12 Ways We Can Teach About the Holocaust

A MiddleWeb Blog

Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel) is observed each year on a date determined by the Hebrew calendar. (most often in April). In the U.S (and many other nations) International Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on January 27, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. 

Media literacy expert Frank W. Baker believes educators are best positioned to push back against Holocaust deniers who seem to have convinced a shocking percentage of today’s students that the genocide never occurred or is greatly exaggerated. These resources can help.

The evidence is clear: many young people are ignorant when it comes to understanding the Holocaust. A recent university survey suggested that as many as one third of students in Canada and the United States believe the Holocaust story has been exaggerated or fabricated. (Source)

I began to ask educators why students are so poorly informed. One of the responses I received was “teachers simply don’t have the time.” But another colleague suggested this alternative: they’ve not made teaching about the Holocaust a priority.

In this blog post I want to share ways every educator can introduce the history of the Holocaust into instruction. I would argue that the vast scale of its inhumanity and the profound messages it conveys about the consequences of tyranny make Holocaust studies completely relevant in the year 2022.

1. Books. Ask your school librarian which age-appropriate books might be available in your media center collection. Librarians read reviews and recommendations and often acquire those that meet the highest standards. [See these American Library Association recommendations.]

2. Graphic Novels: Librarians nationwide will tell you that these are some of THE most popular books checked out by students. The recent controversy challenging the Holocaust novel MAUS brought to the forefront the popularity of the medium to attract young readers. The Diary of Anne Frank is also available as a graphic novel.

3. Primary Sources: Students today can be encouraged to locate and read newspaper accounts from the 1930s and 1940s when the Holocaust made its way into American media. (The History Unfolded project is a good place for them to start.) Much has been made about how some publications buried the news.

In the World War II era, another primary source was radio. Noted CBS broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow delivered a powerful broadcast to US listeners shortly after the liberation of the Buchenwald death camp. (Transcript) Teachers can have their students listen to it here.

4. Photographs: In a workshop I recently conducted with Holocaust educators, I mentioned that many of us were first exposed to the Holocaust through images. Teaching students how to “read” and interrogate a photo from that time period is an effective way to increase their visual literacy skills. [See “Teaching Holocaust History With Photos” from the Echoes & Reflections organization, which cautions against images that shock or display graphic violence.]

Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

5. Movies: Few if any teachers can afford the time to show an entire film, so selecting appropriate film clips is important. The We Are Teachers website has recommendations, noting that “(o)ne of the greatest challenges is how to help students understand this history without bombarding them with graphic images.”

Following the release of 1994’s Oscar-winning movie Schindlers’s List the Facing History organization published a thoughtful teacher guide to the film. I know that many teachers are fond of using film. I recommend that any time you plan to share a film you seek out the film’s companion “viewer guide” which often provides important cautions, critical viewing questions, and discussion opportunities. [A thoughtful longer list of Holocaust films for middle and high school can be found here.]

6. Documentaries: Different from movies, documentaries offer students a chance to see authentic footage and hear from experts. But take care: even a “nonfiction” documentary has a point-of-view, and it will be important for students to recognize the techniques used in this genre. [See “How To Watch A Documentary”]

In January 2022, the CBS TV network broadcast two documentaries which are relevant to Holocaust education. Undeniable: The Truth to Remember (featuring a high school audience) is available on YouTube and the CBS TV app as well as on the Paramount+ streaming service. The Hate We Can’t Forget: A Holocaust Memorial Special aired on The Smithsonian Channel as well as on the MTV cable network.

7. Survivor Interviews: Throughout YouTube and elsewhere, students can find and listen to interviews with survivors. Hearing these testimonies is powerful and can lead to further research and discussion. See for example this curated collection of survivor stories at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

8. Rescuers: Several years ago the producer of Moral Courage approached South Carolina ETV (where I was employed at the time) with a series of films about people who rescued Jews during World War II throughout Europe. The Moral Courage website has links to each of the film titles as well as companion educator guides.

9. TikTok: Many educators may still not be fully familiar with this popular video social media platform that has the attention of so many young people across the world. The Washington Post recently reported on how the teenage great-grandson of a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor combatted deniers by joining with his grandmother to post 380 videos, reaching almost 2 million young people and earning 25 million “likes” in the process. “It happened.”

10. Podcasts: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum includes recommendations on podcasts about the Holocaust, including their 12 Years That Shook the World series.

11. Research: Assigning students any topic related to the Holocaust can test their research and information literacy skills. How will they know that what they find is legitimate and reliable? Will they use verification skills in this endeavor? Are you prepared to teach them how to do this?

12. Poetry: Many educators find that poems resonate with their students. This UK lesson plan, The Power of Poetry, is appropriate for the middle grades.

What you do next as an educator related to helping your students better understand the Holocaust is vitally important. It is my hope that the ideas, suggestions and resources offered here will be helpful.

Of course, I’m eager to hear from you about other ideas you have used to address the Holocaust with your students.

Other Key Resources

The State of Holocaust Education in the US
Fifty years ago, Holocaust education was introduced in public schools as a way to encourage moral development. In an era of polarization, is this message at risk of being forgotten?

The U.S. and the Holocaust
The 3-part PBS series by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Botstein examines the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the context of global antisemitism and racism, the eugenics movement in the United States and race laws in the American south.

Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust
Teaching Holocaust history requires a high level of sensitivity and keen awareness of the complexity of the subject matter.

A Scholastic Podcast with Author Chana Stiefel
Scholastic Reads podcast host, Suzanne McCabe, interviews award-winning author Chana Stiefel about her new picture book, The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs, which focuses on the life of a remarkable Holocaust survivor.

The Holocaust Encyclopedia – US Holocaust Memorial Museum
A comprehensive database with a powerful tool for teacher and student research.

Americans and the Holocaust
This exhibition examines the motives, pressures, and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism, war, and genocide.

Holocaust Fatigue in Teaching Today
This in-depth look at the social history of Holocaust education appeared in the NCSS journal Social Education in 2006. The insights about shifting student attitudes offered by professor Simone Schweber have relevance today.  

This Teacher Avoids Fictionalized Holocaust Source Material
HS teacher Rachel Panny believes that lessons about the largest and most documented genocide in human history need not rely on fiction and questions teaching “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”

Frank W Baker has been a leading expert on teaching media literacy for more than two decades. He maintains the internationally recognized Media Literacy Clearinghouse, a resource website for educators.

In September 2022, Baker published the graphic nonfiction novel We Survived the Holocaust: The Bluma and Felix Goldberg Holocaust Story, illustrated by Tim E. Ogline. (Look inside here). (Read Frank’s MiddleWeb post about the book here.)

Baker’s book for educators, Close Reading The Media (published by Routledge & MiddleWeb), has been described by a reviewer as a practical instructional guide offering teachers “the tools and ideas they need to help today’s students successfully navigate their media-filled world.” Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @fbaker.

Frank Baker

Frank W. Baker helps educators identify ways to engage students with media literacy and critical thinking. His newest book, Close Reading the Media, is published by Routledge/MIddleWeb. He shares many resources at The Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and tweets @fbaker. Prior to beginning this blog, Frank contributed more than than three dozen media literacy articles to MiddleWeb.

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