.

“You have to do this in historical context,” said Ms. Chavarria. “We’re not saying change the way you’re teaching—just broaden the scope.”

Alan J. Singer, the director of social studies education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who is not affiliated with the museum, said that such an effort includes teaching the Holocaust in a global context. “The bystander dichotomy poses it as a moral dilemma, but that is insufficient,” he said. “We also have to examine the conditions that lead to these kinds of implosions.” Many are similar to the conditions that led to 20th-century genocides in other places, including Rwanda and Cambodia, he said.

Neither the museum exhibit nor the website presents the information as a cohesive narrative. “It’s more an accumulation of stories, with each story as good as another,” said Ms. Bachrach, the curator. “Some people may not like that.”

She also noted that “some people who’ve always taught the Holocaust in a certain way may find [the collaboration and complicity framework] threatening.” For example, they might be concerned that presenting the Holocaust in this way could build empathy for the citizens who tolerated the crimes. “That’s always something that scholars face,” she said. “But the primary feeling that I got working on this exhibition and every time I go through it, it’s about being very disturbed that people acted this way.”

Drawing Comparisons

Some educators will note that the focus on bystanders is similar to the tactic used by many in the anti-bullying movement. StopBullying.gov, a federal anti-bullying campaign, asks students to “be more than a bystander,” as do many other advocacy groups.

However, Ms. Chavarria warns against drawing direct comparisons between the two subjects in the classroom. “We try to steer teachers away from making this a lesson on bullying,” she said. “We feel that oversimplifies.”

Other sorts of comparisons to students’ lives should be minimized as well, said Mr. Pellegrino of George Mason, who presented with Ms. Chavarria at the NCSS conference and helps the museum provide national professional development.

“There’s an honorable effort to try to make content relevant to students, so as such, teachers often draw on, ‘What are your experiences and how can we compare those to those of the past,’ ” he said. “It sort of undermines the events these students experienced as well as, of course, it’s going to undermine the power and potency of the Holocaust.”

Ms. Bachrach took a less hard line. “If you want students to think about their own roles in society or in their communities or schools vis à vis their peers,” she said, “I think there’s some food for thought here about how people can participate in certain behaviors they might come to regret later on.”

And while not explicitly a part of the museum’s collaboration and complicity initiative, the Common Core State Standards do dovetail nicely with the effort, some educators said.

The standards emphasize primary sources, said Ms. Chavarria, as does the study of collaboration and complicity.

The exhibit, like the new standards, “get[s] students to think, criticize, analyze, and evaluate rather than just know,” said Mr. Pellegrino. “The common core has its own challenges around it, but at the heart of it there’s a really interesting effort to move past memorization.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as Museum Promotes Study of Onlookers’ Roles in Holocaust

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