Monday, May 2, 2011

21st Century Holocaust Education

I write this contribution a day after the demise of Osama Bin Laden, who as mastermind of the 9/11 attacks , served as the other "touchstone" in my students' twin history reference points.  The Al-Qaeda leader exists as a polar compliment to Hitler in the minds of many young North American Jews . 

The 21st century Jewish Day School history educator must concurrently work with and challenge an understanding of a world in which Nazis and militant Islamists function as THE nearly exclusive framework for assessing threats to our survival and for formulating ideas about power and policy.  This dilemma was underscored on Yom Ha Shoah eve as Edward Rothstien of the New York Times launched a scathing critique of Holocaust Education in North America.

While reviewing the educational exhibits at LA’s Museum of Tolerance, Rothstein articulated a generalized assessment that “in most institutions and curricula, the Holocaust’s lessons are clear: We should all get along, become politically active and be very considerate of our neighbors. If not, well, the differences between hate crimes and the Holocaust — between bullying and Buchenwald — are just a matter of degree.”

By making a case for teaching about the Shoah, specifically by pre-identifying the "key lessons" of the Shoah, educators have “broken down almost all inhibitions in using the Holocaust as an analogy," claims Rothstein. He indicates that this process undermines an acknowledgment and understanding of the specific vehemence, industrial thoroughness, and transformative legacy of a nearly judenfrei Europe  which is swallowed up in the discourse of comparative Genocide Studies and prejudice reduction.  I agree with Rothstein about the pedagogic pitfalls of historical analogizing just as I wrestle with his plea to separate educating for diversity from engaging with the history of the Holocaust.

The enormity of the Shoah - with all its practical and psychological demands on Jewish educators - presents multiple challenges. Parents and school leaders expect this “subject” to be “taught” even though it is unclear what course, grade-level, or context the Shoah “belongs to” in the day school curriculum.

Judaic Studies faculties tend to believe the precious time they have with students should be utilized to explore the contours of Jewish life - it’s diversity of texts, ideas and practices. Understandably the assault by the German Nazis and their European collaborators is a topic they’d prefer leaving to others. Yet Jewish Studies teachers are essential resources for schools to design pedagogical and theological environments to support students in understanding the Nazi War against the Jews, as Jews.

History teachers work in a context of state and national social studies standards articulated by grade level. So how can you really teach about the Holocaust in a middle school history curriculum where 6th grade is Ancient Cultures, 7th grade is the medieval world, and 8th grade is devoted to the national narrative of the United States? 

Perhaps , argue some social studies teachers, this “topic” should be delayed until High School where it can be dealt with in the chronological context of the second part of a two year Western Civilization Course. The counter-argument to chronology as the preferred setting for Shoah Studies is that the Holocaust’s place in the cycle of the Jewish calendar of memory and as frequently used stage for the narratives of contemporary literature and globalized popular culture. Students rightfully expect history teachers to help them process the everyday discourse of their environment which includes the Holocaust as a critical and ongoing reference point.
I’m thankful that my own introductory training in Shoah pedagogy was conducted by the professionals from Facing History and Ourselves and their Jewish Education Program. Jan Darsa and her colleagues have facilitated the creation of interdisciplinary teacher teams working to address the needs of specific Jewish schools.

 Our work with Facing History stressed the exploration of student’s identity through an examination of diverse expressions of Jewish life in Europe and making connections to their own. In the context of my school, this meant reaching out to survivors in the Los Angeles area, obtaining outlines of their biographies and tasking groups of students to research distinct Jewish communities in different parts of Europe. This research not only prepared students for an eventual encounter with an individual survivor, but stimulated family conversations about the lives of grandparents who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s.

The group work in Judaic Studies was complemented in my History classes where I drew upon the resources of the testimony- based Echoes and Reflections curriculum. These lessons prepared by a consortium of educators from Yad V Shem, The United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education are particularly helpful in introducing the political and social vocabulary needed to tackle the events of the Shoah in a thematic yet chronological manner.
All the Echoes lessons include thoughtful questions for student journal entries reflecting not only on the events and people encountered in documents and testimony, but on philosophical questions such as how to maintain hope in difficult situations and navigating life without a parent. Perhaps Edward Rothstien might find this personal journaling another example of extraneous analogizing, but as a classroom teacher I found this work to be crucial in helping students absorb the facts and images presented to them.

Many day school students in Los Angeles participate in a March of the Living trip sponsored by our local Bureau of Jewish Education. I have not been on the March, but have nevertheless entertained questions about the educational ramifications of taking students on a quick tour of the death camp sites in Poland followed by a joyous journey to Israel. 

One of the survivors we interviewed is Severyn Ashkenazy who launched a perceptive critique of the March during his interview at our school.  Ashkenazy, who is involved in projects of Jewish revival in contemporary Poland strongly feels that the "March" as currently structured (e.g. marching through the Polish countryside with Israeli flags, escorted by armed Israeli guards) causes rupture on the ground in Eastern Europe and ignores the recreation and re-imagination of a vibrant Jewish community in Warsaw and Krakow.

To Ashkenazy this experience precludes an opportunity to explore the Jewish present and to have a dialogue with Europeans who live daily in a nation challenged by legacy of the Shoah. I agree with Ashkenazy that to prepare our students for a complex global reality, this pilgramage to the death camps needs to be re-thought. Perhaps there is a possibility to connect American Jewish students with counterparts in Poland through texting and video-conferencing exploring the Shoah and its ramifications on their sense of self and community identity?

While I consider the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School Survivor Interview Project to have been a success, I am painfully aware that the opportunity for these types of first-hand encounters is rapidly shrinking. So how do we move forward with student-centered, inquiry based, experiential and collaborative learning about the Holocaust in the 21st Century?

One promising new resource is the USC Shoah Institute’s IWitness, website that will make this collection of video testimonies from archive available on the Internet. I particularly like the questions framed by the educators behind this initiative such as “if you could have 1,000 survivors in the room with you, what would you want to know?”

With the survivor community diminishing daily, I’d like us to more interactively work with their testimony and  contemplate their thoughts about the world after Hitler’s demise. To my mind what these people did with their lives postwar can reveal considerable wisdom that, in turn,  can foster principaled choices in our own.

No comments:

Post a Comment