I became immersed in the study of the Holocaust because I took on the responsibility of teaching about the Holocaust to high school students in 2001. It’s a topic, I discovered, that we think we know everything about, and yet, as it turns out we know nothing about.
I began with a skull and crossbones image of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, that they were easy to spot because they were scary looking comic book monsters. I came to learn that they were people who look like people I would ordinarily call “us.” That’s chilling. And, when I thought about it, a lot scarier. The phrase, People Next Door, the aptly named documentary of Holocaust survivors who settled in the South Bend area, became for me, also, the name of the perpetrators. And it also became the name of the bystanders and the name of the resisters, the people next door.
The conventional wisdom about the Holocaust was a lie, I learned.
Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, an account of German soldiers who participated willingly in mass murder, is also aptly named.
The learning that I had to do in order to begin to somewhat adequately teach about the Holocaust to high school students is now a gauze for me, through which I see the world. How could ice anything else? I saw human hair behind display cases in a building called “Evidence of Nazi Crimes” at Auschwitz, hair that was sold by the SS to textile factories where it was transformed into army uniforms for a profit. As I write this, I hear the Polish accent of our guide who said, “The lives had no value. The hair had value.” I hear the voice often.
A thoughtful consideration of the Holocaust quickly elicits the question, “What would I have done?” first as a member of the community of victims, but then also, as I am accustomed to my privilege, as a member of the community of perpetrators?”
At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. scholars told teachers of the Holocaust that we must know what we are talking about, and that we must be careful about our selective use of facts that are designed to support the conclusions we may have already reached and we must be careful and intellectually honest about the analogies we may be tempted to draw with contemporary events. The analogies can be simplistic.
As extreme example, a student told me that our building principal was a “Nazi” because she instituted a policy that required students to get parking passes and park in designated areas of the newly paved student parking lot.
I am drawn to the same temptation, the easy analogy, I know. But I’m also drawn to the “why? And I really want to know and I think somehow that if I could know and I could tell you and so I do look for patterns.
By what manner is the privilege of superiority gained? How is it maintained? To what degree does it extend? And, to what degree am I willing to take its advantage? Tough, tough questions, but they were not questions that were beyond the reach of my students. High school is a living lab for social stratification. My experience is that entitlement is a more likely attribute of adults.
At the Memorial Library teacher conference I attended in New York, an openly gay teacher from North Carolina said to his colleagues, “There’s no such thing as a bystander. There are degrees of responsibility, but there’s no such thing as a bystander.” Douglas showed his colleagues how he uses what he knows about the Holocaust to systematically combat bullying in his school.
I believe it could teach us about more.
At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, scholar Yehuda Bauer told another group of American teachers to “Start with the Holocaust,” he said, “and proceed to teach about human rights.”
Most recently, in the Forever Learning class I sometimes hold I’ve liked to start to teach with Walt Whitman.
From Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (as read and illustrated by Michael Mastrogiacomo)
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or the hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not —Distance avails not and place avails not,
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw its patches down upon me also,
..you furnish your parts toward the soul.
Music: Variation on a Theme By Eric Satie (1st Movement), Blood Sweat and Tears