A Poetic Finale
Black granite wall bearing the quote ‘You are my Witnesses’ located in the Hall of Witness at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Reflected on the wall is the grand staircase with visitors. Max Reid/USHMM #n0513536
OVERVIEW AND BACKGROUND
A central goal of Holocaust education is to inspire new generations to bear witness. Renewal—one of the themes of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 10th Anniversary—is central to this process. As we face the challenge of educating the young to bear witness and foster renewal we can count on the natural inquisitiveness and inherent desire for fairness of students as forming the foundation for this unique job. This lesson is designed to give individual students the chance to craft a poetic response to the Holocaust as a form of bearing witness.
Because this lesson is primarily a reflective activity, it presupposes that students have taken notes in a learning journal and saved past Holocaust-related assignments. Rereading one’s journal, past assignments, and other documents will be a key element in the writing process.
This lesson is designed as a way to conclude a unit on the Holocaust, to give voice to the new witness. A Jewish rapper, Remedy, wrote a song titled “Never Again” after he learned of his family's experiences in the Holocaust. Like the young people we encounter in our classrooms, Remedy was too young to experience the Holocaust. Remedy’s song stems from his growing understanding of Holocaust as a historical and human tragedy and serves as the seed from which this lesson grew. Likewise, the lesson capitalizes on the Holocaust content that students have encountered inside and outside the classroom, inviting them to produce a poetic synthesis that allows them to bear witness.
One may ask, why poetry? Dennis Loy Johnson, when discussing the importance of poetry after the events of September 11, 2001, provided an eloquent rationale for poetry in the wake of horror:
Reading the descriptions, seeing the pictures—all it did was breed questions and spiritual angst, and add to the grief. Not that reading those descriptions and knowing what happened fully isn't important, but clearly, the sudden surfeit of poetry meant people felt there was something lacking in all that prose, something going uncovered.
This lesson takes approximately five class periods. It can be used to conclude a two-week unit study or a two-month unit of study.
The majority of my teaching career has taken place in urban centers. I designed this lesson while teaching at a small community high school for at-risk high school students in Milwaukee. About 75 percent of my students are Latino, many with an interest in and/or knowledge of hip-hop/rap music, a subculture with roots in the neighborhoods of the South Bronx.
Hip-hop culture entertains and provides a powerful forum for young people’s self-expression. Its relevance to young people rivals that of rock ‘n’ roll for earlier generations of young people. Like rock ‘n’ roll and jazz before it, hip-hop is often misunderstood or abhorred by older generations. To be clear, some popular hip-hop artists’ lyrics are preoccupied with money, power, sex, and/or violence. However, it would be unfair to stereotype something as large as hip-hop culture based on the work of a few artists. There have always been rappers who are visionaries, who refuse to simply fixate on the negative, who strive to see not simply what is but what could be. Some of these progressive hip-hop artists include Kurtis Blow, KRS-ONE of Boogie Down Productions, Chuck D, Queen Latifah, and Speech.
One of the first things my students notice when studying the Holocaust is the word ghetto. Ghetto is a key word in their urban lexicon. Students in other communities may find other entry points into the vast subject of study that is the Holocaust. This lesson grew directly from my students. In the spring of 2000, Juan S. approached me with a CD. “Hey Mr. Leibold, there’s a Jewish rapper on here talking about the Holocaust. Track 13.” I borrowed the CD, a compilation of different rappers titled Wu Tang Killa Bees—The Swarm, Volume One, listened to the song “Never Again” by Remedy, and immediately made plans to use the song some time during my lesson on the Holocaust.
This lesson may seem to require that teachers know a lot about rap culture. Although I would encourage any teachers to make a sincere effort to educate themselves about the interests of their students, I want to make it clear that this lesson’s real focus is not rap music but poetry. Rapping is only one modern permutation of humanity’s love of language.