Reflections on Holocaust Education and Highlighting Multifaceted History

This is the final reflection piece from the visit that a group of State of Formation Scholars made to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this spring. Read the other pieces here, here and here.

Dorie Goehring: What struck me the most about going to the USHMM was not the violent details of the Holocaust, nor the collective horrors of genocides all over the world. This is not to say that those details weren’t striking—they were, and I can’t imagine them not being so for anyone with a conscience. For me, though, the thought and question that wouldn’t go away was this: how do we do history ethically? What are the political consequences of remembering some stories, and not actively remembering others? And what does it mean to have access to these stories, both actively remembered and not?

Ellie Anders: The USHMM visit brought to my mind the way in which we use History to teach our students. I took time to think about the student wondering around the exhibit. As a college instructor I think a great deal about the ways I communicate with my students. Their learning styles and whether or not they are getting the messages that I am trying to send. In social justice conversations we generally cite education as a remedy for the ills of society. As an educator, I put a great deal of pressure on myself to “deal” with these issues. I want to effectively convey the messages of history and as much as possible utilize the resources like the Holocaust Memorial Museum. What stories do we share with our students? How do we decide share these stories? Finally, if education is the remedy, what difference does it actually make?

DG: That’s a really excellent point, Ellie—education may be the remedy to prevent atrocities like the Holocaust or other genocides, but it’s also rife with its own ethical ambiguities. For instance, I had never heard of the role that Muslims played in the Holocaust, protecting fellow townsfolk in Poland, before visiting the museum, and I have to wonder: is that necessarily right or good? What does it mean to know and explain just how much the Holocaust has affected things globally? And how does that affect how we may teach or present that material? I also wonder about the concrete effects that education has on preventing genocide, especially as circumstances in Syria, for instance, increasingly get worse. How can we figure out a means to better respond to instances like this? And is there a role that education can play in that?

EA: Wow! Problems like Syria seem so big and out of control. I am only one person. What can I really do, right? Well, the Holocaust Memorial Museum presents the opportunity for students that have a particular learning style to learn in ways in which they normally would not learn. I’ve been to a couple of places and spaces that try to do the job of teaching history by doing. It felt incredibly compelling when standing inside the train car that was in the museum. I tried to stop in the car and think for a minute what would it have looked like full of families? What would my family have looked like crammed in that space with many others headed into an unknown direction? That particular instrument in the museum brought up a palpable learning experience that made me examine and evaluate my experience. Where else can we do that type of lesson, though? How can we really use the physical spaces of history to bring our students into the lessons that we need them to learn to prevent genocide?

I think the work that the Holocaust Memorial Museum is doing is incredibly important work for teachers at all levels. Another person doing the work of impactful storytelling that teachers can utilize is that of 2010 Contributing Scholar Valerie Kaur. The GroundSwell Movement is a great platform for folks to use that connects personal stories that motivate movement in local and national communities. Where we can’t be connected to physical spaces all the time, we can connect to personal stories, and GroundSwell does a great job to practically take action against historic injustices.

DG: I agree wholeheartedly, and I hope that this inspires some critical reflection on the parts of both teachers and learners. Being aware of injustice is only the beginning—evaluating the mechanisms for storytelling is crucial to understanding larger social and political structures. Connecting through personal stories, though, regardless of format, seems to me to be the most effective way of transmitting history—the format is secondary. If we, through our shared humanity, are able to connect with stories from events like the Holocaust, I would hope that our remembering those stories can translate into action—action that inspires the endless search for truth and justice.

Image courtesy of the authors.

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One thought on “Reflections on Holocaust Education and Highlighting Multifaceted History

  1. You all bring up an incredibly important point. How do we get past the paralyzing feeling on inadequacy in the face of huge, systemic, and complex horrors? Telling stories IS important. Maybe the most important stories to tell are the individuals who did do something. The Muslims protecting their neighbors, priests hiding children, diplomates forging documents. These individuals saved one or a dozen or a hundred lives, which might not feel like a lot when millions of people are being killed. But one life saved is one life saved and that is important. And taken together all of these individuals saved thousands of lives. These are the stories that need to be raised up because these are the everyday heroes we need to emulate if we are going to stop current injustices. Telling this stories is an important part of getting over the hurdle from inaction to action.

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