Severn News

Teaching the Holocaust: One Teacher’s Perspective

Why do we teach history? To connect events of the past with our world as it exists today? To recognize our own values and compare them to value systems throughout history? To become better citizens — better people — and learn from the mistakes of long-ago? For Middle School history teacher Mrs. Lisa Clarke, the answer is all of the above as she teaches Severn 8th graders about the Holocaust, encouraging them to learn from history, stand up for others, and make a positive contribution to our world.

History Through A Social Science Lens

"The students ask me, 'Why did the Nazis murder so many people? How could they have gotten away with it for so long?'" I can’t answer those questions, they are answerless. But what I can do is give them broad ideas and tie it to their lives in middle school today.”
— Mrs. Clarke

Before diving into the events of the Holocaust, Mrs. Clarke starts the year talking about what motivates human behavior and how that behavior can be manipulated by those in power. She encourages 8th graders to think about what their values are — what’s important to them, their hopes, their fears — and how circumstances can affect how we outwardly demonstrate our values. They discuss situations when living by your values might be easy, and times when it might be extremely difficult.

They discuss group dynamics and how the desire to be a part of a group — to be “in” rather than “out” — is common to all of us. Mrs. Clarke helps students make the connection that our human need to be part of a group can override our values depending on the circumstances, thus explaining the many bystanders to the genocide.

She is careful to stress that while non-Jews were sometimes put in positions where they had to choose their own lives over the lives of others, there were also Nazis and Nazi sympathizers who had no trouble murdering Jews and other victims. Many bystanders, like bystanders to bullying, made conscious decisions not to get involved and do what they could to help, thus facilitating the dehumanization and genocide.

Making It Personal

Mrs. Clarke also shares some of her own family history with the class. She begins the unit by giving her students a letter describing her own grandfather’s experience as a Jewish-American soldier during World War II. While sharing a bit of herself, she also prepares students to think about this time in history as part of a larger pattern of behavior rather than a single atrocious event. Excerpted from her letter:

“My grandfather died in 1991, when I was in 11th grade. He never spoke about his time in the army, so we knew little about his experiences there. A few years ago, my grandmother moved into the area, and as my father dug through the artifacts from her life, he discovered a small package of worn-out black and white photographs - piles of dead, emaciated bodies, a heap of human ashes, and gaunt, ill-looking survivors who had been liberated only a little while before the pictures were taken.  On the back of one the photographs, my grandfather wrote, 'It’s impossible to imagine the horrible sights I’ve seen here.'

It’s easy to dismiss the Holocaust as merely something that happened a long time ago to people who are not you. Unfortunately, there have been many more recent examples of genocide - people being killed because of who they are, the religion they practice, their ethnic background, or something else that ties them together. It begins with people finding reasons to hate each other, to put others down, to decide who is “in” and who is “out.”

As we try our best to learn from history, I hope that you will have the courage to fight against hatred, stand up for others, and make a positive contribution to the world.”

Making It Real

Toward the end of the unit, Mrs. Clarke invites her friend and Holocaust survivor Mrs. Melitta Stein to talk with her classes. Listening to Mrs. Stein’s story takes everything the students have learned thus far and makes it real. Mrs. Stein shares personal stories about what her life was like before and during the Nazi occupation.

Holocaust survivor speaks to Severn middle school students about her experience during the Nazi occupation.
Mrs. Stein shares her story of survival.

She too emphasizes that many of the people who lived through this, victims and bystanders alike, were just everyday folks living in extraordinary circumstances. She shows the students the tattoo on her arm and when one student asks, “Why don’t you have it removed?” Mrs. Stein states, “I would never have this removed. It’s there to show people what really happened. It’s there so we don’t forget.”

Holocaust survivor visits Severn School eighth-graders to share her story.
After the presentation, Severn eighth-graders gathered to thank Mrs. Stein for sharing her story.

Finally, the 8th-graders take a class trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. Here they see images and video and read real accounts of the horrors that Jewish people faced in Europe at that time. Mrs. Clarke commented on the trip:

“I’ve been to the Holocaust museum with students every year for the past fifteen years. I’ve never had a group of kids who were as curious about the topic and who were as impacted by what they saw as this class. They understood that the person standing right next to them could be a family member of a survivor. They understood that the museum memorializes something horrific and they acted accordingly, with tremendous respect. I was very proud to be their teacher that day.”

A Final Thought

In a final thought, Mrs. Clarke emphasizes that themes we examine in the Holocaust are universal — the need to belong, the use of exclusion as a scare tactic to mark a group as “other,” the responsibility to stand up for those that cannot stand up for themselves. She talks about people throughout this and any time in history as being perpetrators, victims, bystanders or upstanders. Mrs. Clarke teaches in this way so our students make genuine connections to the material and think deeply about which role they will take as each day they write our history of tomorrow.

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    • Holocaust survivor Mrs. Stein shares her story with Severn 8th grade students.

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