Teaching Holocaust history requires a high level of sensitivity and keen awareness of the complexity of the subject matter. The following guidelines reflect approaches appropriate for effective teaching in general and are particularly relevant to Holocaust education.
- Define the term “Holocaust.”
- The Holocaust was not inevitable.
- Avoid simple answers to complex questions.
- Strive for precision of language.
- Strive to balance the perspectives that inform your study of the Holocaust.
- Avoid comparisons of pain.
- Avoid romanticizing history.
- Contextualize the history.
- Translate statistics into people.
- Make responsible methodological choices.
Define the Term “Holocaust”
A historically accurate and precise definition of the Holocaust is essential as part of a successful lesson or unit. Defining the Holocaust at the beginning of a unit provides students with a foundation from which they can further explore the history and its lasting influence, identifying who was involved and placing the history into geographical and temporal context. It provides students with sound footing as they confront the question, “What was the Holocaust?”
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Museum educators can connect you with classroom resources and answer questions about teaching the Holocaust.
The Holocaust Was Not Inevitable
The Holocaust took place because individuals, groups, and nations made decisions to act or not to act. Focusing on those decisions leads to insights into history and human nature and fosters critical thinking. Just because a historical event took place, and it is documented in textbooks and on film, does not mean that it had to happen.
Avoid Simple Answers to Complex Questions
The history of the Holocaust raises difficult questions about human behavior and the context within which individual decisions are made. Be wary of simplification. Seek instead to convey the nuances of this history. Allow students to think about the many factors and events that contributed to the Holocaust and that often made decision making difficult and uncertain.
Strive for Precision of Language
Because of the complexity of the history, there is a temptation to generalize and, thus, to distort the facts (e.g., “all concentration camps were killing centers” or “all Germans were collaborators”). Avoid this by helping your students clarify the information presented and encourage them to distinguish, for example, the differences between prejudice and discrimination, armed and spiritual resistance, direct and assumed orders, concentration camps and killing centers, and guilt and responsibility.
Words that describe human behavior often have multiple meanings. Resistance, for example, usually refers to a physical act of armed revolt. During the Holocaust, it also encompassed partisan activity; the smuggling of messages, food, and weapons; sabotage; and actual military engagement. Resistance may also be thought of as willful disobedience, such as continuing to practice religious and cultural traditions in defiance of the rules or creating art, music, and poetry inside ghettos and concentration camps. For many, simply maintaining the will to live in the face of abject brutality was an act of spiritual resistance.
Try to avoid stereotypical descriptions. Though all Jews were targeted for destruction by the Nazis, the experiences of all Jews were not the same. Remind your students that, although members of a group may share common experiences and beliefs, generalizations about them without benefit of modifying or qualifying terms (e.g., “sometimes,” “usually,” “in many cases but not all”) tend to stereotype group behavior and distort historical reality. Thus, all Germans cannot be characterized as Nazis, nor should any nationality be reduced to a singular or one-dimensional description.
Strive to Balance the Perspectives that Inform Your Study of the Holocaust
Make careful distinctions about sources of information. Encourage students to consider why a source was created, who created it, who the intended audience was, whether any biases were inherent in the information, whether any gaps occurred in discussion, whether omissions were inadvertent or not, and how the information has been used to interpret various events.
Most documentation about the Holocaust comes from the perspective of the perpetrators. In contrast, survivor testimonies and collections humanize individuals in the richness and fullness of their lives.
Strongly encourage your students to investigate carefully the origin and authorship of all material, particularly anything found on the internet.
See recommendations from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance on teaching and learning about the Holocaust.
Avoid Comparisons of Pain
A study of the Holocaust should always highlight the different policies carried out by the Nazi regime toward various groups of people; however, these distinctions should not be presented as a basis for comparison of the level of suffering between those groups during the Holocaust. One cannot presume that the horror of an individual, family, or community destroyed by the Nazis was any greater than that experienced by victims of other genocides. Avoid generalizations that suggest otherwise.
Similarly, students may gravitate toward comparisons between aspects of the Holocaust and other historical or contemporary events. Historical events, policies, and human behaviors can and should be carefully analyzed for areas where there may be similarities and differences, but this should be done always with careful consideration of evidence and contextual factors, differentiating between fact, opinion, and belief.
Avoid Romanticizing History
Portray all individuals, including victims and perpetrators, as human beings who are capable of moral judgment and independent decision making. People who risked their lives to rescue victims of Nazi oppression provide compelling role models for students. But given that only a small fraction of non-Jews under Nazi occupation helped rescue Jews, an overemphasis on heroic actions can result in an inaccurate and unbalanced account of the history. Similarly, in exposing students to the worst aspects of human nature as revealed in the history of the Holocaust, you run the risk of fostering cynicism in your students. Accuracy of fact, together with a balanced perspective on the history, is necessary.
Contextualize the History
Events of the Holocaust, and particularly how individuals and organizations behaved at that time, should be placed in historical context. The Holocaust should be studied in the context of European history as a whole to give students a perspective on the precedents and circumstances that may have contributed to it.
Similarly, the Holocaust should be studied within its contemporaneous context so students can begin to comprehend the circumstances that encouraged or discouraged particular actions or events. For example, when thinking about resistance, consider when and where an act took place; the immediate consequences of one’s actions to self and family; the degree of control the Nazis had on a country or local population; the cultural attitudes of particular native populations toward different victim groups historically; and the availability and risk of potential hiding places.
Encourage your students not to categorize groups of people only on the basis of their experiences during the Holocaust; contextualization is critical so that victims are not perceived only as victims. By exposing students to some of the cultural contributions and achievements of 2,000 years of European Jewish life, for example, you help them to balance their perception of Jews as victims and to appreciate more fully the traumatic disruption in Jewish history caused by the Holocaust.
Translate Statistics Into People
In any study of the Holocaust, the sheer number of victims challenges comprehension. Show that individual people—grandparents, parents, and children—are behind the statistics and emphasize the diversity of personal experiences within the larger historical narrative. Precisely because they portray people in the fullness of their lives and not just as victims, first-person accounts and memoir literature add individual voices to a collective experience and help students make meaning out of the statistics.
Make Responsible Methodological Choices
Educators who teach about the Holocaust seek to honestly and accurately investigate a history in which millions of people were dehumanized, brutalized and killed while ensuring a safe classroom environment in which their students can engage in learning and critical thinking. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the lesson objective. Try to select images and texts that do not exploit the students’ emotional vulnerability or that might be construed as disrespectful to the victims themselves. Instead of avoiding important topics because the visual images are graphic, use other approaches to address the material.
In studying complex human behavior, some teachers rely upon simulation exercises meant to help students “experience” unfamiliar situations. Even when great care is taken to prepare a class for such an activity, simulating experiences from the Holocaust remains pedagogically unsound. The activity may engage students, but they often forget the purpose of the lesson and, even worse, they are left with the impression that they now know what it was like to suffer or even to participate during the Holocaust. It is best to draw upon a variety of primary sources, provide survivor testimony, and refrain from simulations or games that lead to a trivialization of the subject matter.
Art projects featuring Nazi imagery, word scrambles, crossword puzzles, counting objects, model building, and gimmicky exercises tend not to encourage critical analysis but lead instead to low-level types of thinking and, in the case of Holocaust curricula, trivialization of the history. If the effects of a particular activity run counter to the rationale for studying the history, then that activity should not be used.