Ninth graders are studying the Holocaust by examining the relationship between history and memory, studying the chronology of the Holocaust with deeper study of a few key events, analyzing literature, and grappling with difficult questions together.
In our study of the Holocaust, we are confronting some big questions. As the questions grow heavy and unwieldy, they have the potential to foreclose discussion. That’s why a question like "How can we begin to grasp the magnitude of the Holocaust?" can be met with silence in the classroom. We’ve tried to narrow the breadth of that question by asking how we can put an individual’s experience of the Holocaust within the broader context. Put another way: how do we reconcile the experience of one person with the collective experience of six million people?
Reframing the big question still doesn’t give students a clear way to approach it. To fill this gap, we are working with a theoretical scaffolding upon which students can build their ideas—namely, the relationship between history and memory. Learning about how memories are formed by individuals, reinterpreted by communities, and represented by artists and writers has given students vocabulary that they can use to articulate their responses to the Holocaust. Students have contemplated memorials, explored museum exhibits, and listened to oral histories in an effort to understand how individual and collective memories have shaped what we know about the Holocaust.
We’ve combined this thematic approach with some study of the chronology of the Holocaust. At the beginning of the block, students conducted preliminary research and then mapped out a timeline of Holocaust, its lead-up, and its aftermath, which spread across five adjacent whiteboards. Over the course of the block, we deepened our understanding of a few key events. For example, we looked at photographs from Kristallnacht—a night of concerted attacks on Jewish communities throughout Germany and Austria—and read the minutes of the Wannsee Conference, the meeting in which senior Nazi officials made a plan for implementing their “Final Solution” to their so-called “Jewish Question.”
Although we only studied a few events in depth, this focused approach actually helped us see the connections in the white space between the points on the timeline they made. In other words, the bigger picture emerged from the pieces. Students saw that seemingly small injustices escalated into genocide. They also recognized that the Holocaust was neither a spontaneous outburst of hatred nor the work of one uniquely evil madman, but rather a meticulously planned mass killing operation in which many millions were complicit. This understanding has provided essential context for discussions of a more philosophical nature.
One of the consequences of an exploratory, question-driven approach to learning is that we will sometimes need to pause and reorient ourselves. To provide some grounding as we transitioned into final paper mode, I asked students to reflect on their learning with a quick fill-in-the-blank game. I created a chart with the weeks of the block at the top and asked students to fill in the components of the course: the sub-topics, historical content, assignments, big themes, and skills.
The students successfully completed the chart, as you can see in the photograph below, but what really impressed me was the way they explained the connections between the components. The students articulated how the Nuremberg Laws that the Nazis introduced in 1935, which disenfranchised Jews and institutionalized anti-semitic racial theories, paved the way for the state-sanctioned violence of Kristallnacht. They described how other nations’ refusal to increase their quotas for Jewish refugees at the Evian Conference in 1938 helped the Nazis justify their plans and limited Jews’ possibilities for escape in the lead-up to the deportations to death camps. These comments showed me that the students were synthesizing their learning.
While retracing their steps through the fill-in-the-blank game, students demonstrated their understanding of the historical content; more importantly, they showed their willingness to grapple with one of central paradoxes of responding to the Holocaust today. Throughout the block, we have been considering the question of how artists, writers, curators, and historians should represent the Holocaust. We refer to this theme as the ethics of representation, with some scholars arguing that the Holocaust is fundamentally unrepresentable.
These scholars have maintained that it is problematic to give form and order to something that arguably did not make sense at all, at least not from the victim’s viewpoint, and that finding significance in the Holocaust therefore trivializes it. Alternatively, they argue that it is wrong to attempt to represent the Holocaust when that representation is doomed to be inadequate. At the same time, many people argue that we are morally obligated to remember the Holocaust. We must "never forget" the Holocaust so that a similar genocide will happen "never again"—these are two common refrains in Holocaust memorialization. But how can we bear witness to something that cannot be represented?
Students have wrestled with this conundrum in a range of contexts. In our discussion of the "Monument Against Fascism," a pillar in Hamburg, Germany, that was incrementally lowered into the ground until it disappeared, students noticed that design elements of the memorial seemed to reject the sense of finality and resolution that traditional monuments tend to give viewers: by disappearing, the memorial avoided suggesting that it could fully capture the meaning of the Holocaust.
We also looked at how Thomas Keneally approached the ethics of representation in his book, Schindler’s List, which is the central text in Literature 1 this block. Schindler’s List, like other literary interpretations of the Holocaust, faces the problem of making readers empathize so closely with characters that they forget they are looking at the Holocaust through an imperfect medium. In Literature 1, some students have developed arguments about the way the author self-consciously interrupts the omniscient narration to remind us of the distance between readers and the reality of the Holocaust, which can’t ever be completely spanned. We have extended this conversation into history class. This is one example of the way our study of the Holocaust has created opportunities for curriculum mapping between the ninth-grade history and literature classes.
I have enjoyed using paradoxes and perplexing questions to teach about the Holocaust because the learning has not been limited by the content I choose to convey. I can’t stand at the front of the room and tell students what to believe, because we are grappling with questions that may never be resolved. Instead, I try to provide enough scaffolding so these questions will inspire conversation rather than stifle it. Students are learning that the questions they ask and the analysis they perform matter just as much–if not more–than the conclusions they reach.
-- Eve Simister