Social Studies Opinion

Personal History

By Ira Rifkin — October 01, 2002 10 min read
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Decades-old memories merge with modern technology to create powerful lessons about the Holocaust.

The sun is bright this May morning, and Rosemary Muldoon has tightly drawn the blinds in her 7th grade English class at Thoreau Middle School. Even so, it’s a bit hard to see the CD-ROM images on the room’s raised monitor. On-screen, an elderly Holocaust survivor named Paula recounts her devastating experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Despite the slightly fuzzy images, the story easily grabs the kids’ attention. Nearly all the youngsters feverishly scribble notes. Few fidget, and only the occasional word passes between them.

But the students’ concentration is nothing compared with their even more intense focus a little while later.

At that point, Paula, a Polish Jew, shares a particularly horrifying memory. A loaf of bread had fallen from a German supply truck, and, ravenous, she dove under the vehicle to retrieve the precious food—only to have it ripped away by other, equally desperate children. The story completely rivets the students. One girl cringes and lowers her head. No one talks, and all note-taking ceases. These relatively privileged youngsters in Vienna, Virginia, are being confronted with a side of life far beyond their experience.

Discussing the CD-ROM with classmates during their lunch break, Sean Cochran describes the bread incident as particularly upsetting. “I could relate to that because sometimes someone grabs someone else’s food during lunch,” says Sean, a serious 13-year-old. “I do that.”

“Yeah, but that’s different,” notes classmate Sara Mitchell between sucks on a lollipop. “We all have enough to eat, and it’s just playing if you grab something. We’re not starving because someone hates us and put us away to die.”

These kids are reacting just as the CD-ROM’s producers at the Shoah Visual History Foundation hoped they would. The first-person stories are intended to touch youngsters in ways textbooks often can’t. Certainly, the Holocaust has been included in many middle and high school classes for decades. But several years ago, Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation pushed Holocaust education to a new level: It used the organization’s archives of testimonies to create materials teeming with technical and artistic sophistication.

In 2000, the foundation—named for the Hebrew word meaning Holocaust—began distributing the materials to five districts in a three-year pilot project set to end in the spring of 2003. The curriculum, which was provided free of charge, includes the CD-ROM, videos, study guides, sample three-day lesson plans, and suggestions for helping students deal with the magnitude of the catastrophe.

The CD-ROM, Survivors: Testimonies of the Holocaust, offers some star power—Winona Ryder and Leonardo DiCaprio narrate—and its interactive aspect draws kids into the action. It has garnered significant acclaim, including an award from the National Educational Media Network. Shoah’s three videos also have collectively brought in Academy, Emmy, and Peabody awards. And it’s easy to see why. The sometimes brutal archival footage combined with survivors’ memories packs quite an emotional wallop.

Although it’s often painful, teachers say kids can handle the Shoah material—and gain from it. Bernadette Bennett, a social studies specialist in Sarasota, Florida, where 4,000 students have participated in the project, values its broader message of tolerance. She notes that the curriculum has gotten her kids thinking about ethics and how one lives in a multicultural society. Above all, she says, “the lessons of the Holocaust can guide us in what sort of people we will be.”

In Muldoon’s classroom, where book reports cover nearly all of the available wall space, it’s day two of viewing survivor testimonies, and the CD-ROM’s relatively mild images have been replaced by a fairly graphic video, Survivors of the Holocaust. The jaw-dropper comes three-quarters of the way through.

A survivor sketches the scene. Hundreds of Jews are packed into cattle cars on their way to a concentration camp. It’s dark, and the stench is horrendous. People are sick and dying. Unexpectedly, the door slides open, and German soldiers toss in a few loaves of bread, setting off a frenzy. One man manages to grab a loaf. But he’s not sharing—not even with his son. The boy starts hitting his father, who won’t relent. Finally, the son beats the man to death and takes the bread.

The first-person stories are intended to touch youngsters in ways textbooks often can’t.

The kids are stunned. No one is taking notes, despite Muldoon’s instructions. Some of the youngsters look at each other, wide-eyed. Could that have really happened? “Wow,” Sean says to no one in particular.

Asked how he might react in such a situation, Sean admits he could, and would, hit his father if survival were on the line. After a pause, though, he catches himself and emphatically adds: “I’m sure my dad would have given me some bread. I know I wouldn’t kill my dad for bread.” He falls quiet again before adding, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

The youngsters’ shock comes in part from how little some of them know about the Holocaust’s gruesome details. Although the subject is now required or recommended in more than a dozen states, it’s often a brief segment in already packed courses. And with the current focus on standardized tests, a topic that doesn’t yield measurable skills is difficult to justify. Considering such pressures, teachers in the project appreciate the materials’ timesaving aspect. In addition to the videos and the CD-ROM, which includes maps, historical newspaper articles, and timelines, the foundation provides information about dozens of resources, such as relevant Web sites and periodicals.

The Shoah Foundation developed its educational project after staff members began collecting some 51,000 survivor testimonies from around the world. Created by Spielberg following the success of his Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List, the nonprofit is still based on a Los Angeles studio lot. Today the powerhouse director, who was unavailable for comment for this story, remains involved in strategic planning, and a dozen people run the group’s education department.

Since launching its pilot project, the foundation has distributed more than 500 CD-ROMs and 100 videos, plus the support materials, to pilot districts. Before schools began implementing the program, they sent nearly four dozen teachers and administrators to Los Angeles for three days of training in June 2000. Sessions ranged from learning how to use the CD-ROM to developing initial lessons that would be fleshed out back home.

In selecting the pilot sites—Portland, Oregon; Sarasota County, Florida; Chicago; Long Beach, California; and Fairfax County, Virginia—foundation educators aimed for geographical, racial, and ethnic diversity. In Fairfax, a leafy suburb across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the materials have been distributed in two facilities, Thoreau Middle School and Madison High School, where they are used in world history and English classes. But other districts have spread them more widely. In Sarasota, for example, the six teachers who attended the meeting in Los Angeles later trained more than two dozen colleagues.

“Our district feels very strongly about Holocaust education,” explains Sarasota’s Bennett. “We don’t only teach reading, writing, and math. We believe in the development of the whole child.”

So far, early signs suggest the materials are a strong tool in character education. A district evaluation in Fairfax, for example, noted that the project seemed to instill a greater appreciation of tolerance. “Teachers and students indicated through focus groups that the...materials educated them in a way unlike prior materials on the Holocaust,” the evaluation reported. “The students were able to generalize the themes of tolerance from the Holocaust to other situations, either in the school or worldwide.”

Still, with such graphic and painful images, the question arises: Are these kids, whose ages range from 12 to 18, ready for this material?

Although Shoah suggests that certain items be reserved for high schoolers, the educators involved use their own judgment. At Thoreau, for example, each participating teacher previews the videos and CD- ROM, explains Ida Warren, the English teacher who has coordinated the pilot project there. So far, she says, no one has considered them too graphic. “The students say they want to see the material because it’s important to understand fully what happened. I’ve had kids ask if they could take the materials home to show their parents,” she adds. “They are very affected by it, but I think affected in a good way.”

The Shoah Foundation developed its educational project after staff members began collecting some 51,000 survivor testimonies from around the world.

At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.—which Fairfax teachers and administrators visited before they launched the Shoah lessons—11 is the recommended minimum age for viewing the main exhibit. Warren Marcus, the museum’s director of teacher workshops and conferences, says the key to presenting the Shoah Foundation material, or any Holocaust information, is providing context and preparing students for what they will encounter. “Our guidelines suggest that grades 7 and up are ready for the ambiguities and complexities of this history. But even with tons of prepara- tion, you can always get adverse reactions, and teachers need to be aware of that,” he cautions.

Michael Schulman, a psychologist and chair of a Columbia University postgraduate seminar on moral education, believes that Holocaust education is appropriate for kids despite its difficult nature. Given today’s media, he notes, “it is naive to think we can protect them from harsh realities such as the Holocaust.” But Schulman points to a different concern: the need to be sensitive to other groups that have also suffered great tragedies. In fact, some participating teachers say they wish they had materials on more recent events, such as massacres in Rwanda.

Generally, though, teachers are happy with the program. Warren says the Shoah materials are “enormously effective” with her students. For one thing, kids are amazed that the survivors were around their age when the events they relate happened. And there’s the “grandparent factor.” Middle schoolers, she points out, are “strongly connected to grandparents, so the students see their own grandparents in the survivors.”

Kids are amazed that the survivors were around their age when the events they relate happened.

Though educators like the program, they do complain about its limited funding. As budget cuts have forced districts to limit teacher training and other aspects of the proj-ect’s implementation, the foundation hasn’t stepped forward to cover shortfalls. But Kimberly Birbrower, Shoah’s director of education, insists that district financial troubles are beyond the scope of her organization, which relies on grants and donations. “That’s not a problem that Shoah Foundation can solve,” she says, noting that the organization paid for the June 2000 training session as well as a smaller follow-up in 2001. (Shoah didn’t, however, cover airfare, to ensure that participating districts were committed to the program, she explains.)

Looking ahead, Birbrower says foundation leaders are committed to continuing the project, though how, exactly, remains “an open question.” This year, she notes, Shoah will assemble a “Portfolio of Best Practices” that could serve as a model for other districts. Already the foundation has made its materials available to educators outside the pilot districts for a fee (the CD-ROM costs $29.95; the videos range from $12.50 to $20 each), and its educators are considering creating less graphic materials for younger audiences.

Muldoon, for one, hopes the foundation does create additional resources. “The films, the CD-ROM—they make real what was just a statistic in a history book,” she says. “Watching and listening to a person, even if just on a screen, makes it personal for the students.”

In the last class for viewing the materials, Muldoon asks her students to write a paragraph describing their reactions to the unit and, if they wish, to read it aloud. One boy wonders what it was like to be a German soldier during the Holocaust. Another notes how sad the images have left him. “I cannot explain my reaction,” he says, reading hurriedly. “The sympathy, the anger, and all the other feelings mixing deep inside me, making something of which I have no clue.”

Sean, too, is at a loss to articulate his feelings. “I was amazed that people could do some of those things and that you could survive them,” he shares. “It’s really amazing that all happened. I guess we saw this to see what can happen when people hate.”

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