The International School for Holocaust Studies
By Jackie Metzger
One of the problems of teaching the Holocaust is the unprecedented behavior of humanity during the Second World War and finding a believable way of presenting it. It is a difficult task to convey realities from that era to pupils and students seventy years removed from the atrocities. This article will suggest ways of presenting aspects of the Holocaust that combine different approaches to enable cognitive contact with a difficult subject.
Interdisciplinary education is basically the combination of different disciplines to promote contact, understanding and knowledge of the matter being taught. If theories speak about interdisciplinary education as widening the frontiers of knowledge, the Holocaust as an unprecedented human aberration leans directly into this kind of teaching. It would mean placing the body of accumulated historical information about this era into a larger conceptual framework which would include other disciplines like literature, music and art.
Based on years of working with varied materials in teaching the Holocaust to different population groups, this article will make various suggestions to the teacher looking for alternatives or additions to the usual history lesson.
Below is a list of examples of different subjects that arise from studying the Holocaust with concrete suggestions of how to vary your treatment of the subject through a link to a lesson plan on the Yad Vashem website.
The names of the poets used in this article are in bold to enable you to easily access a short biographical note about each one.
From time immemorial, societies everywhere have created situations where members of a community have had to leave their home and become refugees. One of the first cases appears in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, in which Abraham casts Hagar and their son Ishmael out. Examples abound. W.H. Auden, a British poet laureate, wrote a poem in March, 1939 which he entitled Refugee Blues. The poem describes the plight of German Jewry five months after Kristallnacht. The “Night of Broken Glass”, as it is sometimes referred to in English, was a traumatic awakening for the approximately 250,000 Jews still in Germany and most of them would have given all just to become a political refugee and to be able to leave German soil.
The following link takes you to a lesson-plan written about this poem and the subject of political refugees. The interdisciplinary aspect of the lesson plan includes use of a photograph and a painting from the period of the war, both of which deal with the subject of the poem. Thus together, a painting a photograph, a poem and an ever-present global problem of refugees enables a teacher a varied approach to the subject using different vehicles or disciplines. The poem itself will not be found in the link but can easily be accessed on the internet.
The next three suggestions are all to be found in the following link to a lesson-plan on the website called Seven Poems and Seven Paintings. All the artwork was done by Liz Elsby as her personal response to a close reading of the seven poems. If teachers plan to have their classes do their own art work as part of the work on the poem, it is recommended that the paintings on the website be shown only after the pupils have tried their own hands at the subject. Under each poem and painting there are several suggestions of how to incorporate them into a lesson.
The stage of ghettoization in the Holocaust was important for the Germans in organizing the vast Jewish population in Eastern Europe within the framework of the Final Solution, the murder of European Jewry. There were about one thousand ghettos throughout Europe, in which the Jews were held in terrible conditions until the Germans were ready to move them on to the next stage: expulsion to the concentration and death camps.
The historical aspects of the ghettos can be expanded on in the classroom in lesser or greater depth, but all teachers can use the following suggestion of bringing a poem written in a ghetto by a teenager and a painting that was executed in response to the poem.
The poem, The Butterfly was written by Pavel Friedman in the Theresienstadt Ghetto when he was about seventeen. He was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. The latent educational value of using a poem written by a victim the same age as many of the pupils is self-evident.
One way of teaching the Holocaust is to relate to the victims, the perpetrators and the bystanders as the three groups that people the narrative. By far the largest group in Europe was the group of people who weren’t in any army and stood along the sidelines of the largest mass murder of civilians in history.
Wislawa Szymborska, one of Poland’s leading poets who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1996, wrote a poem called Could Have in which Bystanders play a central role. The thorny issue of how most people react in any untoward situation is not dealt with in this poem. In fact the poem was written and published in 1972, more than 25 years after World War II and thus Szymborska appears to be expressing her own ambivalent reactions to meeting a survivor of the horrors years after the event. The human empathy conveyed so delicately in the accompanying painting is a powerful parallel to the empathy one finds in the last two lines of the poem.
Thus this example provides a rich personalized setting for penetrating various aspects of human behavior during the war and in the aftermath.
This poem can be accessed easily on the internet.
One of the densest poems written about the Holocaust is also one of the shortest ever written: Written In A Sealed Cattlecar. Dan Pagis published this poem about twenty-five years after he emerged from the Holocaust as a teenager of fifteen years old. The numerous themes that emerge from the poem and its Biblical inspiration (four verses in the book of Genesis) all appear together in the following link to a much more extended lesson-plan also on Yad Vashem’s website. Liz Elby’s painting on the poem is in Seven Poems , Seven Paintings.
The examples of interdisciplinary lesson plans presented above will help create a more immediate or tangible understanding of the period. They ‘breathe’ more perceptively than a single discipline like history. A painting or a poem and the discussion they engender, by the very fact of their being personal portrayals, present the human element in what can otherwise be very impersonal terrain. They therefore balance academic constructions with the human face. For the vast school-going population world wide, application of this approach is recommended. I would also not hesitate to employ the same ideas with refined levels of application at any college level. After all, all humans thirst for something recognizable in such an inhospitable narrative.