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March 2010

Lindsay Hudgins attended Weiss’ Educators’ Seminar in Denver, sponsored by the University of Denver, the United States Holocaust Museum and the Holocaust Awareness Institute.

I had a great experience in Denver recently, teaching 100 public school teachers.

Together with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, University of Denver and the Holocaust Awareness Institute, we conducted a day-long seminar to better teach the Holocaust. Teachers came from all over the Denver-Boulder area to learn. I was giving the concluding session of the day-long learning.

At the end of the day, I stepped onto the stage to begin my presentation. Knowing that the teachers have had a long day of teaching techniques and teaching approaches – I decided to say what was most important to me first.

“You can’t just teach history – facts and dates – you have to teach humanity.” And this is what I believe.

Unfortunately, I had not heard the opening words of a precious presenter, Peter Mehlbach, one of program’s organizers, who was trained by, and was representing U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C.

Simply put, Peter expressed a very different view, “You’re not here to teach humanity. You’re here to teach history.”

You decide.

Peter’s point, of course, is that our job as teachers is to teach – teach the facts, and paraphrasing the Dragnet character, “the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

There is a great deal of validity to his point of view, because when you teach only facts, you separate the history (or whatever subject you are teaching) from the teacher’s personal perspective on the facts – and that is important. We need to know the facts accurately, and not simply a single teacher’s interpretation of the facts. But when you do this, if you only do this, you run the risk of separating the history from what makes it relevant to the students, and in this distancing, many students will simply turn off because they know “This has nothing to do with me.”

I have a different approach. Absolutely, and without compromising or short-changing the historical facts, I want to make a connection between the history on the written page and the history ‘written’ on our hearts. I want to get this history inside their kishkes (Yiddish, for guts, their insides). I want to include relevant personal stories of people directly involved in the history. Therefore, instead of teaching simply that 800,000 were killed in Treblinka, I choose to highlight the story of one of those 800,000 – Janusz Korczak, author, educator, doctor, radio show host, founder of the Warsaw Orphanage, and originator of creative educational principles, considered modern still today. In the case of Korczak, when we teach that, although given a chance for his own freedom, Korczak refused to take it – unless the little Jewish orphans in his orphanage were also given a chance to live, we are also teaching humanity, not just history. And when the children were not allowed to live, and Korczak chose to accompany them on the death train, and was killed with them in Treblinka, we are teaching something much more than history. We are teaching extraordinary courage, extraordinary ethics and an extraordinary sense of humanity.

After this kind of teaching, when we learn ‘800,000 died at Treblinka’, we now know the story of one. And then the facts become more important to us too.

Even if we could never do what Korczak did, nor should we – nor anyone – have such a terrible choice, we learn from the actions of such individuals about ethical values and exceptional modes of behaviors. On a smaller scale, we learn about the lives of these people BEFORE they were victims. And when we learn who these people were, then what happened matters much more, and it’s no longer a ‘distant’ history. [Note: For more personal stories of who these people were, please see the Education/Learn section]

So as you can see, when I teach about the Holocaust, I feel it is incomplete to teach only when this ghetto formed, or that concentration camp opened, without letting students know about individual lives – and who were these individuals?

And by ‘who were they?’ I’m not simply talking about how they died, but rather, about how they lived. And with this perspective of life and culture and society, I believe we have an important aspect of Holocaust education.

In closing, I share the perspective of two observers, a Holocaust scholar who writes about Holocaust memorials and memory, and a high school teacher who attended my session:

James E. Young, University of Massachusetts at Amherst on The Last Album says:

“What precisely do [museum] artifacts teach us about the history of the people who once animated them?” In a perversely ironic twist, these artifacts – collected as evidence of the crimes – were forcing us to recall the victims as the Nazis have remembered them to us – victims known only by their absence, by the moment of their destruction. In great loose piles, these remnants remind us not of the lives once animating them, so much as of the brokenness of lives. Ann Weiss’ remarkable work provides an invaluable corrective to this tendency. Like Yaffa Eliach, Ann Weiss shows us what was lost. Moreover, in Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we not only have a record of how the victims would have remembered their own lives, but we have a visual record of that which constituted the fullness of life itself. In this kind of memory, the humanity of the victims is restored to view, and that which the Nazis would have us forget is forcefully thrust back into the open.

Lindsay Hudgins, World Literature Teacher at West High School, Denver, CO:

After hearing what you taught us today, I want to find all my students from the last 10 years so I can tell them this story – the humanity of all these people. I will go back to my students this year, and begin correcting my wrongs!

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