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Teaching the Lessons of the Holocaust

Professional Development

Each year, the United States observes Days of Remembrance, a commemoration of victims of the Holocaust. To help you provide your students with the information and insights they need to understand the events and implications of the Holocaust, Education World recently interviewed Warren Marcus, a teacher educator for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Included: The most common mistakes educators make when teaching about the Holocaust.

Thanks to EducationWorld's partnership with Encyclopaedia Britannica, we are also pleased to offer these free resources on the Holocaust.

Warren Marcus Warren Marcus, director of teacher workshops and conferences in the education division of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, organizes and presents teacher workshops on Holocaust education, both in Washington, D.C. and across the country. He also represents the museum at educational conferences. Marcus has directed the Belfer National Conferences for Teachers at the Museum since 1997. From 1994 to 1998, he coordinated the Baltimore Project, a privately funded grant that brought students from Baltimore City public schools to the museum and provided resources and training to their schools and educators.

Before joining the museum's education division in 1994, Marcus taught middle- and high school social studies for 17 years. He was a national finalist for social studies teacher of the year in the 1992 Disney Channel Salutes the American Teacher Awards Program, and he served as a national judge for the program in 2001 and 2002. He participated in a 1989 summer study program in Israel for teachers of the Holocaust, and in a 1988 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for Teachers on "Literature of the Holocaust." Marcus, a graduate of Brown University, received a master's degree in education from Harvard University.

Education World: What kind of opportunities does the annual observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day provide for educators?

Warren Marcus: Congress established the Days of Remembrance as our nation's annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust, and mandated the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a permanent living memorial to the 6 million Jews, as well as the millions of others, murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Hopefully, Holocaust Remembrance Day can be a part of -- but not the sole focus of -- a school's Holocaust education within the curriculum. We remember those who were lost, but we also consider the lessons of the Holocaust; the fragility of democracy, the dangers of indifference, the roots and ramifications of prejudice, and the importance of individual and civic responsibility, as we commemorate and learn about this dark chapter in history.

EW: What understandings or concepts do you think students should take away from a study of the Holocaust?

Marcus: There are so many; I will touch on a few:
The Holocaust, the persecution and the murder of millions of Jewish people and additional victims, was not the work of one man or a few. It was made possible by the actions and choices of hundreds of thousands of people, in and out of the Nazi party, in and out of Germany. It was made possible by millions of bystanders who allowed it to happen. Jews were targeted simply because of who they were, because of a twisted belief in "racial science," which often led to misperceptions, scapegoating, and stereotyping.

The Holocaust happened in a civilized, democratic nation with a constitution. Mass murder was in some cases approved of, and perpetrated by, individuals with degrees from great institutions of learning. Some religious groups and leaders either supported the process or turned away.

Technology, from sophisticated counting machines to industrialized use of pesticide, can be used for terrible purposes.

The dehumanization of an individual begins when someone is demeaned with a scurrilous nickname. Once individuals are seen as easy to make fun of, or less worthy than the "right" people, the slippery slope towards mass murder starts. Jews were targeted simply because of who they were, because of a twisted belief in "racial science," not because of behavior, politics, appearance, or any other factor students may imagine.

EW: Many educators worry about exposing students to the horror -- particularly the graphic images of horror -- that a study of the Holocaust involves. At what grade level do you think students should begin learning about the Holocaust?

Marcus: There are a range of opinions about what is age-appropriate and what is not regarding the study of the Holocaust. Some states mandate K-12 Holocaust education, but we would hope that in the primary grades, this is not Holocaust education per se, but a consideration of the importance of respect for differences and fighting prejudice.

Educators at the Holocaust Memorial Museum do not support Holocaust education in the primary grades. The history of the Holocaust is incredibly complex, and many -- or most -- students are not ready developmentally to consider those ambiguities and gray areas before sixth grade. Younger students can't help but simplify, generalize, and stereotype when confronted with the behavior of individuals and groups in this history. In addition, as Dr Joan Ringelheim, the Museum's Director of Oral History points out, the study of the Holocaust can lead younger students to the conclusion that adults were either unwilling to protect the innocent and the helpless or incapable of doing so. I personally wonder if we need to be in a hurry to teach this unintended "lesson" of the Holocaust to our younger students.

And, of course, some of the testimony and visuals are particularly shocking and graphic. As a result, teachers who present this topic to younger students may distort the history by emphasizing -- or only presenting -- stories of rescue and heroism, which were infrequent and rare. As an example, my daughter read Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, as part of the local fourth grade curriculum. Few of the students were able to understand the larger historical context of the Danish rescue of 1943 within the scope of the Holocaust.

EW: Can you tell me about the workshops you conduct for teachers?

Marcus: The workshops have two main goals: to improve historical understanding and to raise questions about methodology in the classroom.

Workshops are presented here at the museum and around the country. Workshops here include meeting with a survivor and spending considerable time in the museum's exhibitions. An online workshop at our Web site offers a look at a typical workshop, with discussions of guidelines, rationale, core concepts, obstacles and suggestions, sample lessons, and explanation of USHMM resources. Attendees receive many USHMM materials and sometimes vouchers to the museum shop.

We have a range of opportunities for teachers at all experience levels, including the Belfer Conference each summer and the Mandel fellowship for very experienced teachers. Check our site for a listing of free professional development opportunities.

EW: What are the most common concerns or questions expressed by teachers at your workshops?

Marcus: Teachers at our workshops thirst for more knowledge. The period of the Holocaust was a very complicated, complex, detailed, and disturbing time. Most teachers have insufficient classroom time to present the material responsibly. They are looking for cogent, accurate lessons, as well as testimony and primary sources. (Our Web site offers several lessons, both in the online workshop and embedded in several of the online exhibitions.)

Educators also are looking for correct answers to some of the most frequently asked student questions:

Why the Jews?
How did Hitler kill millions of people?
What did the U.S. know and do?
Why didn't the Jews leave?
Why didn't they fight back?

Teachers also request guidance on which resources, printed or visual, are best for their students. They want to clarify generalizations and myths about the history. And they want to hear a survivor speak to them.

EW: What are the most common mistakes teachers make when teaching or discussing the Holocaust with their students?

Marcus: Many teachers, with the best intentions, present the Holocaust in problematic ways. First, the education division here feels very strongly that any simulation or role-play in this study is inappropriate and misleading. Students should read and hear testimony to learn about the Holocaust, and not be led by some attempted classroom re-creation to think they know what it felt like.

Second, teachers may spend excessive time trying to have students understand the magnitude of the loss of millions of people through lessons in which objects represent human lives. Individual lives should be studied and individual voices should be heard.

Third, teachers, due to a lack of time, may start their Holocaust study in 1939 or 1941. To provide some context for grappling with how a civilized nation and continent could descend so quickly into this barbarity, it is crucial to start a Holocaust study with the history of antisemitism and with events at least from the end of World War I. Also, if the study starts during World War II, students may see the Jews and other target groups only as victims.

Fourth, teachers may fail to present testimony from individuals and show films that depict the span of experience, including ghetto life and death, camp life, the experiences of hidden children, life before, and so on.

Fifth, teachers may rely on only one text, and students may think that that text depicts what happened to everyone during the period. Another pitfall would be to use only The Diary of Anne Frank. Teachers may teach the diary or play and not instruct their students about the last months of her life. Students would be left with many misconceptions about her life and about the Holocaust in general.

I strongly urge teachers to see Museum Guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust and to check out our Teaching Materials (Part 3 of Resource Guide), as they construct or refine their curricula and lessons. The guidelines may help educators avoid some of those pitfalls.

EW: How can teachers relate the lessons of the Holocaust to their students' lives today or to current world events?

Marcus: Teachers should think carefully about their rationale for teaching about the Holocaust. The principal rationale for all educators is that the Holocaust was a watershed event in human history. The systematic and state-sponsored attempted extermination of a group of people was unprecedented, especially in a civilized nation in Western Europe. How did civilized society, its institutions, and its citizens fail so miserably to protect people?

Teachers might have additional rationales to consider as they study the history; rationales that connect to current events on an individual, community, or national level. Some of those might be
Learning about the roots and ramifications of prejudice, hate, and antisemitism .
Considering the dangers of indifference.
Thinking about the fragility of democracy.
Reflecting on the use and abuse of technology.
Learning about the highs and lows of human nature, behavior, and potential.
Preventing genocide now and in the future.
Remembering the millions who were lost and those whose lives were changed forever.

I would urge teachers to be very careful about presenting exact parallels between events and personalities during the Holocaust and events and personalities in recent times or in the present. Parallels can be drawn between some events, but comparisons of pain should be avoided. For more on this topic, consult the USHMM guidelines for educators, online, in print, or in the online workshop.

I also would recommend that teachers look at the Conscience section of our Web site to learn about the development of the concept of genocide, as well as about possible early stages of genocide that are occurring in the world today.

EW: What resources for teaching about the Holocaust does the museum provide?

Marcus: The museum Web site is overflowing with resources for teachers. All our printed materials, including the Resource Guide, Resistance book, ID cards, and more, can be ordered or downloaded from the site. There are many online exhibitions; some have lessons included.

Visitors to the site also have access to our document and photo archives through the research section. There are two encyclopedia-like sections: the Holocaust Learning Center and the Learning Site for Students.

Another valuable resource is the Personal Histories section. Many personal stories, arranged thematically, are presented in written and video format.

We also are beginning to present videoconferencing opportunities with scholars and survivors, and information about professional development opportunities around the country and here in Washington are available. Of course, information about a museum site visit also is available online.

EW: Can you recommend other Holocaust resources that teachers can trust?

Again, our Web site includes Web Links to reputable Holocaust-related institutions around the world, including study centers, memorials, and institutions. Teachers also could visit the Association of Holocaust Organizations Web site to find an institution in their area.

Students and teachers should be careful not to rely on Holocaust-related sites found only through search engines. Some sites may be unreliable and misleading, historically inaccurate, or established for malicious reasons. As with any written text, readers should investigate the author and sponsoring institution carefully.

EW: What are some of the ways in which schools can observe Holocaust Remembrance Day?

Marcus: There are myriad ways schools can observe the day: Ceremonies, proclamations, survivor testimony, reading of diaries and memoirs, candle-lighting, and discussions with survivors are just some of the ways educators and students have commemorated this event. Tree planting, memorial services, dramatic readings, and multimedia presentations, when responsibly and sensitively prepared, can be thought provoking and rewarding endeavors. An extensive section of the museum's Web site helps visitor think about and organize a Day of Remembrance in their schools or communities. Ideally, students should have some background and information provided to them before any planned event.

EW: How can teachers incorporate the lessons of Holocaust Remembrance Day into their curricula all year long?

Marcus: I would hope the lessons of Holocaust Remembrance Day already are woven through the fabric of instruction, curriculum, and discussion in school communities. The Holocaust was a major event in world history and its ramifications and impact continue today. Students can consider the choices made during this period by perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and rescuers through hearing or reading testimony, as well as by reading Holocaust literature. Citizens can consider the role and responsibility of a national government in protecting its population, as well as its responsibilities when human rights are abused in other countries. Those questions and discussions are a natural fit for history, social studies, government, literature, and many other courses.

EW: How can teachers learn more?

Marcus: If any teacher has questions about professional development opportunities that are not answered on our Web site, or if they would like to discuss or comment on this interview, they can e-mail me at teacherworkshops@ushmm.org.


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum The United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumThe United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is America's national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, and it serves as this country's memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust of World War II.

The museum's primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.

The museum houses more than 8,000 artifacts and artwork, 19 million archival materials, 78,000 photographs, 7,000 oral histories, 620 hours of video, and 50,000 library holdings related to the Holocaust, and has received nearly 20 million visitors since its opening, ten years ago this month
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Photos courtesy of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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