Teaching the Holocaust by Inquiry: Develop Upstanders Rather Than Bystanders | Joel Backon | 6 Min Read

January 26, 2023

Teaching the Holocaust by Inquiry, Elizabeth Krasemann, Foreword by Michael Berenbaum. LIT Verlag GmbH & Co., Zurich, 2022.

These are fascinating times to teach students about the Holocaust. Some would argue that it is an ideal time since many schools are focused on DEI+, and this tragedy during World War II certainly qualifies as one of the more serious violations of social justice and ethnic equity in modern history. Alternatively, we live in a world of increasing antisemitism and an identity culture in which each disadvantaged group feels it deserves the designation, “most mistreated.” From that perspective, the Holocaust shares the stage with numerous other genocides including Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, Ukraine, Armenia, Native Americans, and Black African slaves. Thus, there are more tragedies than we would like to admit. So why study the Holocaust?

Perhaps the answer is very simple: because it happened. One has to answer the question of how the Holocaust could possibly happen in the modern world. What is the tipping point at which strong prejudices push ordinary citizens into participating in the extermination of an entire ethnic group? What type of human depravity and evil motivates us to become accomplices or perpetrators of such heinous crimes? More importantly, however, is the question of whether human depravity is an innate human characteristic, a learned behavior, or a choice that one makes when immersed in ethically challenging circumstances. If the answer is the latter, why do so many choose that path and only a few oppose it? Finally, how do we help our students understand issues that delve into the ethical fabric of our humanity?

Two pedagogical tools are necessary to help our students. One is an inquiry-based approach to understanding the Holocaust and the other is the curation of the best primary and secondary sources that will immerse students in what the German people and leadership were thinking and how the Jewish people tried to cope with the impending destruction of their lives. One of our own independent school teachers has provided both and more in a new book that will help all of us to bring the Holocaust to life. Our students have the opportunity to answer the toughest questions with the help of those who lived through the Final Solution. Elizabeth Krasemann recently published Teaching the Holocaust by Inquiry, in which she provides numerous topics and questions to suggest a pathway for student investigation, a series of lesson plans to select from in the creation of a course or unit of study, and an impressive collection of resources, fully sourced, to support student research. Krasemann’s book was inspired by the Holocaust course she taught at Suffield Academy in CT and her passion for understanding the context of evil in Nazi Germany (she is now teaching at Colorado Rocky Mountain School).

The strength of the book is its clear and well-conceived case for teaching the Holocaust through student inquiry, a question-based pursuit.  According to Krasemann, “…inquiry-based learning in the history classroom promotes the fundamental understanding that history is complicated, nuanced, and sometimes chaotic…. Events unfold due to the action or inaction of individuals.” (14) Of course, critical reading and thinking are required and key skills for students to develop. Krasemann borrows a term from John Seeley Brown that captures the essence of those skills and good historical scholarship: triangulation, “viewing one and the same facts from different perspectives and with different sources.”  She writes, “If one is capable of triangulation, one creates for oneself the guarantees that enable separating right from wrong, or truth from lies.” (16)

Because each chapter or topic and critical question is of the same format and structure, one’s initial strategy will be to skim the materials to gain a flavor for the course. However, Krasemann’s commentary combined with superb resources, many of which I had never seen before, will draw you into the narrative and force you to confront the big questions she poses. For example, one lesson is called, “Human Dignity and Moral Dilemmas: What ‘Choiceless Choices’ did the Victims Face?” It focuses on the ethical dilemmas that the Jewish prisoners in the camps faced on a daily basis. Krasemann introduces the topic with some background context and a series of big questions for students to answer. Each sentence provides a substantive gem that a teacher can use to stimulate student reflection. Here’s one: “The Jewish tradition stresses that every life has infinite value since every person is created in the image of God. This stands in stark contrast to the National Socialist ideology, which created a hierarchy of the value of human life, and only valued Aryan life.” (322)

Once the context of the lesson is understood, there is an “opening hook” designed to immerse students in the principles of the lesson without first diving into the primary content. In this lesson, Krasemann uses the famous trolley experiment that was most recently popularized by Michael Sandel in his famous Harvard course, Justice. The moral dilemma of the trolley leads the class to the big questions with a transitional dilemma tying the trolley to the Holocaust: “Imagine a group of Jews is hiding and a baby begins to cry. Should the baby be smothered to protect the whole group?” (325) It is the ultimate moral dilemma. 

Documents make up the bulk of each lesson, and each one is accompanied by Teacher Notes to help facilitate discussion. The segments that are most relevant to the big questions are included, and citations allow the teacher to select another or larger portion of the document. Several of the documents for this lesson are primary sources and were written by Dr. Ella Lingens-Reiner, a lawyer and doctor that hid many Jews from the Gestapo before she was caught and sent to Auschwitz as a camp doctor. There, she made daily decisions about which Jewish inmates would live and which would die. Others are secondary sources such as Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, a commentary on the Nazi decision to have Jews transport other Jews to the cremation ovens or Claude Lanzman’s film, “Shoah: Four Sisters,” which includes an episode about Joseph Mengele selecting an 8 months pregnant woman to be spared so he could perform experiments on her newborn child. The resources for each topic are abundant and on point.

We end with a final discussion and assessment. Some assessments are written pieces and others small projects. For this topic, students are asked to create an image that captures the themes of the inquiry. It is designed to illustrate or depict a state of mind rather than a situation and is accompanied by a public presentation and discussion. There are twenty-four topics and sets of lessons in the book, meaning that one can select one, several, or all of the topics depending on whether you are looking for a fresh approach to one unit of a course, an entire semester, or full-year dive into the Holocaust.

Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University wrote the Foreward of this book, and spoke of “choiceless choices” and understanding “the indifference of neutrality.” It is a testament to Krasemann that she was able to share her passion, extensive knowledge, and understanding of the Holocaust with her students, and now she has done the same for us through this book. At the end of his Foreword, Berenbaum reminds us of the miracle that a few people stood up to the Nazis and were able to help some Jews either escape or be hidden. Why is it the case that “some people are immune to the infection of evil?” He commends Krasemann for her focus on the heroes because they are the people we wish to honor and emulate. Berenbaum says, “Holocaust educators have called them upstanders—a vital contrast with bystanders.” Upstanders have been reborn as the new group of active citizens in our schools today.

Joel Backon

Joel Backon has been the Editor of Intrepid Ed News since its inception in January 2021, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network, owner of Intrepid, in 2019 as Vice President. Joel spent much of his career at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held founding roles in Information and Academic Technology, as well as being a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, coach, dorm head, and student adviser. Prior to Choate, Joel spent 15 years in the printing and publishing industry educating printers on how to maximize their strengths and minimize weaknesses. He has crusaded to achieve consensus on the question of why we educate kids in an effort to meet the learning needs of every student.

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