Teaching the Holocaust in Germany

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Teaching about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust as a Jewish visitor to German schools.

(Again out of order chronologically, but fresh, and heavy, on my mind…)

This week I spent two days teaching at a gymnasium – “college prep” high school – in Heilbronn. I was speaking in their Religious Education classes, a History class and one English class. One of the teachers was very excited to plan a lesson for the students that both fit into their current learning and took advantage of my areas of expertise. We determined that Jewish Resistance during the Holocaust was the best way to do this. After some discussion we determined to start with a film that I show to my students at the start of our Holocaust unit in 8th grade – “Spielzeugland” (Toy Land.) This film tells the story of two young German boys – one Jewish, one not, and what happens when the Jewish family is rounded up for deportation. I won’t give away the story in case you want to watch it.

After this film and a discussion of it, I would then teach about Jewish Partisans and Ghetto Fighters using photos from my travels in Poland and Belarus. I would focus on the story of Novogroduk and the escape from their ghetto and into the woods where the Bielski Partisans were and, relative, safety, and also on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I ended up teaching this lesson to three different classes over the two days I was in Heilbronn. The gravity of teaching German children about the lives, and deaths, of Jews during the Holocaust was not lost on me. And I was honored by the trust their teachers put in me to help them learn from this history and, hopefully, be inspired to work to finally make a world where these things stop happening again and again. 

We began with the film and as the final credits began to scroll, I wiped away a few tears. It was dead quiet in the room. I asked if there were any immediate questions or comments. There were none. Students were then given five minutes to write down or discuss with a peer their thoughts. I acknowledged for them that this was a heavy film and encouraged them to write down whatever their thoughts were. I also gave them the prompt of “Was what happened planned or spontaneous?” After their time to process it, I asked again for comments or questions. One student commented about the difference in the treatment of the woman in the film between when the Nazi officers thought she was a Jew and when they saw her Auspass and realized she was not. They went from yelling and cursing to practically flirting with her and being very helpful. The student said “Without her papers, they could not tell whether she was Jewish or not. We cannot tell who someone is just by looking at them.” There was general consensus that the events were spontaneous and that the woman made “a good choice” when she saw an opportunity to save a life. One of the students referred to the characters as a “Jewish boy and a German boy.” Andrea, one of the teachers who was observing the lesson as I would be teaching in her class the next day, said to me later “He was wrong. There were only two German boys.” 

I then taught the class the word “Upstander” and how it is important to add it as a fourth category when discussing situations of oppression. The usual three are Perpetrator, Victim and Bystander. I explained that a bystander, by choosing to do nothing, takes the side of the perpetrator. Their silence or inaction allows oppression to continue. I then explained that an Upstander is the person who sees a wrong and does something – small or big – to try to stop that wrong. I then talked about RIghteous Among the Nations – non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust, and then on to Jewish resistance. We talked about the concept of altruism and the importance of doing the right thing purely because it is what should be done if one is a good person. That our responsibility to each other as fellow humans should be enough to motivate action. 

The students in this class and the two others where I taught this lesson, were all moved by the stories of religious resistance – observing holidays in Auschwitz, stealing the materials to make a Hanukkiah (menorah for Hanukkah) or to write from memory the Book of Esther so they could observe Purim. We talked about how having secret schools gave students hope as well as an escape from their grim surroundings. It showed that there was an expectation that they would live and need to know what they were being taught. I also talked about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese Diplomat, who lost his job and died in poverty for giving out visas so that Jews, and others fleeing Nazi Germany, could get out of France. Watching the faces of the students as we discussed each type of resistance, and I shared stories of specific examples, showed their surprise and their respect for those who took action. 

We then moved on to armed resistance and I told the story of the Novogroduk Ghetto and the digging of the tunnel for 206 meters and the escape from the Ghetto. I then showed pictures of “Forest Jerusalem” the Bielski Camp in the Naliboki Forest and told the students about Tuvia and Zus and the 1205 Jewish lives that they saved. I ended this part with my photo of descendents of Bielski Partisans dancing in the camp in 2019.

The final part of the lesson was about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I asked the first class how long they thought the Jews, with few guns, starving and desperate, held off the Nazis. I was deeply moved by the first answer – “Two years?” I thanked the student for his faith and belief in these scrappy Ghetto Fighters. Others said “three months” and “a couple of weeks.” I shared it was almost a month and that this was impressive considering how lopsided the battle was. I ended the lesson sharing with them about one of my favorite Upstanders – Janusz Korczak – and his refusal to leave his orphans and how he made sure that they were not panicked as they went to the trains. The teachers shared that they had all learned Korczak’s pedagogy when they were in training. 

The discussion in each of the three classes was a bit different, but we focused on how being able to make choices – even if it is only if you will die in a camp or fighting Nazis in the ghetto – is important for one to retain their humanity. We talked about “choiceless choices” and the desire of Jews to assert their ability to resist. One of the teachers asked what the Uprising accomplished since it did not “succeed” in terms of stopping the Nazis. The students all commented on the hope it gave, how it let the Nazis know that the Jews could and would resist, and on the importance to those who participated to feel in control of their fate. 

In the third class, one young man asked me how one goes about forming a resistance group. “You can’t resist such powerful things on your own. How do you form a group to work together?” I shared how Emmanuel RIngelblum formed Oneg Shabbos in the Warsaw Ghetto. How he recruited his like minded friends and they recruited theirs and the group grew in this way. Others asked about how the Jews got weapons and how Partisans got food. I shared about Mira Shelub and her interview on the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation site where she talks about “friendly and unfriendly peasants” and how the friendly ones gave them food and that from the unfriendly peasants, those who were supporting the Nazis, they took food that had been prepared for the Nazis to pick up. The partisans would leave a receipt to let the Nazis know that their food had been taken by Jewish partisans.  

At the end of each lesson we talked about my purpose in teaching this history. That I want people to know the stories of Jews who resisted during the Holocaust to counter the prevailing narrative that they did not. That I want to inspire young people to know that they can make a difference. I pointed out that the people who were partisans and ghetto fighters were not much older than they are.

I finished by saying that I want to instill the inspiration and confidence to do the right thing in a future that I hope that they never have. For them to be able to be Upstanders.

About nancesea

I live in Seattle with my husband Steve. I am an award winning Jewish educator, and primarily teach middle schoolers. My speciality is the Holocaust. My hobbies, when I have time, are reading, live music, and photography. I am passionate about teaching the lessons of the darkest periods history to help inspire my students to assure our future is brighter. Pre-Covid I used to travel yearly to Central and Eastern Europe to continue to learn about this history and make connections with educators there doing similar work. I hope you enjoy my writing on my travels, my learning and Jewish thought and practice. B'vrachot - with blessings - Nance

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