January 27, 1945, is an important day in Holocaust history. On that day, Russian soldiers discovered Auschwitz, freeing the remaining prisoners who had not been forced on death marches by the SS.
Sixty years later in 2005, International Holocaust Remembrance Day was designated to commemorate the anniversary. By then Auschwitz was deeply entrenched in the collective memory of the Holocaust—and for good reason. More than a million people, the vast majority of them Jews, perished at the massive Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. The undeniable significance of what occurred contributed to Auschwitz assuming, for many, a paramount position in Holocaust education.
But while Auschwitz is undeniably important, it’s only a piece of a meaningful Holocaust education. I had the opportunity and privilege to ask Elie Wiesel, renowned writer and Auschwitz survivor, for his best piece of teaching advice. He told me, “Think higher, feel deeper.” I’ve taken that wisdom into the planning and writing of my book Think Higher Feel Deeper: Holocaust Education in the Secondary Classroom. Knowing that so many books about the Holocaust have photos of Auschwitz on the cover regardless of their content, I made a single request of my publisher: “Don’t make the cover a picture of Auschwitz.”
More than 25% of teachers have one week or less to teach about the Holocaust. With that in mind, here are some topics and resources that can easily be incorporated into an existing unit. This will help your students to, as Elie Wiesel put it, think higher and feel deeper when it comes to their learning about the Holocaust.
Harvard University’s Religion in Public Life initiative offers excellent resources for introducing students who may not be familiar with the Jewish faith. Emphasizing the internal diversity of Judaism (and other religions) Harvard offers excellent videos and case studies for teachers to utilize, as well as a summer seminar that I would strongly encourage you to apply for. Learn more at the Harvard Divinity School site.
Antisemitism is on the rise in the United States as well as the rest of the world. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Voices on Antisemitism podcast features interviews with a wide variety of people, from NBA stars to reformed white supremacists, each with something interesting and important to say about fighting antisemitism. Learn more at the Holocaust Museum’s website.
The Rise of the Third Reich
Students often wonder how Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in the first place. Another USHMM resource, The Path to Nazi Genocide is an engaging 38-minute film that offers students and teachers alike greater insight into how the National Socialists took power in Germany. The film can be streamed for free at the USHMM site.
“Why didn’t they fight back?” is a common question young people ask, and it’s an easy one to answer: Some did. Resistance took many forms, from spiritual resistance such as continuing to practice a persecuted religion to actively fighting back with weapons. The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation focuses on the latter form of resistance and provides many user-friendly resources. Learn more at the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation site.
The Holocaust by Bullets
Outside of ghettos and concentration camps, an unthinkable number of Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen and by locally organized militias of non-Germans. Yahad—In Unum is an organization based on the work of Father Patrick Desbois that offers teacher training around the country, a study guide published in conjunction with the Florida Holocaust Museum, and more. You can access the study guide in PDF format from the Florida Holocaust Museum. Learn more about Yahad—In Unum here.
The USC Shoah Foundation, Institute for Visual History and Education, is home to thousands of hours of recorded testimony from survivors of the Holocaust as well as genocides that took place throughout the 20th century. Their innovative resources and programming encourage teachers to use their materials. Learn more at the USC Shoah Foundation website.
Naturally, many teachers and students alike make the connection from their study of the Holocaust to acts of genocide in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, as well as ongoing acts of genocide and other atrocities in Burma, China, and elsewhere in the world. The brainchild of Dr. Greg Stanton, Genocide Watch offers a framework for examining genocide known as the 10 stages of genocide, provides reports on numerous nations and ongoing atrocities, and issues up-to-date alerts. Genocide Watch is an excellent starting place for branching outside of the study of the Holocaust.
What happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau between its establishment on May 20, 1940, and its evacuation on January 27, 1945, marks one of the most somber and horrific episodes in human history. Adding a deeper understanding of the historical context and events that made it possible for the unthinkable to occur will help students comprehend the narrative, enabling them to think more broadly about the importance of these events and the practical applications of the knowledge they acquire.
The Holocaust did not occur within a vacuum, nor did it mark the end of genocide—quite the opposite, in fact. But teachers and students alike have long shared a profound interest in this topic, and the more widely taught the lessons of the Holocaust become, the more likely it is that we may one day see a world without such crimes.