Developing a New Narrative
A New Narrative

Our main goal should be to help our studentsfind the meaning and lessons that we can learn from this history.

When teachingthe Holocaust, teachers often say, “That was a successful lesson; I had every student in tears.”

Students in tears are not students who are learning.

Horrific stories and pictures of emaciated bodies cause students to shut down. Distraught students do not ask, “Why did this happen?” They ask, “Why do I have to learn this?If we want our students to learn, we do not want to make them cry.

How do we teach a traumatic story without traumatizing the our students? Here are some suggestions.

Our main goal should be to help our studentsfind the meaning and lessons that we can learn from this history.

When teachingthe Holocaust, teachers often say, “That was a successful lesson; I had every student in tears.”

Students in tears are not students who are learning.

Horrific stories and pictures of emaciated bodies cause students to shut down. Distraught students do not ask, “Why did this happen?” They ask, “Why do I have to learn this?If we want our students to learn, we do not want to make them cry.

How do we teach a traumatic story without traumatizing our students? Here are some suggestions.

Use a New Narrative

To teach the Holocaust without traumatizing your students, teach it

  • Thematically, with historical context, focusing on literature, art, music, religion, and spiritual resistance
  • Starting at a young age, but in an age-appropriate way designed to allow students to engage with the material
  • Through stories of individuals, not focused on numbers
  • Through the voices of our ancestors, not the perpetrators
  • In context of the periods before, during, and after the war

By teaching in this manner, we can focus on

  • Teaching empathy, trying to understand how those involved felt without putting ourselves in their shoes, which can be upsetting
  • Understanding how people reacted to their situations and why
  • Understanding how we can incorporate this story into our lives without allowing it to take over our lives.
Teach the Human Story

When we focus on the humanity of the individual, when we rescue the individual out of the pile of bodies, we build empathy and understanding.

To do this, teach the human story primarily thematically, through literature, music, art, and religion, rather than teaching it primarily historically. Let your students hear the voices and the names of their ancestors.

Whose story are we choosing to show?

Pulled from a Bunker

“Pulled from the bunkers by force” in the Warsaw Ghetto. A picture of a people crushed beneath the unstoppable force of the Nazi machine.

When we think about the pictures from the Holocaust, we think of pictures of the dead and dying, of gaunt bodies and empty eyes, of trouble and fear. These images, along with all the Nazi propaganda, continue the Nazis’ work by showing Jews as something less than human.

For two generations, we have used the Nazis’ pictures to tell the story of what they did to us.

It is time to reclaim the humanity of our ancestors.

In the depths of chaos, the Jews recognized that unless they documented what was happening, their story would only be told by the perpetrators. They left diaries and writings, stories, art, and music – and they hid these in places where we could later find them. We can use this legacy to give the victims back their names, their faces, their voices, and their humanity.

Choose the victims’ story, not the perpetrators’

Kovno Ghetto Orchestra

The Kovno Ghetto orchestra. The orchestras continued to play music by non-Jewish composers, in spite of laws forbidding it.

When we listen to the voices of our ancestors, we hear a story that acknowledges that many people died, but also that many people lived. This new story asks, How did they live? How did they survive? What did they hold onto?

When we follow this path, we find our ancestors holding onto those things that they felt most important – their love, their families, and their traditions, but also their community, their art, and their music. We see pictures of life and living, of families and communities, of joy as well as sorrow.

We acknowledge the inner strength of so many, even in the face of chaos, terror, and destruction.

Put the Story in Context

We need context to understand the human story.

In the same way that we have allowed the Nazi propaganda to dictate the tone of our story, we have allowed the Nazi regime to dictate our timeline. The story of the Holocaust is traditionally taught starting with the Nazi rise to power in 1933 and ending with their defeat in 1945, as if the only important part of the story is the one that involves the perpetrators.

Only in the context of their life before and after the war can we truly understand these people’s stories.

Genia Bletcher

Genia Bletcher, a gifted pianist, was active in the Vilna Ghetto theater.

Who were they before the terrible things happened to them?

The people who became the Nazis’ victims were as varied as we are. They were scientists and shopkeepers, athletes and artists, teachers and politicians. When the Jews were forced into ghettos and camps, they tried to recreate those things they felt were most important to them. For some, that meant schools and synagogues; for others, theater and orchestras. Unless we understand who they were before 1933, before their lives became confined by racist laws and pogroms, we cannot understand why they reacted as they did. We cannot see their humanity.

Who were they after?

Similarly, to end in 1945 leaves the survivors as nameless near-corpses in the camps and as terrified children cowering in hiding places or lying about their identities. In 1945, even at liberation, they were still victims. We must show our students the path our ancestors took from victim to survivor, how they stepped out of the ashes and the bunkers, found a way past the anger and the sorrow, and rebuilt their lives.

Putting Nazi anti-Semitism in context

Al Watan

A cartoon from Al-Watan, a modern Arabic newspaper, depicting a Jew with a sack of money worshiping at an altar that is also a safe.

The lives of our ancestors are not the only part of the Holocaust story that needs context. Often when we teach about the Holocaust, we talk about Nazi ideology and Nazi anti-Semitism as if the Nazi party invented the idea and it died with them. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism. They took advantage of a deep and abiding hatred that had existed for generations. Generations of European Jews faced persecution at the hands of their neighbors, from anti-Semitic laws to state-sanctioned pogroms. Although state-sanctioned pogroms are generally a thing of the past, anti-Semitism is still prevalent in many places in the world, including in Europe and North America. In teaching about Nazi anti-Semitism, it is important to put that ideology in the context of historical and modern anti-Semitism.

The Nazi ideology drew on both long-standing stereotypes and newer visions of genetics. Almost as long as Christianity has been in power in Europe, there have been people who believed that the Jews were evil, in league with the devil, and conspiring to take over the world. Nazi ideology combined this age-old hatred with a newer science. As scientists began to understand genetics in the late 1800s, racists gravitated to the idea that some people had better genes than others and that bad genes could ruin the purity of a race.

The Nazi implementation of anti-Semitic hatred was more deadly than any that had come before. However, we often incorrectly imply that the Holocaust was a great conflagration of hatred that stands alone and apart from everything else. This hatred has ancient roots in Europe. This hatred did not disappear with the Nazis. Anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years and continues today. For our students to truly understand the lessons of the Holocaust, we must teach them about the origins of bigotry and hatred, and how to fight it in all contexts.

Teach in an Age-Appropriate Manner

If we want our older students to engage with the complexity of the Holocaust, we must build a foundation of understanding for them, starting at a young age.

At each age, we must carefully design our lessons to what we feel the students can handle. We need to tell true stories but we do not need to tell the whole story at every age. By keeping our lessons age-appropriate, our students can grow into a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and its stories.

When is the right age to begin discussing the Holocaust?

We know that it is not appropriate to tell second graders about that time when their great-grandparents were rounded up and shot for being Jews. On the other hand, if we wait until middle or high school to even mention the Holocaust, then our students will be unable to deal with the complexities of the story. The Holocaust makes one question every aspect of life – culture, history, democracy, even G-d. It is imperative that we allow our students to work through these questions in a space where we can help them, rather than forcing them to work through these questions alone.

We must, therefore, build a foundation upon which our students can lay the more difficult parts of the story. If we build them a foundation, then when they get to high school, we will be able to talk about the difficult questions that the Holocaust raises.

Discussing the Holocaust with young children takes careful planning.  At the youngest ages, we can teach about ghettos and the loss of home or freedom. At this age, we avoid teaching about the loss of family, which is much more difficult for young children. The key point here is that although we must tell true stories, we do not need to tell the whole story at every age. We must carefully design our lesson plans to what we feel the students at each age can handle.

Asking students to try to understand how it felt to experience these things is never age-appropriate.

From Keeping the Memory Alive, Yad Vashem 2012. Artist: Petra Nehera.

Developing empathy and avoiding trauma: Don’t ask “How would you feel in her place?” Ask “How do you think she felt?”

One common approach to Holocaust lessons has been to have the students put themselves in the victims’ shoes. “If you had to leave everything behind except one suitcase,” we ask them, “what would you pack?” Although this seems like a good idea, it is actually a recipe for trauma. Trying to imagine losing your home, your parents, or your children does not facilitate learning, or even empathy. It only puts you in a terrifying place you do not want to be.

Do not ask, “How would you feel?” Instead, ask, “How do you think they felt?” The phrasing of this question leads to empathy and avoids trauma.

Equally fundamentally, the exercise in trying to understand how it felt “to be there” is futile. Our students cannot fathom what it means to be hungry. “Starving” to them means it’s been three hours since breakfast and, oh, lunch isn’t for another ten minutes! None of us, thank G-d, can really understand what it was like to be in these situations.

If we give our students the chance to empathize, to consider how the people in those situations felt, then the students will begin to relate. They will relate in ways that are natural to them and, therefore, are not traumatic.

Students learning about the Holocaust should not be solemn and quiet.

In watching Israeli teachers present this subject, the educators at Yad Vashem noticed that teachers typically expected their students to be solemn and quiet, as if to say, “This is a solemn subject, and you must be respectful.”

The Holocaust is a solemn subject but it is also a difficult subject. If we want our students to understand, then we must allow them to engage with the material. We must let them react to it. If we expect them to be quiet in these lessons, then we are expecting them to disengage and, therefore, not to learn.

Often, we will find that the students’ reaction is anger. Who among us will tell them that is an improper reaction to this story? For many, this anger will be directed at people, but for others, the anger may be directed at G-d. Some teachers fear to teach this material, fearing to drive students to question G-d. We must let students rage, let them question, and let them work through all these feelings. It is better to allow the students time and space to work through these feelings in class where we can help them than to force them to deal with these feelings on their own.

Use a New Narrative

To teach the Holocaust without traumatizing your students, teach it

  • Thematically, with historical context, focusing on literature, art, music, religion, and spiritual resistance
  • Starting at a young age, but in an age-appropriate way designed to allow students to engage with the material
  • Through stories of individuals, not focused on numbers
  • Through the voices of our ancestors, not the perpetrators
  • In context of the periods before, during, and after the war

By teaching in this manner, we can focus on

  • Teaching empathy, trying to understand how those involved felt without putting ourselves in their shoes, which can be upsetting
  • Understanding how people reacted to their situations and why
  • Understanding how we can incorporate this story into our lives without allowing it to take over our lives.
Teach the Human Story

When we focus on the humanity of the individual, when we rescue the individual out of the pile of bodies, we build empathy and understanding.

To do this, teach the human story primarily thematically, through literature, music, art, and religion, rather than teaching it primarily historically. Let your students hear the voices and the names of their ancestors.

Whose story are we choosing to show?

Pulled from a Bunker

“Pulled from the bunkers by force” in the Warsaw Ghetto. A picture of a people crushed beneath the unstoppable force of the Nazi machine.

When we think about the pictures from the Holocaust, we think of pictures of the dead and dying, of gaunt bodies and empty eyes, of trouble and fear. These images, along with all the Nazi propaganda, continue the Nazis’ work by showing Jews as something less than human.

For two generations, we have used the Nazis’ pictures to tell the story of what they did to us.

It is time to reclaim the humanity of our ancestors.

In the depths of chaos, the Jews recognized that unless they documented what was happening, their story would only be told by the perpetrators. They left diaries and writings, stories, art, and music – and they hid these in places where we could later find them. We can use this legacy to give the victims back their names, their faces, their voices, and their humanity.

Choose the victims’ story, not the perpetrators’

Kovno Ghetto Orchestra

The Kovno Ghetto orchestra. The orchestras continued to play music by non-Jewish composers, in spite of laws forbidding it.

When we listen to the voices of our ancestors, we hear a story that acknowledges that many people died, but also that many people lived. This new story asks, How did they live? How did they survive? What did they hold onto?

When we follow this path, we find our ancestors holding onto those things that they felt most important – their love, their families, and their traditions, but also their community, their art, and their music. We see pictures of life and living, of families and communities, of joy as well as sorrow.

We acknowledge the inner strength of so many, even in the face of chaos, terror, and destruction.

Put the Story in Context

We need context to understand the human story.

In the same way that we have allowed the Nazi propaganda to dictate the tone of our story, we have allowed the Nazi regime to dictate our timeline. The story of the Holocaust is traditionally taught starting with the Nazi rise to power in 1933 and ending with their defeat in 1945, as if the only important part of the story is the one that involves the perpetrators.

Only in the context of their life before and after the war can we truly understand these people’s stories.

Genia Bletcher

Genia Bletcher, a gifted pianist, was active in the Vilna Ghetto theater.

Who were they before the terrible things happened to them?

The people who became the Nazis’ victims were as varied as we are. They were scientists and shopkeepers, athletes and artists, teachers and politicians. When the Jews were forced into ghettos and camps, they tried to recreate those things they felt were most important to them. For some, that meant schools and synagogues; for others, theater and orchestras. Unless we understand who they were before 1933, before their lives became confined by racist laws and pogroms, we cannot understand why they reacted as they did. We cannot see their humanity.

Who were they after?

Similarly, to end in 1945 leaves the survivors as nameless near-corpses in the camps and as terrified children cowering in hiding places or lying about their identities. In 1945, even at liberation, they were still victims. We must show our students the path our ancestors took from victim to survivor, how they stepped out of the ashes and the bunkers, found a way past the anger and the sorrow, and rebuilt their lives.

Putting Nazi anti-Semitism in context

Al Watan

A cartoon from Al-Watan, a modern Arabic newspaper, depicting a Jew with a sack of money worshiping at an altar that is also a safe.

The lives of our ancestors are not the only part of the Holocaust story that needs context. Often when we teach about the Holocaust, we talk about Nazi ideology and Nazi anti-Semitism as if the Nazi party invented the idea and it died with them. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism. They took advantage of a deep and abiding hatred that had existed for generations. Generations of European Jews faced persecution at the hands of their neighbors, from anti-Semitic laws to state-sanctioned pogroms. Although state-sanctioned pogroms are generally a thing of the past, anti-Semitism is still prevalent in many places in the world, including in Europe and North America. In teaching about Nazi anti-Semitism, it is important to put that ideology in the context of historical and modern anti-Semitism.

The Nazi ideology drew on both long-standing stereotypes and newer visions of genetics. Almost as long as Christianity has been in power in Europe, there have been people who believed that the Jews were evil, in league with the devil, and conspiring to take over the world. Nazi ideology combined this age-old hatred with a newer science. As scientists began to understand genetics in the late 1800s, racists gravitated to the idea that some people had better genes than others and that bad genes could ruin the purity of a race.

The Nazi implementation of anti-Semitic hatred was more deadly than any that had come before. However, we often incorrectly imply that the Holocaust was a great conflagration of hatred that stands alone and apart from everything else. This hatred has ancient roots in Europe. This hatred did not disappear with the Nazis. Anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years and continues today. For our students to truly understand the lessons of the Holocaust, we must teach them about the origins of bigotry and hatred, and how to fight it in all contexts.

Teach in an Age-Appropriate Manner

If we want our older students to engage with the complexity of the Holocaust, we must build a foundation of understanding for them, starting at a young age.

At each age, we must carefully design our lessons to what we feel the students can handle. We need to tell true stories but we do not need to tell the whole story at every age. By keeping our lessons age-appropriate, our students can grow into a deeper understanding of the Holocaust and its stories.

When is the right age to begin discussing the Holocaust?

We know that it is not appropriate to tell second graders about that time when their great-grandparents were rounded up and shot for being Jews. On the other hand, if we wait until middle or high school to even mention the Holocaust, then our students will be unable to deal with the complexities of the story. The Holocaust makes one question every aspect of life – culture, history, democracy, even G-d. It is imperative that we allow our students to work through these questions in a space where we can help them, rather than forcing them to work through these questions alone.

We must, therefore, build a foundation upon which our students can lay the more difficult parts of the story. If we build them a foundation, then when they get to high school, we will be able to talk about the difficult questions that the Holocaust raises.

Discussing the Holocaust with young children takes careful planning.  At the youngest ages, we can teach about ghettos and the loss of home or freedom. At this age, we avoid teaching about the loss of family, which is much more difficult for young children. The key point here is that although we must tell true stories, we do not need to tell the whole story at every age. We must carefully design our lesson plans to what we feel the students at each age can handle.

Asking students to try to understand how it felt to experience these things is never age-appropriate.

From Keeping the Memory Alive, Yad Vashem 2012. Artist: Petra Nehera.

Developing empathy and avoiding trauma: Don’t ask “How would you feel in her place?” Ask “How do you think she felt?”

One common approach to Holocaust lessons has been to have the students put themselves in the victims’ shoes. “If you had to leave everything behind except one suitcase,” we ask them, “what would you pack?” Although this seems like a good idea, it is actually a recipe for trauma. Trying to imagine losing your home, your parents, or your children does not facilitate learning, or even empathy. It only puts you in a terrifying place you do not want to be.

Do not ask, “How would you feel?” Instead, ask, “How do you think they felt?” The phrasing of this question leads to empathy and avoids trauma.

Equally fundamentally, the exercise in trying to understand how it felt “to be there” is futile. Our students cannot fathom what it means to be hungry. “Starving” to them means it’s been three hours since breakfast and, oh, lunch isn’t for another ten minutes! None of us, thank G-d, can really understand what it was like to be in these situations.

If we give our students the chance to empathize, to consider how the people in those situations felt, then the students will begin to relate. They will relate in ways that are natural to them and, therefore, are not traumatic.

Students learning about the Holocaust should not be solemn and quiet.

In watching Israeli teachers present this subject, the educators at Yad Vashem noticed that teachers typically expected their students to be solemn and quiet, as if to say, “This is a solemn subject, and you must be respectful.”

The Holocaust is a solemn subject but it is also a difficult subject. If we want our students to understand, then we must allow them to engage with the material. We must let them react to it. If we expect them to be quiet in these lessons, then we are expecting them to disengage and, therefore, not to learn.

Often, we will find that the students’ reaction is anger. Who among us will tell them that is an improper reaction to this story? For many, this anger will be directed at people, but for others, the anger may be directed at G-d. Some teachers fear to teach this material, fearing to drive students to question G-d. We must let students rage, let them question, and let them work through all these feelings. It is better to allow the students time and space to work through these feelings in class where we can help them than to force them to deal with these feelings on their own.