Writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that, with the German genocide of European Jews, human history “has known no story more difficult to tell”
And there may be no topic more difficult to teach.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And the question of the most effective way to educate the next generation about the Holocaust has grown more acute as there are fewer and fewer living survivors. When they die they take with them stories only they can tell.
One non-profit institute, Centropa, is taking a unique teaching approach. Working across international borders, the group is helping teachers collaborate on unleashing the pedagogic power of personal family stories.
In a conference room recently at the main library at Duke University, middle and high school teachers, many from North and South Carolina, watched a video exploring the parallels between Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic Nuremberg codes and the racist Jim Crow laws in the American south.
“July 1938: Aryan and non-Aryan children cannot play together.”
“In Alabama, all passenger stations shall have separate waiting rooms,” intones the video, “Cause and Effect.” It was created by Centropa with teachers from the U.S. and Europe.
“1938: Jewish children are no longer allowed to attend public schools.”
“In Georgia it shall be unlawful for a white person to marry anyone but another white person”
The teachers were not suggesting a moral equivalency between dehumanizing and repressive Jim Crow laws and genocide. But they were looking at how the two racist codes might become teaching tools, to explore what dialogue might be sparked with students.
The teachers trade ideas on reaching kids in their world and through their news feeds.
“That’s awesome. I’ve never thought about it that way. It’s like ‘tweet’ is the new telegram,” one teacher says. “That could be the title of the lesson: Tweets Are Telegrams.”
The teachers gathered at Duke were part of a recent seminar run by Centropa, a nonprofit institute dedicated to preserving stories of Jewish life in 20th century Eastern and Central Europe.
Several prominent Holocaust remembrance and education groups have long used survivor interviews and other first-person accounts and pictures to educate about the genocide of European Jewry. The USC Shoah Foundation and its online visual history archive has taken the lead, along with the United Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other organizations in the U.S. and abroad.
Centropa takes a slightly different approach, by centering its work on the wider personal family stories, pictures and memories of a lost era, not just the unbelievable darkness of the Nazi years.
“We’re about searching for human values in the darkest times. It is about showing teenagers there is always a true north,” says Director and founder Edward Serotta.
To date Centropa has collected more than 20,000 family photos, conducted hundreds of interviews and made scores of short films.
One is the life of Ruth Halova a survivor from the Czech Republic. She recounts her childhood, her dramatic escape to England and her retirement and return to her native land, the Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov.
Or take the story of the multi-ethnic Jewish old-age home and soup kitchen in Romania, Aunt Rosie’s Kitchen. It can show students, Serotta says, that “even as age closes in, you treat each other with respect and dignity.”
Or the story of a group of Czech boys in German-occupied Prague, called Peter Ginz and the Boys of Vedem.
“When I stood up in the class the teacher said, ‘You cannot attend because you are Jewish.’ Everybody looked at me. You can’t imagine, it’s just, it’s a terrible feeling,” survivor Sidney Tausig says in the film.
The piece focuses on the boys’ efforts to keep sanity, hope and learning alive while trapped, cramped and starving, in a Nazi-controlled ghetto where 90 percent of the people were murdered. The boys started to collect stories and pictures in secret. “And from one of the boys came a suggestion that we should write our own newspaper,” another survivor says. The boys risked their lives to create an underground magazine called Vedem.
“Centropa is far more about how Jews lived than about how they perished,” Serotta says. “If you want a student to learn more and to feel more about the subject, give them an entire life, give them a whole life for them to know about.”
Serotta, a former journalist, created the group originally as an archive to a lost world. But teachers from scores of countries kept writing in to him.
“I’d write back from our office in Vienna and say, ‘We don’t have an education program,’ ” he says. “I was intrigued enough to ask them to sit around a table with me in different cities and different countries to tell me what we needed to do for them. So from the very start we asked teachers to tell us and help us design programs we can use in class.”
Today, it’s up to teachers to take the lead to share lessons online or work in seminars to craft their own lesson plans after tapping into the group’s archive of photos, text and videos.
Take the short film about the brutal Bosnian-Serb siege of Sarajevo in the early- and mid-1990s.
What does Bosnia have to do with the Holocaust? Well “Survival in Sarajevo” tells of the real-life story of how a group of Holocaust survivors and their offspring turned a rundown synagogue into an aid agency — meals, shelter, health care. It was free and open to all with no regard to religion or ethnicity during a war that was all about those divisions.
The film shows “you can make a choice, you can make a difference, guys” says Apex, N.C., teacher Randy Moncelle. He’s been teaching for more than 40 years. He came away from the weekend seminar inspired to try new things in the classroom.
“It’s really added a new dimension. What I’ve seen today I can get into the kids’ lives, they can identify with and develop empathy,” he says. “This is what you’d sit around the kitchen table and tell your family and share on an intimate basis, one to one. And you just don’t get [that] in documentaries and presentations.”
Anthony Ludwig, a high school history teacher in Charleston County, S.C., says working collaboratively with Centropa has changed how he teaches the Holocaust, genocide and history in general.
“If I see my students again in 10 years, they they won’t remember the standards and indicators that South Carolina is so obsessed with,” he says. “But if they take away the life lessons, if it influences them to be civically engaged and active in their communities, I’ve done my job.”
Other educators shared stories and ideas about how they teach the Sarajevo movie. Lisa Sterling is an art teacher in Greensboro, N.C.
“The students were asked to consider this idea of Jews, Muslims, Croats, Serbs working together, and how this idea could be put in a visual statement,” she says.
During the Sarajevo siege, the synagogue helped keep up mail delivery, despite absurd and dangerous obstacles. She had her students make their own postcards with stories.
For Sterling, the project has immediacy. As she stands before her fellow teachers, Sterling chokes up, reminding them of the recent triple murder of Muslim students in nearby Chapel Hill.
“This moment of history, when really just a few miles from here, excuse me, we have the horrible shooting that just took place,” she told the group, “it is just so important to understand that the differences that we have can be acknowledged and can be celebrated, and that we can work together.”